The Trump Test

The president’s recklessness is a stress test for American democracy.

President Donald Trump against a purple background.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images.

In his first State of the Union address, Donald Trump is almost certain to say that the state of our union is strong. But the truth is that, thanks in part to his White House and its enablers, the United States is undergoing an unprecedented stress test of its democratic institutions. The president and his allies in the Republican Party are working together to delegitimize federal law enforcement and purge those officials not explicitly loyal to Trump, with the aim of disrupting an investigation into Trump’s campaign, financial dealings, and associations with Russian interests. Despite what the president might say Tuesday night, American democracy looks more fragile than it has at any time since Trump was elected.

Consider what we’ve seen in just the past 24 hours: After months of sustained public criticism from Trump, Andrew McCabe stepped down as deputy director of the FBI. The rationale behind McCabe’s decision is still not entirely known, but there’s little doubt it involves the Russia investigation. In addition to being a verbal target of Trump’s, McCabe had become a bête noire of conservative media, the subject of baroque conspiracies about a “deep state” that is allegedly conspiring against the president. McCabe wasn’t fired, but it certainly looks like he was forced out.

Later on Monday, Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee voted to release a classified memorandum produced by Chairman Devin Nunes. The memo accuses the FBI of abusing its surveillance powers, using partisan opposition research in order to attack Donald Trump’s campaign and undermine his presidency, and singling out officials like McCabe, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, and former FBI Director James Comey, all targets of Trump and his allies in the GOP and conservative media. Clearly meant to bolster the president’s case that the Russia investigation is a fraud, it essentially alleges a “deep state” plot against the Trump administration.

Democrats have called the document a “misleading set of talking” points, and federal law enforcement officials had warned that releasing the memo would be “extraordinarily reckless.” Outside experts have cried foul on Nunes’ claim that the FBI relied on a single piece of compromised information (the infamous “Steele dossier”) to obtain its surveillance warrant for Carter Page, a former foreign policy adviser to Trump’s campaign. “People familiar with the underlying application have portrayed the Republican memo as misleading in part because Mr. Steele’s information was insufficient to meet the standard for a FISA warrant,” according to the New York Times. “They said the application drew on other intelligence material that the Republican memo selectively omits. That other information remains highly sensitive, and releasing it would risk burning other sources and methods of intelligence-gathering about Russia.”

In the wake of this vote, Republicans on the Intelligence Committee also opened an inquiry into the FBI and the Justice Department, according to ranking Democrat Adam Schiff. On Tuesday, House Speaker Paul Ryan announced his support for both moves, calling for a “cleanse” of the FBI. “I think we should disclose all this stuff. It’s the best disinfectant. Accountability, transparency—for the sake of the reputation of our institutions,” he said.

But these investigations have little to do with accountability and more with bringing the agencies to heel under President Trump, who wants to extinguish a threat to his presidency, and for good reason. The Mueller probe has already ensnared several members of the president’s campaign team, including his first national security adviser, Michael Flynn.
And there is a fair chance it will conclude that the president tried to obstruct justice, leaving him vulnerable should Congress seek to hold him accountable. Trump wants to avoid this by breaching the barrier that separates the White House and federal law enforcement, and staffing both the FBI and Department of Justice with loyalists and ideological fellow travelers who will intervene on his behalf and turn their attention to his political enemies. Just this past November, for instance, President Trump urged both agencies to “do what is right and proper” and investigate Hillary Clinton.

What began as Trump venting on Twitter has now become official administration policy, carried out with the blessing of White House aides who were at one time seen as bulwarks against such behavior. Bloomberg reported on a phone call between White House chief of staff John Kelly and senior officials in the Justice Department, where the former conveyed the president’s “displeasure” and reminded them of his expectations, albeit adding that the White House doesn’t expect them “to do anything illegal or unethical.” To all of this, add the fact that—during this same period of time—President Trump declined to sanction Russia for its interference in the 2016 presidential election.

It’s not hard to imagine what President Trump will say about the state of our union when he addresses Congress and the American public. He is invested in an image of his own greatness, and will praise his administration as one of the most accomplished in history. What Trump won’t say is that, in his first year, he has worked steadily to undermine the public trust and to corrupt the institutions of American governance. He is contemptuous of the rule of law and seeks impunity for him, his family, and his allies. And in this, he has a reliable partner in the Republican Party, which has fully subsumed itself to Trump’s will, regardless of what that portends for the future of our democracy.