The bureaucracy, the press, the judiciary, and the public are fighting back against Trump with some success

Peter Beinart writes: Nothing Donald Trump has done since becoming President is particularly surprising. The attacks on judges and the press, the clash of civilizations worldview, the ignorance of public policy, the blurring of government service and private gain, the endless lying, the incompetence, the chaos — all were vividly foreshadowed during the campaign. The Republican-led Congress’ refusal to challenge Trump was foreseeable too. The number of Republicans willing to oppose Trump’s agenda pretty much equals the number who refused to endorse him once he became the GOP nominee.

Less predictable has been the response of other elements of the American political system: The bureaucracy, the press, the judiciary and the public. Here, the news is good. So far, they’re not only pushing back, they’re having some success.

The latest example is the resignation of National Security Advisor Michael Flynn. Flynn’s resignation is a welcome development both because he held crudely bigoted views of Muslims and because he was unable to competently manage the foreign policy process. But that’s not why he lost his job. He lost his job because of an independent bureaucracy and a vigorous press.

CNN’s Brian Stelter has reconstructed the chain of events. On January 12, a “senior U.S. government official” told Washington Post columnist David Ignatius that, “Flynn phoned Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak several times on Dec. 29, the day the Obama administration announced the expulsion of 35 Russian officials as well as other measures in retaliation for the [Russian] hacking” of the presidential election. Three days later, CBS’ John Dickerson asked Vice President Mike Pence about the call, and Pence insisted that Flynn had not discussed “anything having to do with the United States’ decision to expel diplomats or impose censure against Russia.”

But the Washington Post followed up, citing “nine current and former officials” who claimed that Flynn had discussed exactly that. The New York Times reported that there was a transcript of the call. Eventually, it became impossible to deny that Flynn had lied, and caused Pence to lie. If the Trump administration had been able to deny reality, as it so often does, Flynn would likely still have his job. But good reporters, aided by government sources, made that impossible. As the Columbia Journalism Review notes, “it wasn’t the lying that got him [Flynn] fired; it’s that his lying leaked to the press.” [Continue reading…]

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6 thoughts on “The bureaucracy, the press, the judiciary, and the public are fighting back against Trump with some success

  1. hquain

    Surely it is of paramount importance to maintain a realistic perspective on what’s happening. Flynn was brought down by a concerted attack from within the intelligence agencies, using the media as their outlet. Trump may well fall from the next stage of the attack, just sprung, which involves the crucial campaign-era contacts with (cooperation with?) Russian operators. This is all to the good, locally, and may restore some minimum of competence to the executive. But the idea of governments falling because the security agencies want to get rid of them — this doesn’t fit very well with Beinart’s upbeat story (in which the words ‘intelligence’ does not appear). The Comey event shows an unwished-for application right before our eyes.

  2. Paul Woodward

    The standard view of the whistle-blower presents an individual who in a heroic act of conscience, at risk of making him or herself a martyr, reveals truths that the institutional establishment requires to be kept secret.

    There’s a commonly voiced narrative right now is that the intelligence wing of The Establishment is unwilling to accept Trump as president and so is engaged in a kind of soft coup. This narrative can be seen across the ideological spectrum among those who are reflexively suspicious of government. It does not allow for the possibility that the establishment can accommodate its own variety of pro-establishment whistle-blower.

    Let’s for the sake of argument suppose that James Clapper (infamous for having lied to Congress) is at the center of the establishment resistance against Trump. Should we on that basis in such a scenario conclude that this is the Deep State asserting its power?

    I would argue not, because I don’t believe there is anyone so villainous that all there actions are suspect.

    Trump has mobilized the opposition and it includes a lot of people who most of the time are willing to accept the status quo — not necessarily because they benefit from the status quo but more likely because they are conventional people who habitually refrain from rocking the boat.

    My guess is that there are quite a few establishment types who recently surprised themselves by being willing to step out of line. They merely recognize that an unprecedented president calls for unprecedented resistance.

  3. hquain

    The notion of a “pro-establishment whistleblower” is a good one, and our view of things must accommodate it. One problem with the (soft) coup idea is that a coup typically means that the plotters are aiming to take central power themselves; here it seems more plausible that they’re basically trying to re-establish a functioning government before the current shambles implodes or explodes disastrously. The dark-sounding ‘deep state’ theory wants the permanent state apparatus, which is absolutely essential to functioning, to be some kind of monstrous thing.

    Nevertheless, there are peculiarities here that shouldn’t be overlooked. We don’t have, apparently, the lone, heroic whistleblower: instead it seems that we have coordinated team acting together, doling out info on a graduated schedule. Beinart’s piece is part of a self-congratulatory wave (also visible in a group discussion over at the New Yorker), in which the suddenly vigorous free press attributes much to itself. In fact, the role of the press — though commendable, necessary, and effective — appears to have been largely passive, receiving and transmitting information rather than digging it out. This is what I meant by ‘realism’ — trying to keep an accurate account of the actual mechanisms, in which (thanks to your distinction) we see that ‘pro-establishment whistleblowing’ surely plays a role. Why realism about mechanisms? Because, once established, they can be used differently than intended — and are.

    Beinart’s tone, as I read it, perhaps with too jaundiced an eye, is along the lines of ‘the system works!’. The reality is that the system has failed badly, and if we’re lucky, it can be bent to save us, in part. Maybe the response is: that’s just the way things are, that’s the way ‘the system’ works anyway, by bending and un-bending. But it seems reasonable to guess that the scars of the Trump ascendancy are going to be deep, one way or the other.

  4. Paul Woodward

    Your point about the passivity of the press is well made. The underlying weakness of democracy at this time can in part be attributed to the fact that journalism has long been so spineless. In a healthy press corp, Helen Thomas would never have been exceptional.

    As for the evidently organized flow of leaks, the way I read this campaign is that it reflects a measured effort to try and moderate Trump without trying to oust him.

    The IC doesn’t want to be perceived by the American public as having toppled the president because this will look like a case of undermining democracy in order to protect it — and at the same time unleash the worst elements among Trump supporters (the mad dogs he has never disavowed because they have always served as a tool of intimidation).

    At the same time, it seems obvious that the counterpart to the idea that the Russians have dirt on Trump that they could use to blackmail him, is that the IC likewise has an abundant amount of information about Trump that could be used not just to politically destroy him but just as likely land him in jail.

    Trump views himself as a master of pushing his luck. After all, he’s repeatedly demonstrated that when others pronounced he’s gone too far, he proved them wrong. But I think this has given him a false sense of security.

  5. hquain

    “The way I read this campaign is that it reflects a measured effort to try and moderate Trump without trying to oust him.” This adds valuable nuance to the palette of reasonable interpretations, but I’m not entirely convinced. My favored reading is that they’re trying to get the Rs to do the right thing, by gradually turning up the heat until they have no choice. This view also meets your criterion of avoiding (to the extent possible) the appearance of “undermining democracy in order to protect it,” because the actual ouster would be accomplished through democratic channels. The problem with gradualism is that it gives the target a certain amount of time to employ effective counterstrategies — which we see happening.

    I’m sure you’re right that along with Trump’s other delusions, he “views himself as a master of pushing his luck.” But this suggests that anyone who would hope to moderate him is just not seeing what’s right in front of them.

  6. Paul Woodward

    I’d modify my interpretation to include yours, which is to say, the IC leakers are essentially giving Trump bad reviews but they want Congress to step up and fire him.

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