This is a stress test of the US government

Posted at 7:34 AM, Nov 21, 2018
and last updated 2018-11-22 06:42:08-05

If you weren’t taking President Donald Trump literally, you were wrong.

“Lock her up!” and “America First!” are more than just slogans. He’s stress-testing the government for ways to punish his rival Hillary Clinton and absolving Saudi Arabia for the way its titular leader dispatched with one of his critics in exchange for their participation in the US arms market.

Freedom to dissent and the peaceful transfer of power between opponents are supposed to be what sets the US apart from undemocratic societies.

But when Trump shot back at Clinton during a 2016 presidential debate that if he were President she’d be in jail, it was a prelude to him actually targeting his former rival and pressuring the Department of Justice to actually “lock her up.”

He’s tweeted as much since then, complaining that the DOJ wasn’t doing enough to investigate her.

But his view on political rivals like Clinton and critics like former FBI Director James Comey, whom he fired, is that the government — HIS government, he believes — should be mobilized against them.

His former White House counsel Don McGahn stood in the way, according to The New York Times. But he’s also asked Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and Matt Whitaker, then Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ chief of staff who has since become acting attorney general, for updates on the investigation.

“We live in a democracy and you don’t go after your political rivals,” said Alberto Gonzales, who served as both White House counsel and attorney general for Republican President George W. Bush.

But Gonzales added during an interview with CNN’s John Berman on “New Day” Wednesday that so far, the people around Trump have kept his power dreams in check. The process, he argued, has worked.

“Sometimes I think this President in particular says things out of frustration but nothing comes of it, and so long as we have good people serving in these senior positions, both in the White House and in the Department of Justice, I have to be confident the rule of law is going to be respected,” Gonzales said.

This is the place to point out that that particular counsel is gone and hasn’t been replaced. Trump is also in the market for a new attorney general. The man stepping in temporarily is Whitaker, who has been publicly critical of the special counsel investigation that Trump calls a witch hunt. Nowhere has Trump’s personal frustrations with the government around him and his desire to influence the Justice Department been more evident than on that government’s ability to investigate possible collusion with Russia by his campaign.

While his political grudges have influenced his interactions with justice officials, Trump has ignored the politically inconvenient determinations of his intelligence community.

One of Trump’s main slogans since becoming President is “America First!” and that was the subhead of his stream-of-conscious-dictated statement meant to silence debate about how or whether the US should react to Saudi Arabia’s official involvement in the death and dismemberment of Virginia resident and Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

“Maybe they did or maybe they didn’t,” Trump said in the release, again contradicting his intelligence community. That line seems to be code for the fact that he doesn’t care what Saudi Arabia does to its dissidents at long as the government there is buying US-made weapons.

The din in Trump’s ear on Saudi Arabia, which the US has long backed as an ally in the Middle East, had grown as evidence grew in the eyes of US intelligence agencies that the operation against Khashoggi had the imprimatur of the kingdom’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Trump, after inking a deal for Saudi Arabia to buy more US weapons doesn’t want to hear that, so he affixed eight exclamation points in his statement to drive the point home.

He’s also grown tired of the intelligence community’s assessment that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election — the one that gave him his current job — so he’s routinely tried to distract from the inquiry into whether his campaign was complicit in that interference by returning again and again to Clinton, the rival he vanquished and the person Russia tried to keep from winning.

The difference between Saudi Arabia — a kingdom — and the United States — a representative democracy with checks and balances — is that in Saudi Arabia, a prince can dispatch a team of agents to deal with an inconvenient public critic in a foreign land. They can arrest scads of political rivals and lock them up in the Ritz Carlton during a power grab.

Trump, despite his desires, is hemmed in by the system he leads, which puts us a long way from that kind of naked abuse of power in the US, where the institutions of government do not as easily allow for that moral flexibility.

His absolution of Saudi Arabia of any consequences for the killing of Khashoggi drew reactions from Republicans like Sens. Lindsey Graham and Rand Paul, as well as Sen.-elect Mitt Romney.

“America can’t excuse & minimize the brutal & gruesome murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a US resident & columnist. Our country is defined by human values, by principle above convenience, & by commitment to morality. We must subject the perpetrators of this outrage to withering sanction,” Romney tweeted after the release of Trump’s statement.

Not that such admonitions are likely to influence Trump’s thinking. They don’t even signal new Republican opposition to the President after the party suffered losses at the ballot box that cost them control of the House and gave Democrats a new foothold in Washington.

Trump has said he sees the election as a victory because Republicans picked up two seats in the Senate. And Republican control of that chamber means he is likely safe, for now, from serious censure or biting legislative counteractions.

It has long been a far different thing for Republicans to criticize Trump as opposed to voting against his policies, which means Trump will likely maintain a protective buffer in the Senate from anything the newly powerful House Democratic majority does to contain him.

The progression of Trump policy from tweet to slogan to action has become more familiar, even though his ideas and tweets seem designed for shock value.

The lasting legacy of the Trump administration will be very dependent on how the government — whether in the form of the courts, the Congress, the special counsel or the bureaucracy and staff around him — can contain his attempts to use the government as his own political tool.

The tension between powers is what keeps the US government in balance, but as he does with everything, Trump has supercharged the stress.