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Trump takes another ominous step toward dictatorship

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David Cay Johnston
David Cay Johnston

Step by ominous step, Donald Trump is eliminating or blocking every Constitutional check and balance on his administration so that he can evade accountability for his corrupt administration.

The only path still open to save America from becoming an autocracy is the ballot box in November. Even there Trump is working to rig the election with help from his Secretary of State and various elected Republican leaders.

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On national television, he has declared his willingness to accept help from Moscow and Beijing, which would violate criminal law. But as Trump dismantles the mechanisms Congress created to ensure Executive branch integrity, who can stop him?

Trump fired four inspectors general since April 3. Their duty is to root out corruption and abuse of power in his administration.

He also replaced one IG with a loyal White House aide, ensuring that nothing will be done to expose abuses by Trump in handing out a half-trillion dollars of coronavirus relief. “I’ll be the oversight, I’ll be the oversight,” Trump said, repeating himself on March 24 according to the official White House transcript.

Those words surely comforted embezzlers and fraudsters everywhere, not to mention the Trump-Kushner family of grifters who have long lapped up government welfare, hid documents from auditors and lied under oath for profit.

Trump also refuses to fill vacancies on the Federal Election Commission, leaving half of its six seats vacant. Lacking the required four-member quorum renders the agency powerless to act against civil and criminal violations of campaign finance law.

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As the Kremlin interferes again in the 2020 election, as the Senate Intelligence Committee says it is already doing, who in the Trump administration will do anything about it?

Answer: Nobody. And anyone who tries will be shut down fast.

How Autocracies Work

MSNBC screengrab

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Sarah Kendzior, in her brilliant new book, is one of the few journalists who grasps what is happening. Kendzior is a student of autocracy and, like DCReport, has been warning from the get-go that Trump is working to turn America into one.

“The longer autocrats stay in power, the smaller the inner circle becomes, and the more kinship ties tend to dominate,” she explained In Plain Sight: the Invention of Donald Trump and the Erosion of America.

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Kinship influence grows in autocracies because “parties bound by blood, or marriage, are easier to control. Nepotism allows for an easy accumulation of leverage: if a staffer dares to diverge from the party line their relative’s position – and, if necessary, their life – can be threatened,” Kendzior explained, citing murders by the Saudi and North Korean regimes that Trump often praises.

Kendzior also notes that both Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross are “proteges, like Trump, of Carl Icahn, who stepped down as a White House adviser…following a proposed ethics investigation that was, like so many other investigations, mysteriously dropped.”

Evading Constitutional Limits

Another way that Trump evades limits on his authority is by morphing our Justice Department into his personal law firm. With the connivance of Bill Barr, he is creating Donald Trump’s Injustice Department with taxpayers footing the bill.

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The Injustice Department’s role is to protect Trump’s cronies like confessed foreign agent Michael Flynn, convicted foreign agent Paul Manafort and mendacious son-in-law Jared Kushner while harassing those Trump perceives as enemies. Flynn, a retired general, was Trump’s White House national security adviser; Manafort was his campaign manager, and both Manafort and Kushner participated in a June 2016 meeting with Kremlin agents offering help to the campaign.

With fact patterns like that, of course, Trump feels the need to shut down every investigation into his conduct.

In 2018 we told DCReport readers that federal corruption prosecutions plummeted 25 percent under Trump.

But it’s not just the anesthetizing of administration offices created by Congress to root out corruption and malfeasance that Trump is bringing to heel. He is blocking Congress, too, or at least the House where Democrats hold the majority.

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Rejecting Congressional Legitimacy

To shield his conduct from Congressional oversight, Trump has refused to cooperate with House investigations. Injustice Department lawyers told the Supreme Court last week that Trump holds the power to decide whether inquiries by a co-equal branch of our government are legitimate or can be ignored. He has declared he will cooperate only with inquires by the Senate, where Republicans hold a majority of seats.

While the claimed power to decide who may investigate his administration was aimed at Congress, the reasoning clearly applies as well to the federal courts.

And if anyone doubts that Trump believes, as I have argued for years, that he is free to wield unlimited power, remember what his lawyer George Consovoy told a federal judge in February: if Trump actually shot someone on Fifth Avenue the NYPD would have no power to investigate the crime. Using that reasoning, police could not wrest the gun from him to prevent more murders, either

That Trump claims, ridiculously, that Article II of our Constitution grants “the power to do anything I want.” and that he is step-by-step blocking all inquiries is dangerous for our democracy, These actions are also consistent with his behavior throughout his life.

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Perfect Life Claim

For decades Trump has asserted that he has lived a perfect Christian life, as I reported in my 2016 biography The Making of Donald Trump.

“Why do I have to repent or seek god’s forgiveness if I am not making mistakes,” Trump told Iowa evangelicals in 2015. While this should be blasphemy to actual Christians and evidence of an evil deceiver, the evangelicals neither booed nor challenged what he said. Nor did they walk out. Trump still enjoys solid support among white evangelicals despite personal conduct directly contradictory to their professed beliefs.

Years earlier Trump put the life of a newborn grandnephew in jeopardy to extract more money from his father’s estate. Asked about this by reporter Heidi Evans, Trump made no apologies. He declared there was nothing wrong with denying medical coverage, action a judge soon reversed.

Anyone so lacking in basic moral decency, so incapable of introspection, to risk an infant’s death for money will easily justify his every effort to disregard the law and if he can pull it off, declare himself dictator. Should Trump succeed in seizing power he will declare, as tyrants always do, that he only did it for the good of the nation. After all, Trump said in accepting the Republican nomination that “I alone” can solve America’s problems.

Trump has fired four inspectors general in six weeks:

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  • Intelligence Community IG Michael Atkinson on April 3
  • Defense Department (acting) IG Glenn Fine on April 7
  • HHS Principal Deputy IG Christi Grimm on May 1
  • State Department IG Steve Linick on May 15.

When Trump fired Michael Atkinson he was required by federal law to explain himself to Congress.

“This is to advise you that I am exercising my power as President to remove from office the inspector general of the intelligence community,” the Trump letter to the leaders of the House and Senate intelligence committees says.

The letter also says “it is vital that I have the fullest confidence in the appointees serving as Inspectors General. That is no longer the case with this Inspector General.”

We know the reason Trump would fear Atkinson, who he appointed in 2017 and needed to fire him. Atkinson passed on to Congress the Ukraine whistleblower complaint that prompted his impeachment.

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Pompeo and Wife Abuses

The most recent firing appears to be directly tied to corruption involving Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his wife Susan. Throughout his tenure at State, employees have complained that the couple used them or their colleagues as servants, requiring them to run personal errands like taking a dog to the groomer and picking up dry cleaning. Such requests violate federal law. During the government shutdown, Pompeo even took his wife on an official trip, another unlawful act.

Trump fired Linick, saying as with Atkinson that he had lost confidence in him. The firing came at the urging of Pompeo, making the action itself corrupt since the IG was investigating Pompeo.

There’s no question Pompeo wanted Linick out. A White House statement declared “Secretary Pompeo recommended the move, and President Trump agreed.”

Denying Citizenship

Among Team Trump’s efforts to rig the election is Pompeo’s denying immigrants who qualify the opportunity to take the oath to become American citizens. Pompeo could authorize video or other remote paths during the pandemic.

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Trump declared last summer that he would accept help from China and Russia, which would be a crime.

So, doubt not that Trump is working to become our dictator. He may fail, but we should not just hope he does. We need to act patriotically to save our nation.

The smallest step is to vote on Nov. 3. We also need to give of ourselves and our money – donating, volunteering, registering people to vote, driving them to the polls on Election Day, informing voters about the real Trump, not his carefully polished image as a demigod and savior.

A constant flow of calls, emails and protests calling out Trump supporters in Congress for the moral jellyfish they are – blind, spineless and drifting in the chaotic political waves emanating in the Oval Office.

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