(Bloomberg View) -- President Donald Trump has shown little or no respect for the independence of the nation’s institutions. That lack of respect is what distinguishes him from his recent predecessors, both Republican and Democratic, and above all it is what demonstrates an authoritarian disposition.
Reasonable people can differ about the Trump administration’s policies on taxes, regulation, abortion and government spending. For those who strongly support those policies, some of Trump’s less appealing personal characteristics, including a lack of grace, might seem relatively unimportant, a matter of detail.
That’s shortsighted. In the modern era, the U.S. has never had a president who seems to see institutions in purely instrumental terms — as if they should be used to promote the president’s personal goals, and should be evaluated solely in terms of whether they are doing so. What Trump reportedly said to James Comey, former director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, is what he says not only to the FBI but also to the Justice Department, the federal judiciary and the media: “I expect loyalty.”
It is true that, as a matter of law, the FBI is not independent of the president. He can fire its director at will. But for decades, presidents have respected the autonomy of the FBI, its mission and its good faith.
Compare that tradition of respect with the content and tone of Trump’s tweets:
Report: ‘ANTI-TRUMP FBI AGENT LED CLINTON EMAIL PROBE’ Now it all starts to make sense!
How can FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, the man in charge, along with leakin’ James Comey, of the Phony Hillary Clinton investigation (including her 33,000 illegally deleted emails) be given $700,000 for wife’s campaign by Clinton Puppets during investigation?
Very sad that the FBI missed all of the many signals sent out by the Florida school shooter. This is not acceptable. They are spending too much time trying to prove Russian collusion with the Trump campaign - there is no collusion. Get back to the basics and make us all proud!
The top Leadership and Investigators of the FBI and the Justice Department have politicized the sacred investigative process in favor of Democrats and against Republicans - something which would have been unthinkable just a short time ago.
The attorney general works for the president. But by tradition, the Justice Department has a large degree of independence with respect to investigations and prosecutions. By contrast, Trump attacks his own attorney general, in public, for his decisions on investigations:
Attorney General Jeff Sessions has taken a VERY weak position on Hillary Clinton crimes (where are E-mails & DNC server) & Intel leakers!
Why is A.G. Jeff Sessions asking the Inspector General to investigate potentially massive FISA abuse. Will take forever, has no prosecutorial power and already late with reports on Comey etc. Isn't the I.G. an Obama guy? Why not use Justice Department lawyers? DISGRACEFUL!
It’s perfectly fine to criticize the federal judiciary and even to complain of judicial willfulness. But when Trump loses in court, he is willing to cross lines:
The opinion of this so-called judge, which essentially takes law-enforcement away from our country, is ridiculous and will be overturned.
What is our country coming to when a judge can halt a Homeland Security travel ban and anyone, even with bad intentions, can come into U.S.?
“Just cannot believe a judge would put our country in such peril. If something happens blame him and our court system. People pouring in. Bad!”
All presidents learn not to love the press. What reporters say is often negative — and they’re often wrong. Those inside the executive branch know what actually happened, and press reports are frequently misleading, inaccurate or a kind of cartoon.
Still, presidential attacks on the press, as an institution, have not gone this far, certainly not in recent years:
Network news has become so partisan, distorted and fake that licenses must be challenged and, if appropriate, revoked. Not fair to the public!
The FAKE NEWS media (failing @nytimes, @NBCNews, @ABC, @CBS, @CNN) is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American People!
It is tempting to respond that words are not actions, and that a presidential bark, or tweet, lacks the force of law. In terms of action, Trump has not done a whole lot to undermine independent institutions. That’s to his credit.
But words fuel attitudes, and attitudes fuel deeds. Consider the firing of Comey as FBI director, the reopening of investigations into the Clinton Foundation, the collapsing faith in the media, the mounting Republican attacks on the FBI, the surge in hate crimes — and, perhaps worst of all, the White House’s relative indifference to Russian interference with our elections, meddling that poses a genuine threat to our system of self-government.
To be sure, our institutions are robust, and they have not failed to respond to the current challenges; the judiciary in particular has stood firm. But it is hard to think of a president who shows so little respect for independent sources of authority — and who seems to evaluate them by asking only one question: Are they with me?
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Cass R. Sunstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is the editor of "Can It Happen Here? Authoritarianism in America" and a co-author of “Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness.”
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