On Tuesday, Donald Trump claimed to be America’s “chief law enforcement officer.” Some simply mocked his words, but that was a mistake. For Trump is now deliberately ratcheting up the pressure on the few remaining governmental institutions capable of holding back his dictatorial ambitions.
Number 45 seems intent on driving Attorney General William Barr to resign, as the president seeks to personalize his power. This is no longer simply a game of bluff-and-bluster on Twitter; rather, Trump is articulating a concept of absolute power that is entirely incompatible with democracy. He’s gambling that every agency that once would have put the brakes on his power grab is now too cowed and too damaged, too complicit in his grubbiness and his crimes, to stop him.
Lest anyone doubt what can happen to a democracy when autocrats claim powers over and above those constitutionally delineated, consider Article 3 of the Enabling Act, passed by the German Reichstag in 1933 and giving Hitler dictatorial powers: “Laws enacted by the Reich government shall be issued by the Chancellor and announced in the Reich Gazette.” In other words, Hitler was both the giver of laws and the interpreter of laws—he was Germany’s chief law enforcement officer.
Trump demonstrated his understanding of this role by promptly pardoning a crooks’ gallery of white-collar criminals, from Michael Milken to ex–Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich—men who, in their stunning betrayal of the public trust or of clients who relied on them to ensure their financial well-being, clearly remind him of himself. The move was so craven, and the people he pardoned so entirely lacking in moral character, that it can only be part of a larger process of sabotaging the independence of the judicial system. Trump followed up on Wednesday with a day of tweets attacking the independent judiciary.
The impeached president is also on a blitz of admissions, essentially fessing up, in the wake of his Senate acquittal, to the scheme to send Rudy Giuliani to Ukraine to pressure officials there to dig up dirt on his domestic enemies—despite the fact that, during the impeachment process, Trump repeatedly dismissed the evidence against him as a hoax. Again, he’s normalizing the abnormal, conditioning the country to accept any and every crooked action emanating from the top.
Meanwhile, as China expels international journalists, and as a trove of leaked documents shows the extent of Beijing’s crackdown on Uighurs, Trump heaps ever more praise on President Xi Jinping. Last week Trump was reveling in the speed with which China executes drug dealers; this week he’s lavishing compliments on Beijing’s handling of the coronavirus epidemic—despite growing evidence of the extent to which China’s leadership fumbled the ball early in the outbreak. Sure, he might be locking Chinese travelers out of the United States during this outbreak, but he envies Xi’s autocratic powers.
Trump has dropped the pretense of playing by the rules of democracy. His power grab will only intensify as the election nears, as public health crises grow, and as negative pressures build on the economy, making his route to reelection harder. Last quarter, Japan’s economy shrank by an extraordinary 6.3 percent. Now coronavirus is disrupting global supply chains, hitting the earnings of powerhouse companies such as Apple, shredding the tourism industry, and threatening to tip much of the world into recession.
That’s the Signal this week. The rest is mere Noise.