Roger Stone, a member of Trump’s inner circle and advisor who served Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign was indicted of 7 different crimes by Robert Mueller, the special counsel leading an investigation into the Trump presidency to see if they were guilty of collusion and cooperation with Russian nationals or the Russian government in order to insure victory in the election. Stone has been charged with obstruction, witness tampering, and making false statements. According to the indictment, Stone had contact with Wikileaks and was contacted about additional information to be leaked meant to damage the Clinton presidential campaign. While the Mueller investigation has yet to conclude, and no direct contact between the Trump campaign and the Russian government has been released to the public, this latest indictment of a Trump campaign advisor is a serious sign of corruption in American politics and possibly could be a precursor to more threats to this country’s democracy, if not uncovered in this investigation, perhaps in the near future.
Why are exactly the crimes committed by Roger Stone threatening to the strength of American democracy? While Stone being charged isn’t troubling in itself since being charged for wrong-doing is an example of the system working properly, the possible implications from his crime are what is troubling. There is a chance that Stone was acting on his own when contacting Wikileaks, but there is also an equally likely possibility that President Trump knew about this contact between Stone and Wikileaks. During the presidential campaign, the DNC was hacked by Russian hackers with the purpose of hurting Hillary Clinton’s chances at the presidency. If there is a connection between that action and the president of the United States, it would be a successful attempt by a presidential candidate to alter the election and a step away from a free and fair democracy. The Trump campaign would have gone against established democratic norms by collaborating with a foreign power in order to secretly manipulate an election.
Roger Stone is not the only Trump associate that has been indicted and has been under the public eye as of late: Paul Manafort is another Trump aid and the former Trump campaign manager convicted of financial fraud. Manafort was convicted earlier than Stone in September, and after pleading guilty agreed to cooperate with the Mueller investigation. Unfortunately, the crimes Paul Manafort was originally charged with are not the only crimes that he’s committed. After agreeing to cooperate, Manafort lied multiple times to the special counsel about his contact with a man connected to Russian intelligence, more specifically Konstantin Kilimnik. This connection with an associate who is essentially functioning as a representative for the Russian government provides the same implications that the Stone and Wikileaks case implies; the Trump campaign collaborating with a foreign power with the intention to improve their chances in the 2016 election.
However, this raises another question: why would Paul Manafort lie to the prosecution after agreeing to this plea deal? If we assume that he was acting rationally, this sends another bad omen. If it was in his best interest to lie, it is possible that the uncovering of the real truth is a worse fate than the additional sentencing that Stone could possibly face from violating the plea deal. And this additional sentencing is nothing to scoff at, since Manafort could potentially receive a sentence long enough that he would die in federal prison (considering being almost 70 years old). A sentence this long isn’t a guarantee since it is also possible that Manafort is banking on a presidential pardon from Donald Trump. However, this still begs the question why he would lie still even if he were to be absolved of his crimes. He could be trying to get on the good side of Trump to better guarantee his pardon, but if this is the case why would Manafort’s lies be advantageous to Trump? If there is no crimes or collusion to be found as Trump says, if Kilimnik has no connection to the Russian government, why would it be preferable for Manafort to lie about his relationship with him as opposed to telling the truth? As of right now it is too soon for the public to definitively declare “collusion”, however just these two cases, as well as the sheer number of other Trump employees like Michael Cohen and Michael Flynn, who have been sentenced or are awaiting sentencing, is not only a bad sign for the Trump administration but also this country’s democracy. The Republican party as well as the country as a whole would have failed to gatekeep against a politician who has manipulated an election. As Levitsky and Ziblatt outline in their book “How Democracies Die”, this would signify that one of the major political parties of the United States failed to gatekeep against a politician who may in fact be an inspiring autocrat, assuming just solely this investigation reaches that conclusion and putting aside the other things that Trump has said and done which also may fall under authoritarian behavior.
The worst-case scenario for this country would be if this investigation comes to the conclusion that everyone around Trump was guilty of collusion with a hostile foreign government. Even if Trump is not found guilty of ordering this cooperation to occur, it would mean that a sitting president was ignorant to everyone surrounding him attempting to manipulate the results of an election. Either way, a form of voting manipulation would have occurred that has never before been seen in the United States and fits in with the current trend of strategic manipulation of elections that contribute to democratic backsliding, as outlined by Nancy Bermeo’s “On Democratic Backsliding”. Actions like this set a terrible precedent for future presidents, and if gone unpunished, set a terrible precedent for our current president: if manipulating the election with the aid of a hostile foreign power like Russia worked once before, there is nothing stopping him from doing it again during the re-election campaign.