Once upon a time, there was an ideal. It was called the United States of America.
And in 2016, the presidency of the United States was captured by the flamboyantly incompetent star of a TV reality show, a man who doesn’t believe in any ideal beyond his own enrichment and aggrandizement. Some shaken observers assured us everything would yet be all right. The institutions of democracy — the courts, the Congress, the news media and the agencies of the federal government — would save America from the worst consequences of one of its worst decisions.
“The Guardrails Hold,” exulted the headline of a piece by the late conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer. He was highlighting acts of resistance to Donald Trump’s bizarre excesses by entities as varied as the Boy Scouts of America and the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
That was in August of 2017. It has since become painfully clear Krauthammer exulted too soon. The vaunted institutions of democracy have proven largely unequal to the task of checking Trump’s transgressions.
The courts? The record is mixed; Trump’s bid to rig the Census was rejected, his Muslim ban was not.
The Congress? A hotbed of spinelessness that has given Trump less trouble than the Washington Generals give the Harlem Globetrotters.
The news media? Aggressive reporting is met with widespread apathy and partisan claims of “fake news.” The New York Times reported that Trump committed “outright fraud” as a businessman. Nobody cared.
Which brings us to federal agencies and last week’s news that the acting director of national intelligence is apparently shielding Trump from questioning over allegations of still-unrevealed misconduct. It seems Trump, who has a history of cavalier behavior with classified information — he once blurted intelligence secrets to Russians in the Oval Office — had an interaction with a foreign leader wherein he made an unspecified “promise” that so troubled one official it led to the filing of a formal whistleblower complaint.
As first reported by The Washington Post, Intelligence Community Inspector General Michael Atkinson found the complaint credible and designated it a matter of “urgent concern.” That’s a legal finding requiring notification of congressional oversight committees. But acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire has refused to provide that information to lawmakers.
It’s important to note the context here.
Earlier this month, the Justice Department launched an antitrust investigation of four automakers after they reached agreement with the state of California to maintain higher fuel-efficiency standards than the federal government requires. It can be no coincidence that Trump has long been at war with that state.
At roughly the same time, officials at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reportedly were threatened with termination for contradicting Trump’s claim — he tried to prove it by marking a map with a Sharpie — that Alabama was menaced by a killer storm.
Now here’s the acting DNI throwing his body between Trump and accountability. We are seeing the credibility of the federal government mangled in service to this guy’s fragile ego. How weak the guardrails of democracy turn out to be. Even this one — a government of, by and for the people is looking suspiciously like a government of, by and for Trump.
But where guardrails fail, things crash and fall apart. Something to remember as we wait out the long years until next November.
We were told our institutions would save us. They’ll be lucky if they can save themselves.
Leonard Pitts is a columnist for The Miami Herald. firstname.lastname@example.org