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Trump’s Instruments of Power and Intimidation

The president tosses out norms relating to justice and intelligence so he can help friends, punish perceived enemies, and protect his power.
February 24, 2020
Featured Image
US President Donald Trump takes the cap off a pen to sign an executive order (NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP via Getty Images)

Jarring recent headlines—about Justice Department resignations, pardons for felons convicted of public corruption, National Security Council firings, and the sacking of top intelligence officials—reflect a common theme: an emboldened president wielding intimidation even more aggressively and explicitly to bend the U.S. government and citizenry to his will.

This is what authoritarian leaders like Vladimir Putin do—loudly broadcasting purges and punishments to freeze opposition inside government and out. These tactics endanger both individual liberty and national security.

The danger to individual liberties was on full display in President Trump’s defiant tweet asserting a “legal right” to intervene in criminal cases, Attorney General William Barr’s unprecedented walking back of federal prosecutors’ prison recommendation for Roger Stone, and Trump’s pardon hints within hours of Stone’s sentencing. It is daunting to hear the president declare his intent to overthrow post-Watergate law enforcement precepts in order to help friends and punish perceived enemies by misdirecting the full force of prosecution at anyone standing in his way.

In yet another corrosive action for our justice system, the president circumvented a long-established screening process to bestow presidential clemency on, among others, Rod Blagojevich, Michael Milken, Bernard Kerik, and Edward DeBartolo Jr.—signaling that public corruption and securities fraud is forgivable for those well-connected to our chief executive.

All this is a far cry from the ethos articulated by two staunch post-Watergate occupants of the attorney general’s office, appointed by presidents of opposite political parties. At his 1975 swearing-in, Edward Levi declared: “Our law is not an instrument of partisan purpose.” His successor, Griffin Bell, insisted that the Justice Department be “recognized by all citizens as a neutral zone” beyond politics and pressure.

Earlier this month, Trump also launched a further mean-spirited attack aimed at any national security expert standing up to him. He publicly suggested that, even after Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman was fired from the National Security Council for testifying in a House impeachment hearing, the Army should further discipline Vindman for doing what retired Marine general John Kelly (Trump’s former chief of staff) has stated was Vindman’s duty: reporting perceived misconduct.

The suggestion that Vindman should lose military rank or even his freedom makes clear that Trump’s messaging is calculated to silence other national security and foreign policy insiders who would “speak truth to power.” Raising concerns to superiors, as Vindman did, is a vital check on ill-considered actions that may rebound against our own country. Without such institutional checks (or at least such questioning), the president will be freer to make high-risk foreign policy decisions for personal advantage.

While the website of the Director of National Intelligence features speaking truth to power as a core value, last week the president fired the DNI for doing just that. Former Vice Admiral Joseph Maguire was acting DNI since last August. (The DNI is one of many key positions Trump has held in an “acting” limbo state.) Maguire reportedly authorized a briefing to Congress on the intelligence community assessment that Russia is interfering in the 2020 presidential race and that Vladimir Putin wants President Trump to be re-elected.

In response, the president sacked Maguire and replaced him with Richard Grenell, widely known as a Trump loyalist and lacking national security experience. The country’s top intelligence official is responsible for delivering news a president will not always want to hear, but Trump has given that job to a “yes-man.” This reflex action shows the president’s commitment to shielding Putin’s election interference—at the expense of the integrity of our electoral system.

Trump is following in the footsteps of strongmen worldwide who bulldoze obstacles to their power. They intimidate, expel, arrest, and imprison opposing government officials, political rivals, and others who dare dissent.

In a volatile world with such a volatile president, it is chilling to see him tearing at the rule of law and democratic norms at home, and international alliances, standards, and treaties that preserve carefully crafted balances of interests abroad.

The last three years have shown that we cannot rely on this president’s chosen national security insiders or Justice Department leaders to stand up and protect us. The only reliable protection is the ballot box.

Frederick Baron and Dennis Aftergut

Frederick Baron formerly served as associate deputy attorney general, special assistant to the attorney general, and director of the Executive Office for National Security in the Department of Justice. Dennis Aftergut is a former assistant U.S. attorney and Supreme Court advocate who writes on national affairs.