At least once a week, America gets some manner of subtle reminder that the country, under Donald Trump, is marking a transition from democracy to what I continually describe as “soft” autocracy.
This is a point I’ve been fairly successful at communicating, even to those predisposed to reveling in Trump’s pretensions to authoritarianism. The fact is, some Trump supporters are just fine with America’s newly-autocratic lean. As for everyone else, large swaths of the electorate have simply acquiesced to the situation, knowing that in all likelihood, it won’t affect their daily lives, and thus is of little consequence, even as it’s wholly regrettable.
This is how autocracies are built. The slow, steady erosion of checks and balances, and the normalization of undemocratic behavior becomes so commonplace that people eventually ignore it, as they do Trump’s tweets. The cumulative effect, over the years, is the establishment of an unchecked executive, typically buttressed by a political party which serves to rubber stamp what amount to royal decrees. Opposition parties still exist, as do unfriendly media outlets, but they are everywhere and always bullied by the executive’s surrogates and, in some cases, subjected to overt threats from the executive itself.
In the early stages, the key to making this work if you’re the executive, is to avoid doing anything outlandish enough that it serves to light a fire under the previously subdued populace. That is, if you’re not prepared to resort to outright violence or extreme forms of oppression in the service of establishing dominance, you have to be careful not to wake people up to how brazen what you’re doing really is.
To be sure, the threshold for that is pretty high in American society, where attention spans are measured in seconds, not minutes, and the public can’t be bothered to listen to the testimony of current and former officials willing to testify, on national television, about rampant malfeasance within the administration.
Every now and again, emboldened by what he clearly believes is a Teflon coating, Trump presses his luck. Such was the case on Tuesday, when he effectively nullified a sentencing recommendation for longtime ally Roger Stone.
“This is a horrible and very unfair situation. The real crimes were on the other side, as nothing happens to them”, Trump said on Tuesday morning, adding that he “Cannot allow this miscarriage of justice!”
Just hours later, the Justice Department decided to rethink the recommendation that Stone serve as many as nine years in prison for lying to Congress and tampering with witnesses.
The move prompted resignations from a trio of federal prosecutors: Aaron Zelinsky (who worked on the Mueller probe), Jonathan Kravis and Adam Jed. Zelinsky also resigned from a special assignment with the US attorney’s office in Washington. He plans to keep working for the Justice Department in Baltimore. Kravis – who clerked for Judge Merrick Garland – flat out quit his job as an assistant US attorney.
Later, a fourth prosecutor, Michael Marando, withdrew from the case.
The supplemental sentencing memorandum (embedded in full below) opens with this:
The prior filing submitted by the United States on February 10, 2020 (Gov. Sent. Memo. ECF No. 279) does not accurately reflect the Department of Justice’s position on what would be a reasonable sentence in this matter. While it remains the position of the United States that a sentence of incarceration is warranted here, the government respectfully submits that the range of 87 to 108 months presented as the applicable advisory Guidelines range would not be appropriate or serve the interests of justice in this case.
At one point, the government argues that the court should consider that neither Stone associate Randy Credico nor his dog, Bianca, actually felt threatened by Stone. (The Mueller indictment alleged that Stone threatened to kidnap the animal). Here is that passage:
First, as noted above, the most serious sentencing enhancement in this case—the eight-level enhancement under Section 2J1.2(b)(1)(B) for “threatening to cause physical injury”—has been disputed by the victim of that threat, Randy Credico, who asserts that he did not perceive a genuine threat from the defendant but rather stated that “I never in any way felt that Stone himself posed a direct physical threat to me or my dog.” (ECF No. 273). While Mr. Credico’s subjective beliefs are not dispositive as to this enhancement, the Court may consider them when assessing the impact of applying the enhancement – particularly given the significant impact that the enhancement has on the defendant’s total Guidelines range.
The government’s new filing slashes the recommended sentencing for Stone in half. “If the Court were not to apply the eight-level enhancement for threatening a witness with physical injury, it would result in the defendant receiving an advisory Guidelines range of 37 to 46 months, which is more in line with the typical sentences imposed in obstruction cases”, William Barr’s Justice Department said.
This is pushing it, even for Trump. Most obviously, it casts even more doubt on William Barr’s pretensions to upholding the rule of law. Barr was a trending topic across social media on Tuesday evening, and certainly not for anything good.
For his part, Trump absurdly claimed he had nothing to do with any of this. “I stay out of things to a degree that people wouldn’t believe, but I didn’t speak to them”, the president said Tuesday, before reiterating that “I thought the recommendation was ridiculous, I thought the whole prosecution was ridiculous”.
Justice Department spokeswoman Kerri Kupec claims the department made the decision to overrule the prosecutors on Monday night, and that Trump’s Tuesday tweet wasn’t considered. Obviously, that’s laughable.
Adam Schiff stated the obvious, noting that if Trump did, in fact, intervene, it would constitute “a blatant abuse of power” which would “send an unmistakable message that [the president] will protect those who lie to Congress to cover up his own misconduct and that the attorney general will join him in that effort”.
In a letter to the DOJ’s inspector general, Michael Horowitz, Chuck Schumer called for an investigation. You’ll recall that Horowitz’s conclusions from a probe into internal biases in connection with the original Russia investigation were disputed by Barr in December. Here is Schumer’s letter:
During his confirmation hearing, Barr reiterated to Congress that “it is the attorney general’s responsibility to enforce the law evenhandedly [and] nothing could be more destructive of the rule of law than any toleration of political interference with the enforcement of the law”.
So much for that. Trump and Barr have clearly interfered with the enforcement of the law, in the process prompting four prosecutors to abandon one of the most high-profile cases from the Mueller probe.
Stone was convicted in November after only seven hours of deliberation from a jury. The self-described “dirty trickster” famously sports a tattoo of Richard Nixon on his back. A year ago, he posted a picture on Instagram of the presiding judge in his case with the crosshairs of a gun sight next to her head.
This is, to put it mildly, yet another crisis for the Trump administration of the president’s own making. Democrats will doubtlessly press aggressively for any and all communications between the White House and the Justice Department to determine the extent to which Trump may have interfered. It’s not inconceivable to think witnesses will be called, and Washington will be plunged right back into turmoil, less than a week after Trump’s acquittal in the Senate impeachment trial.
“I have really tried to have, and encourage others to have, faith in the resiliency of our institutions. But today I just feel so much sadness — grief, really — over what is happening”, former FBI special agent Asha Rangappa, whose Twitter banner features her younger self standing alongside Robert Mueller, said. “There is a cancer in the White House, and it has spread to the Justice Department”.