For centuries this country has operated on a system of checks and balances, ensuring that the only way democracy endures is through an understanding of each branch’s role and limitation. With the overruling of Roger Stone’s sentence, this delicate order may soon come crumbling down.
Roger Stone’s case is emblematic of the many glaring issues facing United States American politics today. Stone, a political fixer and campaign advisor for Trump’s 2016 election, was convicted of witness tampering in the Mueller investigation and sentenced to seven to nine years. It was later overturned just after Trump sent a tweet characterizing the sentencing as a “miscarriage of justice”. The Justice Department put forth a sentence that was not as definitive as the prosecutors requested, which they allege to have been in the process of delivering before Trump’s tweet. Indeed while it is unclear whether the White House had a direct hand in meddling in affairs it does pose several questions about the legitimacy of the government and the path of democracy.
The first thing to note is Robert Stone’s identity himself. His politics are very far-right and he has been affiliated with prominent white supremacists, such as the Proud Boys, a neo-Nazi fascist group. Being Trump’s close advisor on his campaign, Stone’s involvement highlights the questionable ties Trump has with what Linz call disloyal groups. In Linz’s book, disloyal support causes democratic erosion through the unwillingness of one party to legitimize their rivals, instead supporting an extremist party. While Trump has denounced the alt-right, he has appointed several cabinet positions to those with white nationalist ties: Stephen Miller, Richard Spencer, Steve Bannon. The embracing of such a group poses a danger to American democracy as it invites groups that favor nondemocratic or even authoritarian regimes into the fold, possibly even legitimizing them as political rivals.
The second and most evident example of the faults is the possibility of executive overreach. While there is no direct law that prevents Trump from tweeting about Justice Department rulings, there is no doubt that it is a clear case of the White House meddling in judicial affairs in an unethical manner. The New York Times comments on the situation by saying “Presidents Presidents have typically avoided interfering in Justice Department decisions to avoid allegations of improper influence”. The blatant disregard for previously established norms is a manner in which democratic erosion occurs according to authors Levitsky and Ziblatt . Norms serve as a soft guardrail to deter the government from veering into an authoritarian regime; however, Trump choosing to bypass them marks the symptoms of democratic backsliding. It shows a disrespect towards the legitimacy of the existing system, which correlates well with Trump’s populist approach of “draining the swamp”. Without the norm of leaving judicial affairs independent, the branch may devolve into nothing more than a yes-man and a powerful tool to defend the presidency.
The final point lies in the crime of Stone itself. He was willing to lie to authorities and threaten witnesses in order to protect the president and his allies from investigation. It is clear that Stone overstepped legal bounds and had the sentence been accepted and the public moved on, perhaps it would be a sign that American democracy could withstand the Trump presidency. Yet, Trump intervened, calling into question the precedent he set with his tweet. If a president demanded that one of his close friends receive a lenient sentence and it works it calls into the validity of checks and balances as a whole. Moreover the usage of the judicial branch as a tool rather than its function as an impartial decider highlights the “stealth authoritarianism” that author Ozan Varol  discusses in his paper. Varol notes that one of the key features of stealth authoritarianism is the appropriation of judicial review to “consolidate power, bolster democratic credentials, and avoid accountability”. Trump potentially does this by using a legal foothold in which he can reward his supporters by protecting them from the law. He also embellishes in his tweet that what was done to it is an injustice, using democratic language to mask the power that he potentially wields. Trump attempts to avoid appearing outwardly coercing legal affairs, so that the end result of reducing the sentence appears more legitimate.
Although, it is difficult to discern whether the tweet had any significant impact in the overruling of Stone’s sentence. It is unprecedented and foreshadows the willingness that a post-impeachment Trump may have to abuse his office and position.
Regimes. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press. Chapter 2.  Levitsky, Steven & Daniel Ziblatt. 2018. How Democracies Die. New York:
Crown. Chapter 1  Varol, Ozan. 2015. “Stealth Authoritarianism.” Iowa Law Review 100(4): pp.
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