Since being acquitted by the Senate, Donald Trump has gone on a rampage against the rule of law, using all means at his disposal to punish his enemies and protect his friends. On the right-wing website Town Hall, Trump supporter Kurt Schlichter called on the president to imitate the vengeful gangsters of the Godfather movies. “With Democrat dreams of a soft coup now a heap of smoldering wreckage, and no need to play Mr. Nice Guy to please prissy softcons on Capitol Hill, President Trump is finally free to channel his inner Michael Corleone,” Schlichter argued. “It’s about time to re-christen Don Jr., and use that opportunity to take out the heads of the five families.”
It would be comforting to dismiss Schlichter as a crank, but according to the very well-connected Axios reporter Jonathan Swan, the column “channels Trump—and several of his advisers’—mindset right now as close to anything I’ve read.”
Now liberated by knowing he has the full protection of Senate Republicans, Trump is more than willing to act in true Corleone fashion by settling all family accounts. He’s removed or recalled those who testified against him, like US Ambassasdor to the European Union Gordon Sondland and Director for European Affairs for the United States National Security Council (NSC) Alexander Vindman. For good measure, Trump also ousted Vindman’s twin brother, Yevgeny, who also worked in the NSC.
On Tuesday, Trump’s Justice Department ignited a crisis by overruling the harsh sentence recommend by prosecutors handling the case of Roger Stone, a longtime political associate of the president. Trump had already tweeted that the proposed seven-to-nine-year punishment was too severe. In response, the four prosecutors handling Stone’s case resigned.
NBC is reporting that the Stone controversy is part of a larger pattern of actions undertaken by Attorney General William Barr to protect Trump. The network claims that “the U.S. attorney who had presided over an inconclusive criminal investigation into former acting FBI director Andrew McCabe was abruptly removed from the job last month in one of several recent moves by Attorney General William Barr to take control of legal matters of personal interest to President Donald Trump, according to multiple people familiar with the matter.”
Congratulations to Attorney General Bill Barr for taking charge of a case that was totally out of control and perhaps should not have even been brought. Evidence now clearly shows that the Mueller Scam was improperly brought & tainted. Even Bob Mueller lied to Congress!
—Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 12, 2020
This is an extraordinarily dangerous moment for American democracy. Trump is seeking retribution and Barr is transforming the Department of Justice into the president’s willing accomplice. As Boston Globe columnist Michael Cohen argues, “Something about Barr’s behavior in the Stone case feels different than his previous actions. Before he was protecting Trump—on Mueller, House subpoenas, the whistleblower complaint etc. But now he’s actively putting his finger on the scale in an actual prosecution. This feels like a major line has been crossed, in that now the DOJ is actively subverting the justice system to benefit Trump. Politicized investigations of Trump’s political opponents can’t be far behind.”
This corruption of the rule of law equals anything Richard Nixon was guilty of, but with far less certainty that the president will be held in check. At the end of the day, however reluctant they might have been to challenge their own president, Senate Republicans turned against Nixon and forced his resignation. But we’ve already seen the reverse with Trump’s impeachment. Only Mitt Romney among Senate Republicans voted to remove Trump.
Ideally, protecting the rule of law would be a bipartisan affair. The acquittal of Trump proved that is not possible, so Democrats are left to do it on their own. But they have a problem: As long as the presidential primaries go on, the Democrats will be without a standard-bearer. This is an obstacle, because now more than ever the Democrats need a leader who can lead a protest movement against Trump.
To be sure, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is currently the de facto head of the party, and she’s using her position to contain Trump. She has called for an investigation into the Department of Justice’s handling of Roger Stone’s sentencing guidelines.
But Trump’s threat to the rule of law will require more than just congressional investigations. Now is the time for mass protests on the scale of the first Women’s March in 2017. Such protests could flood the streets of Washington and let Republican lawmakers understand that they will face electoral consequences for shielding Trump. Just as the Women’s March seeded the blue wave of 2018, mass protests could energize mass mobilization that will be needed to defeat Trump at the ballot box in November. This is the only pathway to punishing his corruption.
But to have anti-corruption protests, it’ll be necessary to get the primaries out of the way. It’s hard to get anti-Trump people organized to protest when their energy is taken up in picking the next presidential leader. Having a Democratic nominee would help crystallize the protest movement. The nominee could be the face and voice of protest and help draw the millions that need to take to the streets.
Bernie Sanders won the New Hampshire primary on Tuesday night. His narrow win came after he won the popular vote in the still unsettled Iowa caucus (where the Sanders campaign is calling for a recanvassing of precincts that seem to have clear-cut tabulation errors).
With the first two races behind him, Sanders is the front-runner. But given the uncertainty of Iowa and the closeness of New Hampshire, many in the mainstream media are refusing to acknowledge his status. New York Times reporter Jeremy W. Peters actually argued that Pete Buttigieg was the real front-runner. “Pete, after winning Iowa, is almost beating Bernie in a state Bernie won four years ago by 22 points,” Peters argued. “Under any normal standard of assessing the Democratic race, Pete would be called a frontrunner.”
In fact, Sanders has a much clearer path to victory than any of the other candidates. He has a very loyal base of followers, which is diverse, unlike other major contenders like Buttigieg or Amy Klobuchar. Billionaire Michael Bloomberg might be a hurdle, but his unorthodox campaign, based on TV advertising but having no real grassroots support, is a long shot. Bloomberg also has a host of liabilities, such as his record on racial profiling, that could damage him.
But a Sanders victory, if it comes, will be a long slog. He’ll face resistance every step of the way. Meanwhile, the primaries are not likely to end anytime soon. There are still too many candidates with enough of a chance that they will stay in for months to come.
Given this reality, it’s unlikely that any real mass protest movement can form in the near future. But whoever wins the nomination should ponder the need for a march on Washington. Given the threat Trump poses to the very rule of law, this is no year for sticking to conventional politics.