Democracies sometimes collapse suddenly. More typically, they waste away.
One major cause of institutional decline involves politicians putting their own immediate interests ahead of their obligations to democratic norms. We wake up one day and discover that a long series of individual choices has rotted out the constraints on authoritarian rule.
President Donald Trump plainly feels no sense of stewardship when it comes to our political system or to any accepted standards of truth. From the moment he descended that escalator at Trump Tower in 2015, he made clear that he would say and do anything to advance his purposes and to eviscerate anyone who opposed him.
It should thus not surprise us that in anticipation of Robert Mueller’s actions this past week, Trump rolled out an assault on the legitimacy of the special counsel’s investigation and brazenly insisted that not he but Hillary Clinton (the holder of no public office) should be the subject of prosecutorial interest.
Trump’s Distract-O-Rama ought to be met with derision and condemnation. Note that by securing a guilty plea from former Trump adviser George Papadopoulos for lying to FBI agents about his contacts with Russians to secure “dirt” on Clinton in 2016, Mueller confirmed the central premise of his probe. Yes, there was collusion between Russia and the Trump apparatus aimed at defeating Clinton.
We don’t yet know for certain how high up engagement with the Russian project went. But media disclosures about contacts made by top Trump officials suggest the story won’t stop with Papadopoulos.
As is his way, Trump lied right out of the box after Mueller’s announcements by claiming that the charges brought against his former campaign manager Paul Manafort entailed behavior that long predated last year’s presidential contest. In fact, the money laundering at the heart of the indictment was, according to prosecutors, ongoing in 2016.
Trump’s rampage against Clinton focuses on the 2010 purchase of Uranium One, a Canadian company with American assets, by the Russian nuclear authority. The deal was approved by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States when Clinton was Secretary of State.
But the conspiracy side of this story was debunked long ago. As the Washington Post’s fact checker Glenn Kessler reported last week, Clinton, “by all accounts, did not participate in any discussions regarding the Uranium One sale” and it “does not actually result in the removal of uranium from the United States.”
Then on Wednesday morning, Trump moved to exploit the murderous New York City truck attack by casting blame on Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer because the Democrat had backed the Diversity Visa Lottery. Trump tweeted in response to the then-unconfirmed but later verified reports that the driver of the truck, Sayfullo Saipov, entered the U.S. from Uzbekistan under the program. Schumer, by the way, supported a bipartisan 2013 immigration reform bill that would have abolished the lottery.
It’s essential to recognize that Trump is faithfully following the autocrat’s playbook. He’s trying to undermine a lawful inquiry that endangers his hold on power. He has suggested that his opponent in the last election deserves to be jailed. He’s inventing stories about dark coverups by his enemies to sow confusion about the proven facts of his own team’s skullduggery. And now he is blaming his foes for violence and disorder.
Even more alarming is the extent to which Republicans in Congress and Trump’s media allies are falling into line behind their leader’s efforts to obstruct and divert. As The Post’s Philip Rucker and Robert Costa noted, “Republican lawmakers have mostly split into two camps: those who are wary of weighing in on Mueller’s investigation and those who see it as a prime political target.”
Notice what’s missing here: an unambiguous defense of Mueller’s work. Few Republicans have stood up unequivocally on his behalf. And the pro-Trump media, from Fox News to the Wall Street Journal editorial page to the radio talk show hosts, have willingly served as bullhorns for the president’s anti-Clinton, anti-Mueller strategy.
What’s going on cannot be written off as normal partisanship. The push to discredit and derail Mueller risks becoming an existential threat to our democratic values and republican practices. The interference by a foreign adversary in our electoral process is not a routine event. Resistance to uncovering what happened should not be seen as part of the everyday give-and-take of politics.
Republican patriots have to know that what’s at stake matters far more than the quick passage of a tax bill. Don’t they?
E.J. Dionne is a columnist for The Washington Post.