By Jessie Seigel/Washington, D.C.
This week, President Trump finally permitted some in his Administration to communicate with President-Elect Joe Biden’s transition team. But don’t get comfortable. Don’t think the Trump Administration and its backers have given up on turning our country into their own fiefdom to whatever degree they are able.
Don’t listen to what they say. Keep your eye on what they do.
Judging by his actions, Trump’s plan has been multifaceted. First, if possible, complete a de facto coup by suppressing votes, getting canvassing boards to throw out legitimate ballots from Democratic districts en masse (especially urban majority Black Democratic districts), while also challenging those ballots in court. In Michigan, Trump went so far as to summon Republican state legislators to the White House, trying to enlist them in a plot to ensure Electoral College votes for Trump regardless of whom the public voted for or the Michigan canvassing boards certified. Fortunately, these schemes failed miserably in the states where they were tried.
The backup plan, if a coup was not possible? Rush through an executive order permitting Trump to fire and replace nonpartisan civil servants with loyalists who would follow Trump’s orders before he leaves office and undermine Biden’s administration afterwards; create as much doubt about the winner’s legitimacy as possible; and incite violence by right-wing militia groups. In addition, on the international front, Trump has harassed our security agencies to declassify information about their sources and methods, and has had to be dissuaded from attacking Iran’s nuclear facility. In short, Trump’s backup plan has been to cause so much chaos that Biden’s incoming administration cannot govern.
Trump has not perpetrated these actions alone. With almost no exceptions, the Republican party has backed Trump’s play. A handful of Republicans have done so openly and loudly, the rest by a deliberate silence that amounts to taking part in Trump’s efforts to install himself as president regardless of the election results. The fact that Trump’s efforts have not, so far, been successful, is irrelevant to the GOP’s participation in his corruption. The Republican party’s own plan, once Biden is in office, most likely is to obstruct any of his administration’s attempts to fix the damage Trump and his minions have done to the country. Their success, of course, is dependent on Mitch McConnell remaining Senate Majority Leader, something the two Georgia Senate runoff elections in January will determine.
How are Biden and the Democrats combatting these Republican machinations?
Biden and his team have treated Trump’s actions as stunts to be ignored because they know that they honestly and solidly won the election, and have had faith that the courts would support their win. For the weeks since the election, they have moved the transition calmly and steadily forward to the best of their ability, absent the official recognition they should have had. They have been making plans for dealing with COVID-19, and for an early reversal of Trump’s damaging executive orders. This week, Biden began announcing his cabinet appointees—all solid, experienced people.
Understandably, once in office, Biden wants to focus on the work of the country: COVID-19, the economy, climate change, immigration, racial equality, infrastructure, reestablishing good relations with allies, and so on. And he must. But, according to a November 17 Washington Post article, the President-Elect “has privately told advisers that he doesn’t want his presidency to be consumed by investigations of his predecessor,” and he “raised concerns that investigations would further divide a country he is trying to unite and risk making his presidency about Trump.” Apparently, one of the unnamed advisers said Biden has made it clear that he “just wants to move on.”
We’ve tried “just moving on” before. It is part of what has landed us at the brink of the authoritarian dictatorship we’ve just narrowly escaped. In 1974, President Gerald Ford pardoned President Richard Nixon for his Watergate crimes—spying on the Democratic National Committee in order to steal an election, obstruction of justice, and all else Nixon may have done. Ford’s reasoning was that if Nixon was indicted, tried, and/or convicted, the attention of the President, the Congress, and the American people would be diverted from the country’s policy concerns. According to Ford’s one-time lawyer, Benton Becker, Ford’s decision was also influenced by a 1915 court case, Burdick v. United States, which states that a pardon carries an "imputation of guilt,” and that accepting a pardon is “an admission of guilt.” Therefore, by accepting the pardon, Nixon was accepting his guilt.
If this was Ford’s reasoning, it was pure rationalization. The only thing Ford’s pardon did was show those inclined to follow in Nixon’s footsteps what they could get away with. And each time these kinds of crimes are ignored, the next would-be dictator grows bolder and stronger. If we want to protect democracy, there must be a price—a real price—to be paid by perpetrators for the illegal actions they take to destroy democracy.
The Washington Post article notes Biden’s stance that his Justice Department will function independently from the White House, and that he will not tell federal law enforcement officials whom or what to investigate or not investigate. That is as it should be. But the article also quotes an unnamed adviser saying that Biden “can set a tone about what he thinks should be done,” even though “he’s not going to be a president who directs the Justice Department one way or the other.” This suggests Biden could set a tone that has the Justice Department letting the Trump Administration off the hook for any crimes they have committed. That would be a deadly mistake for the future of our democracy.
When Trump pardons convicted cohorts, as he has just done with Michael Flynn, there may not be much the Justice Department can do. But it is nevertheless imperative that Biden appoint an attorney general with a strong prosecutorial background who will pursue investigations wherever legally indicated and wherever they lead. Only that can give us any hope of reestablishing the rule of law and protecting our democracy against the next onslaught. Because that onslaught will come.
Biden has also expressed a genuine desire to bring the country together and represent those who did not vote for him as well as those who did. It is a fine and honorable thing for a president to try to represent all American citizens and to reach out to all of them. But it would be a mistake to confuse the Republican politicians in the Senate or House of Representatives with the American people. Biden appears to have the noble idea that with Trump gone, Republican senators and congressmen will work with him. But the only thing the Republicans work on consistently is obtaining one-party minority rule. They have been working towards this for decades.
As early as 1978, former Republican Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich was arguing that politics is simply a merciless “war for power.” In an October 17, 2018 Atlantic article, McKay Coppins wrote that during Gingrich’s two decades in Congress, the Speaker “pioneered a style of partisan combat—replete with name-calling, conspiracy theories, and strategic obstructionism…his strategy was to blow up the bipartisan coalitions that were essential to legislating.” One can draw a direct line from Gingrich’s “partisan combat” to Mitch McConnell’s obstinate obstruction.
In 2010, Karl Rove devised the Redistricting Majority Project (REDMAP), whose purpose was to target state legislative races in 16 states (including Wisconsin, Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas and Florida), so that Republicans could obtain the power to gerrymander. The endgame: placing as many Black and Democratic voters into as few districts as possible, thus establishing large areas of minority Republican control. The ultimate goal of this gerrymandering has been to make that minority control of government perpetual. And the Gingrich-McConnell obstructions are meant to keep power out of Democratic hands, even if a Democratic majority manages to win.
One cannot negotiate, compromise or work with people who treat politics as a cutthroat war for power. Turning the other cheek never works well in a boxing ring. One has to fight back.
The Democrats don’t have to fight dirty like the McConnells, Gingriches and Trumps. Biden can speak softly. But he must have surrogates who carry big sticks, especially when dealing with Republican Machiavellis. We simply must stop saving the country from fascist machinations only at the last moment, and by the skin of our teeth.
Jessie Seigel is a fiction writer, an associate editor at the Potomac Review, a reviewer for The Washington Independent Review of Books, and a dabbler in political cartoons at Daily Kos. She has twice received an Artist’s Fellowship from the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities for her work. But, Seigel also had a long career as a government attorney, in which she honed her analytic skills. Of this double career, Seigel would say, “I guess my right and left brains are well balanced.” More on and from Seigel can be found at The Adventurous Writer, https://www.jessieseigel.com.