Brian Klaas is a fellow at the London School of Economics, a Washington Post Global Opinions contributing writer and the author of “The Despot’s Apprentice: Donald Trump’s Attack on Democracy.”
If imitation is the highest form of flattery, authoritarian despots across the globe must be feeling pretty flattered by President Trump these days. Trump’s latest efforts to distort and discredit special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s independent investigation into the Trump campaign’s alleged collusion with Russia is straight out of the despot’s playbook.
In 2013, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey — a democratically elected leader with a clearly authoritarian bent — was facing credible allegations of corruption. A truly independent investigation could threaten Erdogan’s grip on power. As arrests mounted, it became clear that the prosecutorial net was sweeping closer to the prime minister himself.
Erdogan’s political machine sprang into action. Despite overwhelming evidence of corruption among his close associates, Erdogan claimed there was none. He dismissed the investigation as a “dirty plot” by law enforcement. His supporters spoke of a “witch hunt” launched by the Turkish “deep state.” Erdogan demanded that the investigation focus not on him but on his political opponent. His supporters began to agitate about the need to “clean house” in the judiciary and law enforcement. Soon thereafter, Erdogan fired those who were investigating him.
Sound familiar? It should.
Despite evidence of at least attempted collusion with Russia, Trump declares that there was “no collusion.” Trump, like Erdogan, has repeatedly denounced the Mueller investigation as a “witch hunt.” A year ago, Trump claimed that law enforcement was out to get him, comparing the FBI to “Nazi Germany.” His supporters — including Republican members of Congress — frequently refer to the Justice Department as a part of the “deep state” that needs to be “purged.” Trump has obsessively urged the FBI to turn its focus away from him and to investigate his political opponent, Hillary Clinton, instead. When Trump fired FBI Director James B. Comey, he openly admitted that he did so because of “the Russia thing.”
The parallels are striking.
Erdogan got away with it. Turkey’s leader successfully chipped away at the limited democratic constraints on his authority by politicizing the rule of law. The investigation quietly faded. Now no one in Turkey seems interested in investigating him anymore. After winning the presidency and pushing through a referendum that gave wide-ranging powers to that office, Erdogan today enjoys unrivaled dominance of Turkey’s political system. He has become a despot.
Thankfully, American institutions are stronger than Turkey’s — for now. But Republicans in Congress are doing nothing substantive to push back against Trump’s increasingly authoritarian calls to politicize the rule of law in a way that is novel in the United States but thoroughly familiar in dictatorial regimes.
This week, Trump called on Republicans to “take control” of the Russia investigation. It was a startlingly blatant and brazen demand for his political party to meddle — to Trump’s advantage — in what is supposed to be a completely independent investigation.
As usual with Trump, such behavior is shocking but not particularly surprising. For years, he has shown us that he views the rule of law as a political weapon, not as a pillar of democracy that exists to hold leaders accountable.
He has repeatedly suggested that those he perceives as his political enemies, from Clinton to Huma Abedin, should be jailed. But jailing political opponents without indictments or evidence of criminal wrongdoing is a hallmark of banana republics, not functioning democracies.
Trump has also attacked his own attorney general, Jeff Sessions, for rightly and lawfully recusing himself from the Russia investigation. Had Sessions done otherwise, it would have been highly improper and a flagrant conflict of interest. Still, Trump has repeatedly said he believes that Sessions should have behaved in that inappropriate way.
And, in an interview last month with the New York Times, Trump opened a disturbing window into his thinking about the role of the attorney general more broadly.
“[Then-Attorney General Eric] Holder protected President Obama. Totally protected him. When you look at the I.R.S. scandal, when you look at the guns for whatever, when you look at all of the tremendous, ah, real problems they had, not made-up problems like Russian collusion, these were real problems. When you look at the things that they did, and Holder protected the president. And I have great respect for that, I’ll be honest, I have great respect for that.”
In other words, Trump was saying that he believes President Barack Obama committed serious crimes (he didn’t) but that Holder did the right thing by protecting him from consequences related to those supposed crimes. In Trump’s warped worldview, the attorney general — a public servant dedicated to justice and the rule of law — should disregard those principles if it means “protecting the president” from criminal allegations. That authoritarian attitude stands against everything the United States stands for.
As Trump continues to furiously tweet attacks on the FBI and peddle crackpot conspiracy theories that Clinton colluded with Russia to hack her own campaign, remember: These strategies may seem unhinged, but there’s a method to the madness. The goal is to politicize rule of law, discredit the Mueller investigation by sowing confusion among the electorate, and hope that those efforts mute the damage coming from Mueller’s eventual report or recommendation.
We know how the story ended in Turkey. We must not let Trump write the same ending here, one tweet at a time.