Following a protracted political maelstrom in late January, House republicans voted along party lines to release the controversial Nunes memo and not a counter memo composed by the Democratic Party. In the days following the release, the white house and congressional republicans pitted themselves against the FBI, Justice Department and congressional Democrats over the choice to share the memo with the public. Republicans argued that the memo exposed corruption and abuse of powers in the ongoing Russia investigation that the American people deserved to know. Democrats insisted that the contents of the memo were cherry picked to support the longstanding republican narrative that seeks to discredit the Russia investigation and the FBI in general. The FBI and justice department strongly urged congress not to release the classified document – warning that the release of classified materials was “extremely reckless” and may hamper foreign countries willingness to share sensitive information with our government in the future. Several days later, the house intelligence committee voted to release the Democrat’s counter memo, however, the release was contingent on the president’s approval. 5 days after the House vote to release the democrat memo, the president blocked the release and sent it back for revision. Now 3 weeks after the initial Nunes memo release, the democrat memo has still not been published, though, House democrats do hope to get it out by the end of the week. The Nunes memo itself makes the case that the Russia probe relied on unverified and biased evidence (with possible links to the Clintons) to obtain some of the warrants used thus far in the ongoing investigation. It is unknown, at this time, what may have been left out of the memo and what is included in the Democrat’s memo.
If democracy is backsliding in the U.S., it will have to slide over the Mueller investigation and the FBI. It is a core characteristic of democratic erosion that regimes seek to neuter opposition. To date, Mueller and the FBI have been some of the most potent opposition to Drumpf. While other civil servants, working in courts and government agencies have blocked the Drumpf administrations actions, none pose as a direct threat to his ability to stay in power. It has been reported that Mueller has requested a direct interview with Drumpf, furthermore, sources from within the White House report that the Russia investigation is a major source of stress for the president.
While no core institutions of democracy dissolved during this affair, the decision of congress to release the Nunes memo demonstrates how incumbency can be used to weaken opposition. Traditionally, executive power can be checked by congress, courts and bureaucratic institutions. It seems, at least thus far, that congressional republicans are generally unwilling to challenge the president and are eager to take political action to weaken their (and the president’s) opponents. This is concerning because the lack of one check on executive power can weaken other checks. In Poland and Hungary, for example, populist parties used majorities in the congress and executive branch to severely weaken opposition throughout the courts and bureaucratic institutions.
The choice to release the Nunes memo shows all the characteristics of a leading party that seeks to solidify its power in a stealthy way. The decision was, of course, completely legal. Furthermore, it has some motivations that are not unreasonable (it is hard to argue against transparency). Finally, the memo itself does contain evidence that calls into question some of the practices of the opposition. However, the context for the release paints it in a different light. The release was clearly partisan with very few republicans voting against the release and the democratic counter memo being delayed. The release clearly benefits the ones who hold political office with individuals within the Drumpf administration reporting that Drumpf hopes the memo will disrupt the investigation. Finally, the rational for release – transparency – is used selectively with an obvious counterexample being Drumpf’s tax returns.
The constitution provides a relatively high degree of protection against overt power grabs so smaller attacks on the credibility of the opposition are much more accessible tools for the Drumpf administration. What has helped make these small attacks on opposition credibility possible and effective are increases in political polarization and Drumpf’s populist platform. Both polarization and populism have grown to be considered risk factors in the literature on democratic erosion in recent decades for reasons that are demonstrated by the Nunes memo case. The sweeping republican victory in the last election has unbalanced power between the only two existing parties and put the majority of power in the hands of a leader that now glorifies rebellion against the traditions of American democracy. Now, criticizing government bodies is not seen as an attack on the sitting president because the president is populist and anti-government. Furthermore, the democratic and republican parties have become so hopelessly polarized that one party’s progress often takes the form of overt attacks against the other party. Congress no longer serves as a check on the executive branch because a congressional representative’s loyalty is not to congress but to their party.
If democracy backslides, we will see it first in the Mueller investigation. As the most direct threat to the Drumpf administration and with congressional protection striped away, it is in most danger of attack. Despite the danger, all is far from lost. The President has tried, and failed, to bring the FBI to heel. Through an early attempt to secure James Comey’s loyalty, Comey’s firing, and constant attacks via Twitter and the media, the FBI has remained fiercely independent. It is unclear why, but the new appointment to head of the FBI does not appear to be in Drumpf’s pocket and the Russia investigation has continued to be run by the highly respected former head of the FBI, Robert Mueller. Already, several individuals who were involved in Drumpf’s campaign and administration have been indicted and the investigation shows no signs of slowing down with new indictments being announced amid the drama over the Nunes memo.
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