The Justice Department’s decision to interview top CIA officials as part of an effort to investigate the reasons for looking into Russian interference in the 2016 election will alarm people who understand President Trump in the broader international context of authoritarians’ recent successes in undermining democratic governments.
In functioning democracies with independent prosecutors, investigations occur when evidence of serious wrongdoing exists, not when powerful politicians wish to question conclusions they find politically damaging. No evidence exists of any wrongdoing by those investigating Russia’s support for Trump.
Law enforcement officials have a responsibility to investigate evidence of foreign interference in U.S. elections. The investigation of the investigators sends a message that civil servants doing their job and uncovering evidence of foreign interference risk harassment and damage to their careers. This is alarming, as leading experts have shown that Russian President Vladimir Putin has made undermining Western democracy a major goal — a goal advanced by securing Trump’s election.
The investigation reflects Trump’s frequently expressed desire to persecute his opponents. He signaled this desire during the campaign when he led chants of “lock her up” against Hillary Clinton, even though no law forbids use of a private email server and a government investigation found no basis for criminal prosecution.
Since then, Trump and his associates have asked the Department of Justice to prosecute not only Clinton, but also James Comey, John Kerry, Mayor Libby Schaaf of Oakland, and to investigate Joe Biden. Trump has also encouraged prosecutors not to go after Republicans committing crimes, lest their prosecution damage the Republicans’ electoral chances.
Trump is following the authoritarian playbook by using the law as a weapon to defeat opponents, while protecting his own supporters’ lawbreaking. Trump openly admires autocrats who have used investigation and prosecution to undermine democracies, like Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Hungary’s Viktor Orbán. These autocrats have destroyed democracies using these tactics despite some institutional limits on their actions.
For example, Erdoğan’s early moves to establish autocracy involve responding to a corruption investigation against his supporters by vilifying honest prosecutors and then replacing them with people willing to end the investigations — a tactic that Trump has started to replicate. By the end of 2015, Erdoğan began characterizing the investigators and other opponents as “terrorists.”
Prior to 2016, Turkey’s compromised prosecution service convicted opponents but not supporters for violating laws that are widely ignored in Turkey, such as tax and building codes. After a failed coup attempt in 2016, the Erdoğan government increasingly convicts opponents who played no part in the coup on charges of libel and aiding “terrorists.” The government also incites personal violence through virulent criticism and executive orders, promising pardons for individual action against “terrorists.”
In Hungary, Orbán’s prosecution service announces corruption investigations timed to discredit political opponents just before elections. The service usually drops charges after the election is over, and the damage is done. This tactic can work even before an autocrat captures the courts, and prosecution without conviction can ruin lives.
Donald Trump has replicated these autocrats’ propensity to replace prosecutors with some principles with more pliant officials willing to use the law as a weapon against opponents. Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions resisted calls to investigate the investigators. Trump replaced him with a new official with fewer scruples, following this authoritarian script. Trump will continue replacing principled officials with more pliant ones until he gets the results he wants. Because executive branch officials sense this truth, the pressure on officials to compromise their principles will prove enormous.
Political leaders need to have a coherent strategy to check Trump’s drive to autocracy. Impeachment hearings would provide a powerful deterrent, because Trump would have to consider the possibility that overreach would lead to some Republicans and more Democrats supporting impeachment. Impeachment would also enable the House to put its subpoena power on a more secure legal footing in order to expose coming abuses of the powers of investigation and prosecution.
Democracy defenders in Congress also need a clear, simple message about Trump’s desire to persecute political opponents, and they need to repeat that message following each new instance of abuse. While impeachment hearings would provide the ideal forum for this messaging, political leaders should deliver the message as consistently and often as they can regardless of how they investigate Trump’s ongoing effort to undermine our democracy.