Trump’s Creeping Autocracy

It is a distinct possibility that Donald Trump will announce a national security emergency on our southern border and that he is ordering the military to build the wall in his address to the nation later this evening. Announcing the emergency would be Trump’s face-saving way to avoid the humiliation of caving on an agreement to re-open the government without getting his wall. And his plan to have the military build the wall will be stopped in its tracks by the courts, which will give Trump the opportunity to blame yet another branch of the government for the reason why his wall is not built.

While finally funding the government is an undoubtedly good thing, the method that Trump is using to get there, announcing a fraudulent and unconstitutional national emergency, is undoubtedly not. This will not be the first time that Trump has used the military in an inappropriate manner in order to pursue a partisan political, as opposed to national security, goal. In the run-up to the 2018 election, Trump ordered troops to the southern border in order to deal with the so-called “caravan” that was supposedly going to overrun the border but which quickly faded as an issue for Trump once the election was over. As predicted, having paid no price for that unnecessary and questionable legal deployment, Trump would use the military for partisan purposes again, and it seems like that time might be now.

However, if Trump does not announce a national emergency, then he will be given prime-time network time to deliver what is essentially a propaganda message on what he calls the “Humanitarian and National Security crisis” on the southern border. There is no security crisis and any humanitarian crisis is exacerbated, if not caused, by Trump administration policies. This is a totally manufactured crisis for partisan purposes. The fact that Trump is getting this free network airtime shows just how effective the Trump effort at creating a “managed media” that will engage in self-censorship in order to promote the autocrat’s message has become. In contrast, those same networks refused to give Obama airtime when he wanted to unveil his own immigration reform plan in 2014.

Separately, Trump is apparently also considering using the power of executive privilege to block at least some portions of the Mueller report when it eventually comes out. That consideration also includes expanding the use of that privilege to cover the transition, which would be a questionably legal and unparalleled extension of the privilege. Executive privilege could not be used to suppress the entire report, but the court cases that its use might create could significantly delay the release the details that Trump would be hiding. And, based on Trump’s prior history of using the courts to delay the inevitable as long as possible, it would not be surprising to see him employ that tactic with Mueller’s report. November, 2020 is not that far away.

Finally, Trump’s use of acting secretaries to fill cabinet posts is simply an end-run around the constitutional requirement for Senate advice and consent. A full 25% of his cabinet is currently filled by people working in an “acting” capacity. Those include critical departments like the Department of Justice, Department of Defense, Interior Department, and the EPA. The EPA, Interior, and Defense are all now being run by lobbyists or executives of companies with significant business with their departments. The head of the DOJ was selected purely on the basis of his desire to protect the President from the Mueller investigation. The massive conflicts of interest for all these appointees have not been able to be explored by Congress and it is unclear whether they are abiding by the ethics rules of their own departments. Trump prefers it this way, saying, “I sort of like ‘acting’. It gives me more flexibility, do you understand that? I like ‘acting’”. The “flexibility” Trump is referring to is the ability to bypass the constitutional oversight of the Senate, which, of course, is passively accepted by Senate Republicans.

All of these actions are evidence of the creeping autocracy that Masha Gessen warned about at the beginning of Trump’s term. And, as we continue to accept and compromise with Trump’s autocratic tendencies, he becomes more and more emboldened to push the limits farther and farther. With a Democratic House and investigations into his administration and business ongoing, pressure will continue to build on the President during the course of 2019. Expect him to become even more dictatorial as the year progresses. If Trump gets away with the national emergency tonight, expect him to use it even more frequently as the year progresses.

Originally published at on January 8, 2019.

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