Cowardice on this scale is not a single act; it includes all the guilty silences that complicity continues to require. And the consequences of Republican cravenness are still unfolding.
Vindman’s treatment was part of the Great Purge of 2020, in which Trump has fired, attacked or vilified anyone with the audacity to expose or oppose his corruption. The president has checked off his enemies list one by one: Lt. Col. Yevgeny Vindman (dismissed for his last name), European Union Ambassador Gordon Sondland, Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), the four federal prosecutors who quit the Roger Stone case and past leaders of the FBI.
When revenge is this obvious, the goal is not merely to punish; it is to intimidate those who might resist Trump’s will in the future. And the strategy, thanks to elected Republicans, is working. The federal government is taking on the attributes of a banana republic — not in a humorous metaphorical sense but in the sense of real fear of presidential retribution, aided by the cable TV and Internet mob, for public resistance to his power.
In the past, such attacks have often seemed the result of impulse. Now they have become systematic. And Trump is not only targeting his enemies; he is intervening in the legal system on behalf of those who implement his will. The president has consistently surrounded himself with con men, grifters and enforcers. His intervention in the Stone case — perhaps previewing the broader abuse of his pardon power — holds out the promise of impunity for his supporters.
At an Iowa rally in 2016, Trump said: “If you see somebody getting ready to throw a tomato, knock the crap out of them. Just knock the hell out of them. I promise you, I will pay for the legal fees.” Now on a larger stage, he is saying, in effect: If you commit an unethical or illegal act in my service, I will help you avoid legal accountability.
Trump has spent three years finding public officials who will anticipate and implement his purposes (and weeding out those who will not). In Attorney General William P. Barr, Trump finally discovered his ideal employee. Barr was more than willing to preemptively and deceptively summarize the Mueller report. He has been more than willing to begin harassing investigations of those who investigate the president and his cronies. And it seems he was more than willing to intervene on behalf of Stone, the president’s friend, in the sentencing phase of his trial on charges including lying to Congress and witness tampering.
All these things have been done in service to the president’s person, not in obedience to the Constitution or the rule of law. Despite his protestations, this makes Barr a willing tool and a political shill who does not deserve the high office he holds. He should resign — which is another of those things that justice demands but is unlikely to come to pass.
Accusing the president of authoritarian tactics once seemed exaggerated. Now it is a fair description of the day’s news. A pattern of presidential misbehavior has become a crisis in the rule of law. Those who ignore Trump’s actions may think they are staying in the shadows, but they are actually in the hot spotlight of history. Every Republican who has lectured others on their insufficient respect for the Constitution now has the chance to defend the constitutional order from the despotic populism the founders most feared. But nearly all of them have failed. When the moment of testing came, they were absent without leave.
It is, for me, a sad and rude awakening. I have known Republican members of the House and Senate over three decades and never, on the whole, doubted their commitment to America’s founding ideals. That commitment may remain. But there is precious little public evidence of its existence. A nation in need of Republican leaders has found flunkies instead.