In the immediate future, even if we don’t see a single, monstrous new scandal emerge, we might instead witness a slow accumulation and acceleration of insidiously incremental abuses of power that, taken together, continue to erode the rule of law.
Here’s a case in point, one that will take on increasing salience as the 2020 election churns forward: Trump’s abuse of the classification process.
This may sound dry and wonky. But it could be enormously consequential.
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) has called on the Government Accountability Office, or GAO, to undertake a review of whether the administration is over-classifying government information to keep it hidden from public view to protect Trump.
We already have examples of this. Democrats on the House impeachment inquiry demanded declassification of closed-door testimony by a top aide to Vice President Pence about his Sept. 18 call with the Ukrainian president.
The administration refused. Democrats continued to insist it showed Pence had deeper knowledge of Trump’s Ukraine shakedown than publicly known. But this information was kept classified and was never aired at Trump’s Senate trial.
“What we know is that the president sees classification as a way to advance his political interests,” Murphy told me in an interview. “He sees that he can use classification to keep embarrassing information from the public.”
Now Murphy wants GAO to conduct a systematic review of classified information currently held by the Office of Senate Security, which guards such info, to determine two things. First, whether information that should be classified is being over-classified, unduly limiting how many lawmakers see it. Second, whether information is being classified that shouldn’t be at all, in violation of the law.
Both are bad. The first severely cramps congressional oversight. The second could be illegally constraining members of Congress from publicly discussing information that would illuminate the administration’s conduct and policies.
Murphy wants GAO to compare classification designations that information received when it was held by the administration alone, with designations it got when it was transmitted to the Senate. This would show whether additional classifications were larded on before the info was given to lawmakers.
Murphy claims he has already seen a pattern of this. GAO could flesh this out.
How Trump could abuse this power toward reelection
Murphy suggested a hypothetical, in which the intelligence community documents another extensive Russian effort to sabotage the 2020 election to help reelect Trump — which intelligence officials themselves have warned is happening.
Congress would gather information on this effort. But if Trump over-classified it, lawmakers couldn’t discuss it publicly.
“The information we will gather about Russian interference will likely come through clandestine methods,” Murphy told me. “It is possible the president will be able to keep classified all the information the U.S. gathers about Russian attempts to support his election. That’s the nightmare scenario.”
This would put members of Congress in the “awful and unacceptable position” of possessing information about outside interference in the election, without being able to legally share it with the public, Murphy added.
Unlike in 2016, we now know this is going to happen — how it will work, and on whose behalf. Such methods could keep secret other foreign interference efforts we don’t know about, and possibly any domestic efforts to encourage them.
To be clear: This would keep voters in the dark about forces impacting the very election that Trump and his propagandists have held up as the only legitimate mechanism to hold him accountable, in service of the claim that his impeachment was illegitimate.
Or consider Trump’s efforts to oust Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, which will take on more campaign importance as Trump casts himself as a scourge of leftism, global and domestic.
“The president sees enormous political opportunity in trying to topple Maduro,” Murphy told me. “We all know it’s not going well. What if the president starts to classify information relative to how strong Maduro is getting, and he goes out on the campaign trail and says, ‘Maduro is on the cusp of being toppled’?”
“This allows him to make all sorts of untrue claims and robs us of the source material to contest those claims,” Murphy continued.
If the GAO does establish a pattern of abuse, this would equip lawmakers to exert pressure on Trump to refrain from such future abuses. It could also bolster public skepticism of Trump’s campaign boasts, and his inevitable shrugging about Russian interference.
Republicans will shrug at this, too
We all had a hearty laugh about Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who justified acquitting Trump by claiming he has “learned" from impeachment and will now be “much more cautious” about future abuses.
But underlying this head-in-the-sand-ism is something deadly serious. GOP senators who opposed new witnesses at Trump’s trial have happily neutered themselves in the quest to protect Trump. Denying themselves incriminating information about him also denied it to the public, making it easier to defend him. To justify this, they have used their stature as lawmakers to defend Trump’s absurd rationales for blocking information from them.
You can see the same happening with future classification abuses. Republicans will use their prestige as lawmakers to justify Trump’s future abuse of this power. This will constrain them, but it will also relieve them of the horrifying obligation to share with the public information that would be politically damaging to Trump — and to them, as well.