Five and a half months have passed since Senate Republicans voted to block additional testimony in Donald Trump’s impeachment trial and to acquit him, and just over two months remain until the first early voting begins. The election is now the only plausible mechanism to challenge the disdain for the rule of law that provoked Trump’s impeachment.
But the underlying crisis has not been resolved. The president still habitually abuses his power (article one) and rejects any restraint mechanisms built into the system (article two). Two new developments this week have driven home the ongoing threat to the rule of law.
Tuesday night, the New York Times reported that Trump pressured his ambassador to the United Kingdom to request that the British Open be held at Trump’s Scottish golf resort. The sourcing on the report is very strong: The Times cites “three people with knowledge of the episode,” and the White House, tellingly, declined even to comment on the report.
The reason it couldn’t comment is that there’s no world in which this is okay. Any government official who did something like this would be fired. Trump did not violate any ethics laws because the laws only apply to officials below the level of president; the system is not set up to account for a president to be running a private business while using the powers of the executive branch. Even if Trump had made a gesture toward appearances and funneled the request through, say, Eric Trump, the conflict would have existed, because the Brits would know full well that Eric can and will report to his father. But using a government official to pitch a foreign government on giving money to Trump’s business is a level of corruption so far beyond the normal standards that there’s no process to handle it.
What makes reports like this so damning is that they appear not to be extraordinary events at all in the workings of this administration. Trump has exhausted every avenue of legal appeal to obscure his financial records from Congress and the public. Reporters have had to sue to obtain records of Secret Service spending at Trump’s properties, and nothing since 2018 has yet been made available. Some of his conflicts are sitting in broad daylight: Trump held a campaign fundraiser in his hotel, most recently, on Monday. We simply don’t know what interests intersect with his authority or how often he has intermingled the two.
The second and more dangerous violation is the unfolding federal military offensive underway in Portland, Oregon. The exact nature of what has happened, and where the campaign is headed, remains obscured beneath a fog of political rhetoric and bureaucratic evasion. But the basic story is that armed troops began snatching protesters off the streets in Portland and are carrying out an operation that seems designed to advance Trump’s campaign goals more than any standard security need.
The operation is not illegal in its overall conception. Rather, the administration seems to be stretching the law beyond its intended purposes, taking authority to protect federal property and expanding it into broader operations to target protesters. And then when the troops, who are untrained in policing and deescalation, inevitably carry out some illegal arrests — oh well, that can’t be pinned on Trump.
Trump is planning to send troops to other cities, in direct violation of their mayors. He insists this is needed to quash violence that the duly-elected officials in those cities, who are accountable to their populations, say is not a danger. The putative threat justifying this occupation is a combination of rising homicides and vandalism against statues — which are not connected in any way except that Trump is using both as campaign themes. “Senior DHS officials said they expect the unrest to escalate at least through the November election,” Politico reports, “and noted that the protection of federal buildings falls squarely within their remit.”
Through the November election. Almost as if the operation is conceived in order to influence the election itself.
As is often the case, the weak point in the administration’s operational security is Trump himself, who couldn’t help but blurt out the actual intention of these moves, which is a military occupation of states and cities run by Democrats. “We’re looking at Chicago, too. We’re looking at New York,” he said. “All run by very liberal Democrats. All run, really, by the radical left …” he told reporters. “This is worse than anything anyone has ever seen. All run by the same liberal Democrats. And you know what? If Biden got in, that would be true for the country. The whole country would go to hell.”
Both Tom Ridge and Michael Chertoff, the Republican former Homeland Security directors under George W. Bush, have denounced Trump’s abuse of their former departments. But it is not technically illegal. Just as Trump discovered his ability to use the Pentagon as a prop before the 2018 midterms, deploying troops to the border to defend a phantasmal threat from an immigrant caravan that Fox News hyped relentlessly, he is now doing the same within American cities.
What is left to restrain these abuses? Congressional oversight is almost a punchline — Trump has ignored Congress, and his party has exerted no pressure at all on him to comply. If there are any officials with consciences left in Trump’s administration, they can join the parade of officials in resigning and denouncing their boss as a danger. (The value of this move seems to have reached a point of diminishing returns.) The only remaining mechanism to stop these abuses is the election itself.