Jurisprudence

Trump’s Friday Night Massacre Places Him Firmly in Autocrat Territory

Army Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman walking through Congress in his military uniform on October 29, 2019.
Sorry. L’Etat c’est Trump.
Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

What has been labelled the “Friday Night Massacre” should be understood as an escalation in President Donald Trump’s ongoing efforts that threaten American democratic institutions. We wish other observers were correct that these most recent actions simply represent a president who has the right to have people on his staff whom he trusts. But the broader pattern in which the Friday events fit leads us to a far more ominous conclusion. These recent purges of U.S. officials are a direct extension of Trump’s three-year project of politicization of the executive branch, an early move generally taken by autocrats who seek to exploit their election by consolidating power. It is important to take a step back and diagnose, as precisely as possible, the threat to American democracy and the broader pattern.

Friday’s developments were dizzying, even by recent standards. President Trump ordered dismissed from the National Security Council staff a key impeachment witness, Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, and—even more inexplicably—his twin brother, an ethics attorney on the NSC legal staff. That action was followed within hours by the firing of Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland, another key impeachment witness, who reportedly refused to resign. The Vindman brothers were publicly escorted out of the White House, a method that current and former officials readily understood as a form of stigma rather than any decent expression of appreciation for their service. In case there were any doubt about the motivation for all of this, a series of tweets by the president and his son made clear that Lt. Col. Vindman’s ejection was a direct response to the testimony he provided Congress that pointed to the president’s wrongdoing.

Some have suggested that the outcry sparked by Friday’s reprisals was overblown. After all, any president is, on some level, entitled to surround himself at the White House and be represented overseas by those he trusts. But the question raised by Friday’s purge is: trusts to do what? And that’s where these actions raise serious concerns for American democracy: because Trump increasingly wants an executive branch that’ll serve not the United States of America but Donald J. Trump personally.

Trump was punishing key witnesses for doing precisely what the United States Congress swore them in to do: explain what they’d seen and heard. Sondland, a major financial supporter of Trump’s inaugural committee, certainly wasn’t keen to see the president impeached through Sondland’s own testimony; and Vindman, an apolitical detailee serving at Trump’s own White House on loan from the Army, surely never expected when he accepted that assignment to end up testifying before Congress and the world. But that’s what Trump’s actions ultimately forced them both to do as firsthand witnesses to Trump’s Ukraine extortion scheme.

Retaliating against them for their testimony was precisely the point for Trump. It wasn’t just petty vindictiveness. As a former Trump NSC official Fernando Cutz said, “The broader message to career officials is that you can’t speak up. Even if you see something illegal, something unethical, you can’t speak up. That’s the message the president wants to send.” Punishing and intimidating the truth-tellers is important to Trump as he attempts to tighten his grip on the executive branch. As Vindman’s lawyer Ambassador David Pressman put it, “If we allow truthful voices to be silenced, if we ignore their warnings, eventually there will be no one left to warn us.” In this sense, Friday’s ousters are an extension of the second article of impeachment against Trump: obstruction of Congress, and more broadly obstruction of the public’s access to the truth.

The Friday Night Massacre continued the transformation of the instruments of national power into tools of Trump’s personal advancement. This exploitation of America’s diplomatic, military, and law enforcement mechanisms was the very usurpation of power that got Trump impeached in the first place. At the heart of the Ukraine extortion scheme was Trump and his personal lawyer’s appropriation of those mechanisms for political benefit and to the detriment of the country’s national security interests. Having survived impeachment, Trump now seeks to accelerate the redirection of America’s instruments of power into his own instruments of power. That’s why an actual Ukraine expert like Vindman no longer has a place at the National Security Council staff, but the man whom Fiona Hill testified Trump thought was his Ukraine expert, because he facilitated Trump’s preferred channel, was recently promoted to a coveted NSC senior director slot (for counterterrorism, even more disturbingly). Trump wants NSC staffers at the White House, ambassadors in the field, and other officials throughout the executive branch to understand their missions as he sees it: to serve him, not the country or the office of the presidency.

It would be a dangerous mistake to miss the connection between Trump’s actions toward the Vindmans and Sondland and the president’s public rhetoric intimidating the original whistleblower and suggesting the death penalty was appropriate for other officials who provided information to the whistleblower and to the Inspector General of the Intelligence Community. The president’s real message was not just about them for what they had done. It was about other truth-tellers who might come forward on Ukraine or other abuses of power in future.

Here, too, Friday’s reprisals involve an escalation of a long series of removals of U.S. officials who dare to speak up even when legally required. Other key impeachment players like America’s top diplomats in Ukraine, Maria Yovanovitch and Bill Taylor, and vice presidential aide Jennifer Williams are already gone.

Trump’s expectation for officials is a personal loyalty to him—as former FBI Director James Comey learned in his early White House meeting with Trump and as his immediate successor as Acting Director, Andy McCabe, faced when Trump asked McCabe for whom he voted in 2016.
Trump directed fury at then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions when his recusal from the Russia investigation meant that Sessions wasn’t personally protecting Trump. “Where’s my Roy Cohn?” Trump reportedly said to other officials in his frustration over Sessions. When Sessions provided Trump with a resignation letter at one point, Trump held onto it as leverage. Trump’s own chief of staff Reince “Priebus told Sessions it was not good for the President to have the letter because it would function as a kind of ‘shock collar’ that the President could use any time he wanted; Priebus said the President had ‘DOJ by the throat,’” according to the Mueller report. Current Attorney General Bill Barr is a much better fit for Trump, seemingly willing and indeed eager to offer himself up as the president’s personal lawyer, protector, and even spokesperson at times and to bring the Justice Department into line with that vision.

Contrast this stockpiling of personal loyalties with the Trump administration’s deliberate hollowing out of the type of expertise that can serve the nation rather than Trump himself. This effort has hit our diplomatic corps particularly hard, with our embassies seeing career foreign services pushed out and our broader State Department hollowed out. This drive for personal and political loyalty over service to the nation also manifests itself in Trump’s self-avowed preference for acting officials even in vital, cabinet-level national security posts. As one of us has, with Carrie Cordero, argued here on Just Security, this choice by the president denigrates American national security in favor of providing Trump with political sway over key officials in order to demand personal fealty from them. That’s the Trump trade-off in a nutshell: choosing himself over the nation in purely transactional terms that do not distinguish between the two sets of interests, and refashioning the executive branch to reflect that choice.

What shoe might drop next? Trump is reportedly considering, in consultation with his advisors, firing the intelligence community’s inspector general, Michael Atkinson—another official installed in his current role by Trump himself. Atkinson, very much to his credit, battled others within the executive branch to ensure that the whistleblower complaint that began to unravel Trump’s extortion of Ukraine reached congressional overseers in both the House and Senate, where it belonged. Simply put, he did his job—in the words of Acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire when testifying before Congress, “I have no reason to doubt that Michael Atkinson did anything but his job”—and, yet again, that’s exactly why Trump now might fire him. The job of an inspector general and of other internal watchdogs—including ethics attorneys and, in a broader sense, lawyers in general—is to keep the government within the rule of law. As Trump’s former head of the Office of Government Ethics, Walter Shaub, warned, “Firing an Inspector General for processing a whistleblower complaint would be an extraordinary blow to whatever shred of government integrity remains. It would be an atom bomb.”

If Trump can intimidate the truth-speakers and remove the watchdogs, then he can utilize the instruments of national power he’s increasingly appropriating for himself with virtual impunity. That suits his fundamental vision of governance, and it does so even if a rumored firing never in fact comes to pass: the news reports anticipating it can be enough to spread the intimidation and fear Trump intends to stoke. As Trump said in an interview with Bob Woodward, “Real power is—I don’t even want to use the word—fear,” the basis for Woodward’s book by that title.

These threats hovering over Atkinson and others also puts the Friday Night Massacre in context. For months, the Trump administration has, more quietly than on Friday, been firing those who’ve insisted on adherence to the rule of law when that insistence is at odds with the White House. One of the most notable examples came in September, when the general counsel of the Department of Homeland Security appointed by Trump himself was abruptly fired after telling the White House that proposals such as releasing undocumented immigrants into so-called sanctuary cities were unlawful.

What to make of all of these points in the overall pattern and their trajectory? Steven Levitsky, professor of government at Harvard University and co-author of How Democracies Die, told Just Security:

This is classic politicization of state institutions—a first early move of every elected autocrat I have studied. This allows law enforcement and intelligence institutions to be used as both a shield against investigation and a weapon against opponents. U.S. institutions are more robust to politicization than others, but another four years of this will do an extraordinary amount of damage.

While the Friday Night Massacre unfolded quickly, President Trump surely intends for its effects to endure. This was no mere intemperate outburst in the wake of Trump’s impeachment acquittal. He waited—patiently—to strike until the Republican-controlled Senate acquitted him. Then he took an important step in the consolidation of power by a president who intends to take the very sins for which he was impeached—exploiting American national power for Trump’s personal power, and silencing those who try to call him out for it—and indulge in them more aggressively, even more brazenly. Resisting Trump’s threat to American democracy begins with clear-eyed recognition of what designs he has on political power. It also should be a wakeup call to those who have become witting and unwitting accomplices in that transformation.

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