Remember that old adage that a frog will jump out of a boiling pot but won’t notice if the temperature is slowly raised until it’s boiled alive? It turns out that it just isn’t true. In fact, frogs will hop out when the temperature turns uncomfortable. Which suggests that we may not be as smart as slimy green amphibians. President Trump is throwing one democratic norm after another into a big pot and rapidly raising the heat, and we’re too busy watching the royal wedding to notice. Just look at all of the significant norms he has transgressed in the past week:
Revealing intelligence sources. Trump‘s henchman, Rep. Devin Nunes (R.-Calif.), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, found out that the FBI had a source gathering information on Russian contacts with the Trump campaign. With Trump’s support, he demanded that the FBI name its informant. The FBI refused, but by persisting, Nunes has gotten his way — the apparent informant has been named by several news organizations. This flies in the face of the long-standing revulsion, codified in a 1982 law, against revealing intelligence sources — the reason that the outing of Valerie Plame and of sundry CIA agents in the 1970s (one of whom was subsequently assassinated) caused such indignation. “The day that we can’t protect human sources is the day the American people start becoming less safe,” says FBI Director Christopher Wray. It’s safe to say that lickspittle Republicans such as Nunes care more about protecting Trump than they do the American people.
Politically motivated prosecutions. Continuing Operation Save My Skin, Trump demanded on Sunday “that the Department of Justice look into whether or not the FBI/DOJ infiltrated or surveilled the Trump Campaign for Political Purposes — and if any such demands or requests were made by people within the Obama Administration!” There is zero evidence of any political surveillance. The FBI was not trying to help the Democrats but to protect the country from Russian subversion — something that Republicans evidently couldn’t care less about. If this had been a Democratic operation, why would it have been kept a secret until after the election? Trump is demanding that the Justice Department investigate these spurious allegations to distract from the serious charges against him. He is thereby traducing a fundamental — impeachable — norm against presidents using the Justice Department for political purposes. Let’s hope that the department can get away with simply referring this dangerous “demand” to the inspector general, because “investigating the investigators” is a tried-and-true authoritarian tactic to escape accountability.
Mixing private and government business. Previous presidents sold their financial stakes or placed them in a blind trust to avoid conflicts. Trump, by contrast, kept his company while turning over management to his sons (who remain politically active). China just gave a $500 million loan to a project that the Trump Organization is linked to in Indonesia. Immediately afterward, Trump shocked national security professionals by saying he was lifting sanctions on the Chinese telecom giant ZTE. It sure looks as if Trump violated the Emoluments Clause — and maybe worse. Did Beijing bribe the president? We need an independent investigation — from either Congress, the existing special counsel, or a new one — to find out.
Foreign interference in U.S. elections. It’s not just the extensive, unexplained contacts between the Trump campaign and Russia-linked operatives — 75 contacts that we know of — or the unseemly eagerness of the Trump high command to get Russia’s help. Now we are also learning of efforts by the Saudi and Emirati governments to help Trump. The New York Times reports: “It is illegal for foreign governments or individuals to be involved in American elections … But two people familiar with the meetings said that Trump campaign officials did not appear bothered by the idea of cooperation with foreigners.” Of course not. Who cares about the rules when there is an election to be won?
Undermining the First Amendment. The Post reported that Trump demanded that Postmaster General Megan Brennan double the rate charged to Amazon and other large shippers. She refused, because the rates are set in contracts. The fact that Trump would even ask is scandalous. This is part of his vendetta against what he has called the “Amazon Washington Post.” (The Washington Post’s owner, Jeffrey P. Bezos, is also CEO of Amazon.) Trump is following the playbook of strongmen such as Viktor Orban, Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who silenced the press not by imposing censorship but by imposing financial pressure on independent news organizations to either force them out of business or into the hands of friendly owners. In this connection, it’s worth noting persistent — if unproven — allegations that Trump blocked the merger of AT&T and Time Warner to force the latter to sell “Fake News CNN” to Rupert Murdoch, his favorite media tycoon.
Trump’s assault on democratic norms is all the more dangerous because the response is so tepid. Republicans approve of, or pretend not to notice, his flagrant misconduct, while Democrats are inured to it. The sheer number of outrages makes it hard to give each one the attention it deserves. But we must never – ever! – accept the unacceptable. Otherwise our democracy will be boiled alive.