Effects of the Capitol riot on January 6th, 2021 are still being felt by the United States’ people. As the Biden administration gets settled, inquiries into the riot have begun. Specifically, the nation is turning toward former president Trump’s administration, seeking to see if the administration had an active role in the incident. However, former president Donald Trump has responded by threatening to sue the White House in order to keep the records sealed, and this act is a scathing representation of how American democracy is eroding.
The insistence of former President Trump to keep these records from the public is concerning. Simply put, it shows a lack of regard for the very democracy he once represented. The former president claims he can use executive privilege to block the subpoenas on his former aides, administration records, and himself. While this is technically true, the White House Office of Legal Council says using executive privilege is meant to benefit the country, not an individual. The former president cannot use executive privilege just because he wants to; he has to have a basis for using it. What reason could the former leader of the free world have to be anything but transparent with the legislature?
Furthermore, he only has 30 days to object to documents being shared with the House committee. After 60 additional days, the sitting president can share these documents regardless. The sitting president always gets the final say, especially in a situation as extraordinary as this.
So, then, how is former president Trump threatening to sue a representation of the eroding American democracy? Let’s look at the reasons for this statement. The Biden administration believes he played a direct role in the riot, and his own officials were prepared to testify to this in July. It is no secret, especially to former aides, that the exiting president believed he was slighted. Huq and Ginsberg (2018) put it nicely when they say that the “losing side cede[ing] power” is a crucial part of a constitutional liberal democracy. President Trump, however, did not cede power. His insistence that he won the election and attempts to make the Department of Justice say so incited the very riot that is now being looked into.
The reasons for the riot are exactly the reasons that American democracy is eroding. How does this connect to his threat to sue? Former president Trump believes he can evade the truth. He expects his former aides to defy the orders of the select committee if his attempt to sue does not work. By both threatening to sue and expecting opposition to democracy, he further refuses to cede power- even though he is out of office.
Furthermore, he is contributing to democratic erosion by attempting to destroy the stability and integrity of a constitutional liberal democracy (Huq and Ginsberg 2018). If his aides defy the House committee on his orders, they are indirectly admitting to the supposed illegitimacy of the Biden administration. If they do not defy the House committee and Trump retaliates, he will send the nation further into polarization- turning Republican against Republican for trusting the House committee or not on top of the clear partisan divide that the riot made less subtle.
Inquiries into presidential administrations are not new to American politics. Perhaps if this were a one-off situation, the former president would have some ground to stand on. However, investigations into how a president or a staffer is conducting themselves have been around since about 1922, when President Harding’s Interior Secretary was investigated. If Trump wants to claim executive privilege or tell his aides not to abide by law, these previous investigations give little basis to the validity of his decisions. In fact, the reaction he holds to a situation that has happened to multiple presidents- Clinton and Nixon in recent history- shows a want to destroy American stability.
However, perhaps the former president’s attempts to keep his involvement in the riot hidden from view is less a sign of the American democracy eroding and more a final nail in the coffin. In other presidential investigations, cover ups were attempted multiple times. Nixon tried to withhold the Watergate Tapes until Congress ruled he had to turn them over, and he was caught on tape admitting his involvement. Clinton perjured himself to Congress and to his own staffers to sway the jury (Starr Report).
The investigations into former presidents also, to some extent, show moreover that Trump’s actions are directly against democracy. In President Clinton’s impeachment trial, he was denied executive privilege of his senior aides by a federal judge. They had to testify. Seeing as Clinton was the last president to go on trial, it makes sense that Trump would be held to the same standard.
So, is Donald Trump trying to destroy American democracy by hiding his involvement in the January 6th riot? Signs point to yes, but new information is arising every day. If he sues, we may never know if American democracy was being undermined while he was in office. If he doesn’t, the truth may come out sooner than we think.