Trump threatens the rule of law

Yascha Mounk writes: After the days of mayhem that followed the firing of FBI Director James Comey last week, the biggest question now seems to be whom Donald Trump will pick as his successor. Will he nominate someone with a reputation as a consummate professional like Andrew McCabe, Comey’s erstwhile deputy? Or will he give the nod to a political loyalist like John Cornyn, the Republican senator from Texas?

If Trump nominates a political hack to replace Comey, the warning bells that political scientists have long been sounding about Trump would amp up to deafening levels. As Princeton political scientist Jan-Werner Müller explains in What Is Populism?, the first move taken by authoritarian populists who have successfully weakened democracy in countries like Poland and Hungary in recent years has been “to colonize or ‘occupy’ the state” by appointing their own cronies to head independent institutions: They have created new institutions they control. They have changed the rules governing existing institutions to bring them under the sway of the government. They have lowered the mandatory retirement age for civil servants to create vacancies. And, yes, were they could, they have fired politically inconvenient bureaucrats for spurious reasons.

If Trump hand-picks a docile FBI director who is likely to derail investigations against him, this would constitute a clear sign that he is starting to follow in their footsteps. At that point, anybody who votes for the nominee would rightly be remembered as a traitor to the republic for as long (or short) as the Constitution shall endure.

But while it would be outrageous if Trump nominates an obvious crony to head the FBI, I am not sure that the alternative is nearly as reassuring as many commentators seem to believe. Given the circumstances of Comey’s dismissal and the process governing his replacement, no successor picked by Trump can be trusted to oversee an investigation into Trump. That is why the only way to limit the immense damage that Comey’s firing has already done to basic democratic norms is to appoint an independent committee or special prosecutor with robust powers and a wide ambit. [Continue reading…]

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