Democratic leaders need to stand up for the rule of law

This was too good from Brian Beutler to let it potentially go unseen in quick hits.  Just read it.

Consider the other huge story in the news this week: The FBI enforcement action at Mar-a-Lago. 

This was undeniably Good News for everyone who thinks Donald Trump’s season of accountability is long overdue, and a promising sign that Attorney General Merrick Garland, for all his Hamlet-like trepidation, won’t ultimately talk himself out of applying the law to Trump in at least some circumstances. 

It has not left me feeling very confident about the Democratic Party’s congressional leaders. I first became concerned in the hours after the news broke, when I watched Rachel Maddow interview Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and he adamantly refused to comment not just on the substance of the raid, but on the rapidly boiling Republican response—led by Kevin McCarthy—which has included threats to sabotage the DOJ investigation, impeach Garland, and one way or another destroy any person or institution that seeks to make Trump accountable to the nation’s laws. 

It didn’t bug me because I wanted Schumer to do a happy dance about Trump getting what’s coming to him. To the contrary, I think it was totally defensible, if not prudent, for him and other Dems to withhold comment on the particulars when they didn’t know which possible Trump crime the FBI had executed a search warrant to investigate. It bugged me because I knew, without robust Democratic pushback to the affected Republican shitstorm growing before our eyes, that their lies, smears, and threats would go uncontested and damage both the investigation and its political impact. 

Those fears have since been vindicated; in fact, that’s exactly what happened. Imagine being handed the gift of the leader of the opposition being subject to an FBI raid based on probable cause like “he stole classified documents” and refusing to capitalize on it in any way.

Let me be specific about what I mean by “pushback,” and how I think it would’ve worked. Democrats could not, on their own, stop Republicans from saying outlandish things, threatening Merrick Garland, undermining the justice system. Republicans will keep doing the abhorrent things they do until larger forces impel them to stop. But Democrats could have ensured that Republicans didn’t have an unrivaled platform to create a widespread impression that there was something scandalous about the investigation (as opposed to Trump’s conduct). And they could do it in a way that imposed a political cost on Republicans for lying and attacking bedrock American institutions to protect their criminal leader. 

Without needing to wait several days and spend tens of thousands of dollars on a poll, Schumer could have said right then and there that McCarthy’s threats were corrupt and thuggish, and that Democrats would insulate these investigations from improper Republican meddling. [emphases mine] If not right then and there, then the next day. The sooner the better. Thereon he and Nancy Pelosi could have prepared bills—one to force Republicans to vote on their outlandish vengeance schemes (DEFUND THE FBI!), another to assure that the FBI’s investigations are adequately resourced and protected from interference. With sustained, territorial determination to expose Republican corruption and stop their false story from taking hold in the public, news stories about the raid would have reflected the impropriety of the GOP’s response. Instead, Republicans had the field to themselves, and this is what we got. 

The void Democrats left allowed Republicans to skew context so badly that within a day the tenor of coverage began to make the whole thing—this huge problem for Donald Trump—look like a liability for his opponents.

Just weeks ago, the GOP bullied Dem leaders into expediting special security for Supreme Court justices to squelch peaceful protests of the Dobbs decision. Here Dem leaders cowered while Republican goons made clear that any future judges who subject Trump to rule of law may well be murdered. Which is to say, it’s much worse than a missed political opportunity. Republicans may well yet subvert this investigation; and even if they don’t, they’ve left an indelible impression on the DOJ, FBI, and judiciary: Republicans will threaten your jobs and lives if you dare apply the law to Trump, and the other party won’t be there to defend you.

As long as I’m catastrophizing here, I should say everything might work out OK anyhow. Trump, quite tellingly, has so far refused to publish either the warrant itself or the receipt listing the items the government seized from his residence. His loyalists have also reportedly advised congressional Republicans to dial back their attacks on DOJ because the truth may be embarrassing when it comes out. (Again, hi Democrats, political gift here!) 

On Thursday, DOJ asked the court to unseal both the warrant and the property receipt; shortly thereafter, we learned, chillingly, that Trump is under investigation for stealing classified information pertaining to nuclear weapons. If and when the paperwork becomes public, we may learn he’s suspected of violating the Espionage Act, that he made off with scores of documents so classified we’ll only ever know them as “Classified Document [X].” Under circumstances like those, Democratic leaders and their defenders will claim vindication.

But it isn’t vindication. Not any more than a deer frozen in headlights is “vindicated” when the approaching car swerves and crashes into a tree. It’s the same approach Dems took when a Trump administration lackey refused to let the transition process begin for weeks after the election, and when Greg Abbott subjected every truck crossing the Texas border to an unlawful search. Sitting back and letting events unfold doesn’t mean things will always work out in the worst possible way; but it does court risk and damage and needless anxiety. It invites bad actors to keep scheming and abusing power in pursuit of their goals, confident they won’t face consequences—the worst-case scenario for them is that their plans fail and they move on to new ones.  

And this is why, even with a brighter political outlook, I don’t think these leaders have a compelling claim on their offices. My firm belief is that anxious Democratic voters—particularly young voters—aren’t principally frustrated by the slow pace of the legislative process or the incremental approach to change the party prefers.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

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