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Democrats Green Light Trump’s Authoritarian Ambitions

The biggest problem with failing to treat President Trump’s impeachable conduct as impeachable conduct is that it will set an unacceptably low standard for presidential behavior going forward.

This incentive problem, though real and immediate, is often examined as a distant threat. What’s to stop future a president from encouraging foreign sabotage of his political opponents, then obstructing the investigation of it? “If Donald Trump can do all that he tried to do to impede an investigation into his own wrongdoing and an attack by a foreign government,” warned Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), “then it gives license to the next president, and the next president, and the next president to do the same thing,”

The only thing missing from this analysis is that Donald Trump is still the president today, and absent any meaningful effort to penalize him for what he’s already done, he won’t walk away from Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation chastened. He will instead, as I wrote after watching House Democrats’ horrifying response to the Mueller report, fill the void of accountability with autocratic ambition—including by seeking revenge against the people who began the investigation in the first place, and encouraging foreign autocrats to sabotage his Democratic presidential challengers.

Both of those dangers have already begun to materialize—but there are others as well.

Buried several paragraphs into this New York Times story about the work Joe Biden’s son Hunter did for a Ukrainian energy company while his father was Vice President, we learn that Trump’s own criminal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, has engaged that country’s prosecutors to investigate the Bidens, and Trump himself has asked his loyalist attorney general, William Barr, “to look into the material gathered by the Ukrainian prosecutors—echoing repeated calls from Mr. Giuliani for the Justice Department to investigate the Bidens’ Ukrainian work.”

Through this reporting we can infer why a cat got Barr’s tongue at his Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Wednesday, when Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) asked him if “anyone at the White House had asked or suggested that you open an investigation of anyone.”

Barr isn’t just Trump’s cover up artist. In his last stint as attorney general he completed the Iran-Contra coverup, and, in the waning days of the George H.W. Bush administration, he pressured federal prosecutors in Little Rock, AR, to build a case against associates of Bill and Hillary Clinton, in the hope of ensnaring them in a scandal that might save his boss’s presidency.

In the intervening decades, Barr has only grown more conspiratorial and contemptuous of the rule of law. Two years ago he emailed New York Times reporter Peter Baker, “I have long believed that the predicate for investigating the [Uranium One] deal, as well as the [Clinton] foundation, is far stronger than any basis for investigating so-called ‘collusion,’” exposing the psyche of a man steeped in the authoritarian language of right-wing propaganda. If Trump wants the Justice Department to investigate the Bidens on the basis of whatever Giuliani cooked up with Ukrainian prosecutors, Barr is precisely the kind of attorney general who will make it happen. If that turns into a dead end, he will find something else. Other Trump loyalists—including Peter Schweizer, who cooked up the Uranium One conspiracy theory ahead of the last election—would like DOJ to investigate whether the Chinese government has leverage over the Bidens. Any port in the storm.

All of these developments form the backdrop of a scheme to knock out the Democratic candidate Trump is known to fear the most. Trump associates have been unusually frank, without seeming coy, about their concern that Biden could defeat Trump in the general election, and they would apparently like to neutralize the threat by embroiling Biden in a politically motivated criminal investigation.

This isn’t a clever strategy, but it is blunt and chilling, and, if successful, can and will be repeated to hobble whichever Democrat Trump fears second most, and ultimately on whichever Democrat wins the party’s 2020 presidential nomination.

Though none of this is illegal, it is elementally impeachable conduct. Importantly, though, it is impeachable conduct cloaked in the phony armor of justice. If a plan like this gets far enough along, the shameless people who contrived it will decry any effort to use it as a basis for impeachment as a corrupt abuse meant to place Democrats above the law. And that would surely be enough to cow the famously impeachment-phobic opposition party into inaction.

Democrats could easily avoid this trap by initiating impeachment proceedings now, not just on the basis of this new reporting, but the conduct detailed in the Mueller report, and the more quotidian and routine ways Trump flouts his oath of office.

They have instead chosen to communicate to Trump that all of these improprieties are acceptable—and less than a month after the Mueller report became public, their paralysis has uncorked Trump’s authoritarian desires. On Wednesday, Barr revealed that he and Trump have discussed at least some of the criminal investigations Mueller spun off to other components of the Justice Department—investigations Barr has refused to recuse himself from. Barr has also conscripted the department’s inspector general into a “review” of the origins of the Russia investigation that Trump clearly expects will yield criminal charges, however frivolous. If Democrats are too helpless to help their own candidates, how are they to help people caught up in that investigation, or the victims of the criminal behavior Mueller referred out to other prosecutors? And the worst part is that Barr has been Trump’s attorney general for only two and a half months—which means they’re just getting started.