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What’s at stake if Trump wins in 2024? Single-party authoritarian rule

In a bombshell report issued last week, the Senate Judiciary Committee painted a disturbing picture of what the United States could become if something drastic isn’t done to halt the slide into single-party rule — and soon. 

Particularly troubling in the report titled “Subverting Justice: How the Former President and His Allies Pressured DOJ to Overturn the 2020 Election” is the foreshadowing of how former President Trump will undoubtedly again abuse the Justice Department if he or one of his allies becomes president in 2025. America has seen this ugliness before. The abuses of the first director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, J. Edgar Hoover, have been described by historians as “little less than blackmail of prominent public officials and private citizens and personal intimidation toward any person or institution daring to question his authority,” including the likes of Eleanor Roosevelt and Martin Luther King, Jr.

What America is facing with a possible second Trump presidency is the potential for widespread spying, bullying and retaliation of U.S. citizens based on their perceived loyalty or disloyalty to the Oval Office occupant.

Comedian and HBO host Bill Maher offered a chilling, must-watch preview of the U.S. 2024 presidential election, warning, “I hope I scared the shit out of you.” Yes, we should all be scared.

Among the findings of the 48-page Senate report, which followed an eight-month preliminary investigation, was that “President Trump repeatedly asked DOJ leadership to endorse his false claims that the election was stolen and to assist his efforts to overturn the election results.” Trump specifically requested that White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows and Acting Attorney General Jeff Rosen initiate election fraud investigations, “violating longstanding restrictions on White House-DOJ communications about specific law-enforcement matters.” Moreover, Trump allies in the Pennsylvania Republican state caucus and elsewhere “participated in the pressure campaign against DOJ.”

Trump’s attempt to use the vast and unparalleled law enforcement powers of DOJ is just a preview of what’s in store if he gets a second shot at the White House. What saved America from becoming some scary version of a police state this round were a few individuals — such as Rosen and Vice President Mike Pence — who refused to go along with him. Make no mistake, Trump is likely to install only abject loyalists within the federal criminal justice machinery if he regains power in 2025.

To be clear, although DOJ is tasked with enforcing voting rights laws such as the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 — and has the authority to prosecute election fraud and campaign finance violations — it has no authorized role in investigating ongoing elections. Its general policy mandates the opposite, banning even voter interviews “until after the outcome of the election allegedly affected by the fraud is certified.” 

Yet, already, former Attorney General Bill Barr “weakened this decades-long policy” by directing prosecutors not to wait to investigate alleged voting irregularities during the 2020 election, although he ultimately declared it secure.

It’s not just elections that Americans need to worry about if DOJ becomes the right arm of a president like Trump. It’s any activity that might catch Trump’s attention, including speech, religious views, political beliefs and — ultimately, even thoughts captured through big data analysis that government now performs routinely.

When DOJ was established in 1870, it was given no investigatory staff. The FBI only came on the scene in 1908. Unlike the attorney general who serves at the pleasure of the president, the top federal cop — the director of the FBI — has since 1976 been installed for 10-year terms as insulation from political influence across presidential administrations. Incumbents cannot be rehired.

As the Senate report explains, as of 1978 DOJ guidelines also “limit communications between the White House and DOJ regarding specific law enforcement matters” to protect DOJ’s legitimacy as a “neutral zone,” and to protect it from political influence — including from the Oval Office itself. In an address delivered to U.S. attorneys in 1940, Attorney General Robert Jackson elaborated:

“Therein is the most dangerous power of the prosecutor: that he will pick people that he thinks he should get, rather than pick cases that need to be prosecuted. . .  It is here that law enforcement becomes personal, and the real crime becomes that of being unpopular with the predominant or governing group, being attached to the wrong political views, or being . . . in the way of the prosecutor himself.” 

Hoover served 48 years and spanned 10 presidents. During that time, he amassed, entrenched, and abused his power by gathering secrets and blackmailing opponents. According to one of his aides, “Hoover didn’t trust anyone he didn’t have something on.” Even President Richard Nixon was impacted, commenting, “he’s got files on everybody, damn it.” 

If Trump gets a second term, we can likely expect J. Edgar Hoover-style behavior from DOJ toward individuals, groups and corporations who balk about his unfettered control. Given the failures of two attempted removals through impeachment during his first term, coupled with the shameless Republican obsequiousness since the coup attempt on Jan. 6, Trump in all likelihood would re-assume office with a perceived mandate of zero accountability whatsoever, including under the Constitution itself. Let’s not forget that during this first term, he floated the idea of refusing to leave after the constitutional cap of two terms in office.

No words can overstate the threat to U.S. democracy right now. With gerrymandering, anti-voting laws, unprecedented laws that change who counts the votes, and the Big Lie messaging that sets Republicans up to cancel validly-cast votes come November 2024, it may be too late to save it.

At the very least, Democrats need to wake up from their frightening state of denial and take whatever measures they can in the scant remaining months of their congressional majority to try to salvage democracy from single-party authoritarian rule. Seemingly drastic measures like making D.C. a state and adding two senators, as well as tinkering with the filibuster in order to pass the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, and to enact legislation to fix the Electoral Count Act (a vital step that has yet to even been introduced in Congress) should be front-and-center of President Biden’s agenda as the head of the Democratic Party.

The current leader of DOJ Attorney General Merrick Garland must also bring down the criminal law gauntlet on those who facilitated the insurrection from the seat of government — not just the regular folks who stormed the Capitol itself. At the very least, a handful might then be removed from Trump’s list of demonstrated loyalists who would populate the ranks of the federal government in 2025.

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who at age 88 is seeking another term, rallied around Trump over the weekend during a speech at the Iowa State Fairgrounds. In the aftermath of the second impeachment acquittal, Grassley was blunt and honest, “The reality is, he lost. He brought over 60 lawsuits and lost all but one of them. . . He belittled and harassed elected officials across the country to get his way.” 

Alarmingly, Grassley’s name is also on the minority response to the Senate report, which strikes a brazenly different tone noting, “Based on the available evidence and witness testimony, President Trump’s actions were consistent with his responsibilities as President to faithfully execute the law and oversee the Executive Branch.”

Grassley is obviously not alone among Republicans in his continued support for Trump. Whatever they are endorsing, it’s not democracy.

Kimberly Wehle is a professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law and author of the books “How to Read the Constitution — and Why” and “What You Need to Know About Voting — and Why.” Follow her on Twitter and Instagram: @kimwehle

Tags authoritarian Bill Maher Chuck Grassley DOJ Donald Trump Joe Biden John Lewis Kimberly Wehle Mark Meadows Merrick Garland Mike Pence Republicans Trump presidency White House

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