Partisan degradation of democratic processes has resulted in the failure of checks on executive power specifically in reference to the Mueller Report. Ideally, the Department of Justice would check the President’s power from within the executive branch, and/or the report would go to Congress such that executive power would be checked by the legislative branch; however, Trump and his allies have obstructed the idyllic system of checks and balances on which the country was founded. Though the extent to which Trump himself intentionally utilized such methods to maintain and/or consolidate power is unclear, the effect of their attempts to undermine the special counsel constitute as a case of democratic erosion through the politicization and centralization of power within the executive branch, as well as the elimination of institutional checks between branches. While the democratic erosion is clear, the issue of intent does not allow the claim that Trump is a stealth authoritarian to be justifiably put forward, though his actions in this case make him appear as one.
In May of 2017, Robert Mueller was appointed as special counsel by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to investigate allegations of ties between the Trump campaign and Russia in its effort to influence in the 2016 Presidential election. Trump repeatedly made attempts by delegitimizing the investigation as a ‘witch hunt’ through media and, as uncovered by the final report, through commands to his subordinates like White House Counsel Don McGahn. Furthermore, Attorney General William Barr, recently appointed by Trump, withheld the full Mueller report, instead giving his own oversimplified, four-page summary of the report to Congress, which Mueller wrote “did not fully capture the context, nature, and substance” of the report. Trump’s attempts to undermine the investigation, either himself through the media or through subordinates like McGahn or Barr, constitute case of democratic erosion through centralizing and politicizing executive power; since Mueller works under the Department of Justice, which is a part of the executive branch of the federal government, Trump has “[assaulted] intrabranch institutions of ‘horizontal accountability’—the ‘network of relatively autonomous powers (i.e. other institutions) that can call into question, and eventually punish, improper ways of discharging the responsibilities of a given official’” .
House Democrats have demanded, following the release of Mueller’s report and Barr’s oversimplification, that Mueller should testify before the House. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell responded to these demands in saying that “this investigation went on for two years, it’s finally over,” and thus will likely resist further actions taken by Senate Democrats on the subject. It is unknown the degree to which Trump influences the actions of McConnell, or vice versa; thus, it is impossible to allege that Trump himself has interfered with the legislative processes that are intended to check his power. On the elimination of institutional checks between branches of government, or in this case, between the federal and legislative branches of government, Ginsburg and Huq describe it as “[involving] the undermining of courts and legislatures in favor of a charismatic, often populist, chief executive,” which supports that a direct link of the executive to the legislative interference is necessary to consider McConnell’s refusal to accept the validity of legislative processes .
However, Ginsburg and Huq earlier identify two antidemocratic forces, “charismatic populism and partisan degradation” ; thus, one can justifiably replace the role of the charismatic, populist chief executive from the description of the elimination of institutional checks with a party loyalist, though this would weaken the presumption that an executive that engages in actions that erode democracy is likely a stealth authoritarian, as partisan degradation inherently diffuses the responsibility for any erosion among the politically associated group of people. Trump has both sought to eliminate horizontal accountability within the executive branch, and McConnell has aided him in obstructing the progress of procedures that should check executive power from the legislative branch. On this latter point, it is impossible to justifiability assert that Trump and/or McConnell willfully and intentionally erode democratic processes using legal means, or are stealth authoritarians, due to the fact that McConnell likely dismisses the Mueller Report not as a result of direct orders from the President but his own desire to secure the interests of his party. Even so, whether Trump orders McConnell to block Senate hearings or both act out of self-interest and/or party interests, the democratic erosion of the processes and institutions designed to check executive power that results from their actions is the same.
- Tom Ginzburg and Aziz Z. Huq, How to Save a Constitutional Democracy (University of Chicago Press, 2018), 150
- Ginsburg and Huq, How to Save a Constitutional Democracy, 141
- Ginsburg and Huq, How to Save a Constitutional Democracy, 124