Democracy is alive in Trump era

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I think by now it is not news that I am uncomfortable with Donald Trump as president. He is uninformed and impulsive. He confuses his personal brand with American interests and pursues the former at the expense of the latter. Skeptical? Roll the Singapore tape. He lies constantly, saying he had the biggest inaugural crowd ever, that Barack Obama wiretapped Trump Tower, that there is no more North Korean nuclear threat, and that the Christopher Steele dossier launched the Russia “witch hunt.”

He is also the most norm busting president in history, inciting racial animus (“Mexican judge”), condemning a free press (“enemy of the people”), shielding raw bigotry (“fine people on both sides”), and contaminating multiple judicial processes (not enough space for all the quotes here). This is happening from a position whose awesome powers are limited more by voluntary norms than by law or even the Constitution.

{mosads}He has damaged the worldview of the United States. A year into his presidency, confidence in American global leadership had collapsed to a mere 30 percent, down 18 points from last months of President Obama in office. Two weeks ago while visiting  Europe, I was approached at a public event by a Scandinavian who recognized me and volunteered sadly, without anger or judgment, that he had grown up in a world in which a good and powerful nation had wished his country well. “My grandchildren do not live in such a world,” he lamented.

To summarize, I fear that the Creator did not endow President Trump with the emotional, intellectual or ethical tools to carry out the responsibilities of his office. But he is nonetheless our president. Although nine million more Americans voted for someone other than him, he polled 304 electoral votes, which was enough to carry him to victory.

Former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper questions that outcome, believing that targeted Russian interference swayed the vote in key and closely contested states. His theory is plausible but unprovable, so I do not go there. The most I will concede, pending any contrary results from special counsel Robert Mueller, is an asterisk next to the 2016 results, so I do not argue with the angry emails and tweets I receive reminding me of the “sovereign will” of the American people.

The normal brake on an unwise, unprepared or autocratic president would be the constitutional one that Alexander Hamilton and James Madison designed in the form of our Congress. A vibrant Congress, for example, would have reasserted its exclusive Article I authority to levy tariffs and checkmated the arbitrary and spiteful imposition of duties by the administration on Canadian steel under a fiction of “national security.”

But that is not Congress today. In fact, rather than check the president’s expansive use of authorities, Congress has been used to rein in, harass or obstruct elements of the executive branch that the president cannot bend to his will. Witness House Republicans when it comes to the investigation into Russian electoral interference and potential “collusion.” All of this presents those in the executive branch with a nearly insoluble dilemma. In the junior ranks of intelligence, law enforcement and the military, I have seen the current angst within our government, perhaps best summarized by one simple question from an officer: “Sir, what do I tell my people?”

The issue is magnified at more senior levels, which is the stuff of “Fear,” the new book by Bob Woodward. He has both talked to me and talked about me in some of his previous works. Woodward is thorough and comes armed with a lot of knowledge. The parallels with intelligence analysis were strong enough that I invited him to talk to my National Security Agency leadership about his craft when I was director there. Woodward sometimes stitches together data from diverse sources to create a narrative complete with recreated dialogue and, in my experience, sometimes lets dramatic license get ahead of him. Over the years, however, his overall messages have proven remarkably accurate. This is certainly my impression of his view of this White House.

Surely there are some senior officials who are happy with what the president says and does. Others just seem happy to be at the center of politics. But all evidence suggests many have to consult their conscience daily, weighing those things they can control and shape against their continued presence legitimizing and enabling those things they cannot. Many ease the tension by talking about it in their routine of unburdening and flooding of leaks that have characterized this administration.

Then, spectacularly last week, one anonymous “senior official” went full monty in a New York Times opinion about inside efforts to control an erratic and amoral president. Many judged the author as insufficiently brave and bringing down democracy. Perhaps, but in such troubled and uncharted waters, I am reluctant to judge the virtue of another. This indeed may be one of those “in emergency break glass” moments. I am more troubled by the insufficiency of this course of action. Secretive administrative warfare against an unhinged executive is not sustainable.

Public warfare might be more effective. That is why you see so many institutions and individuals now pushing against their own traditional norms, from former intelligence officials commenting on cable news to the hero commander of the Osama Bin Laden raid describing the humiliation of our country, to a former president stepping back into the political debate and media outlets obsessed with every action within the White House. All seem to be shouting the same theme, which is that what this president is doing is not normal, and we will not act like it is.

I expect even more voices in the future, not just through leaks, but with richer narratives from the likes of Gary Cohn, H.R. McMaster, Rob Porter and others now gone from the administration. The rules of classification still apply, of course, but other norms guarding privacy and preserving candid deliberation have to be weighed against big imperatives. If the king is mad, we have a right to know. Then, of course, there will be the special counsel report. Absent truly shocking revelations, I still hold that the only way we move beyond this for our democracy is through the vote in 2020. There will be no healing if a third of Americans view it a coup to force Trump from office before the end of his term.

It is an article of faith in our democracy that the next vote for president of the United States depends on an informed electorate. This is why we allow former officials to speak their minds. This is why we welcome people like Woodward to write books. This is why we allow the New York Times to publish opinions, even anonymous ones, without fear of coercion. This is no doubt going to get uglier, but I see no other way for our nation.

Gen. Michael Hayden is a former director of the CIA and of the National Security Agency. He is now a visiting professor in the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University and author of “The Assault on Intelligence: American National Security in an Age of Lies.”

Tags America Barack Obama Congress Constitution Democracy Donald Trump Election Gary Cohn Government James Clapper Politics Robert Mueller

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