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"This is the stuff authoritarianism is made of." Trump's former ethics chief sounds the alarm

Former ethics chief Walter Shaub slammed Donald Trump’s recent attacks on the judicial system in an interview Friday, calling them “the stuff authoritarianism is made of.” Appearing on CNN’s “Outfront,” Shaub, who served as director of the Office of Government Ethics from January 2013 until his resignation in July 2017, told host Kate Bolduan that Trump’s desire […]

By Caroline Orr - November 04, 2017
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Donald Trump

Appearing on CNN’s “Outfront,” Shaub, who served as director of the Office of Government Ethics from January 2013 until his resignation in July 2017, told host Kate Bolduan that Trump’s desire to use the judicial system to punish his political opponents is “just absolutely terrifying.”

“It’s the scariest thing that I’ve seen happen so far in this administration,” Shaub said.

Trump has frequently shown a lack of respect for the independence of the judicial branch, even before he took office. In June 2016, he attacked U.S. District Judge Gonzalo Curiel, who at the time was overseeing a case involving Trump University. Trump implied that having a judge of Mexican heritage preside over a lawsuit against him presented an “absolute conflict” of interest because of his plan to build a border wall.

The attacks have only ramped up since then, and in recent weeks Trump has shown an increasing desire and willingness to tear down the barrier between the office of the presidency and the judicial branch as special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation continues to inch closer to Trump’s inner circle.

On Friday, Trump went on a Twitter tirade in which he repeatedly called on the FBI and the DOJ to investigate Democrats for …  something.

In an interview that same day, Trump once again called on the Justice Department to investigate Hillary Clinton over the fake scandals that he and his allies have cooked up as a distraction from the Russia probe.

Even more startling than Trump’s demand for an investigation was the fact that he openly expressed his frustration with not being able to use his power to force the Justice Department to do his bidding.

“The saddest thing is, because I am the President of the United States, I am not supposed to be involved with the Justice Department,” Trump told radio host Larry O’Connor . “I’m not supposed to be involved with the FBI. I’m not supposed to be doing the kind of things I would love to be doing. And I am very frustrated by that.”

Appearing alongside CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin, Shaub said Trump’s recent statements show that the president has “no appreciation for or interest in the importance of the independence of the Department of Justice.”

“[I]t’s just been a consistent assault on our justice system, from him calling it a laughing stock, to him attacking judges, to him firing the head of the FBI, implying he might be willing to fire the head of Department of Justice,” Shaub said, adding:

“You’re not supposed to use the apparatus of the state to go after your political rivals.”

TOOBIN: And remember why these norms exist — you know, Richard Nixon tried to use the Justice Department to punish his political enemies, use the Internal Revenue Service to punish his political enemies. There are established rules that were followed by presidents of both parties, that law enforcement is something that the president does not get involved in, especially when it involves his political opponents. Because this is the kind of country we are, where the president doesn’t get to put his political opponents in prison. But if you listen to what the president said yesterday and what he wrote, what he’s saying is he’s frustrated that the Justice Department is not putting the woman he ran against for president in prison. That’s the kind of thing that happens in authoritarian countries, not in the United States. I know we sort of get overloaded with like oh, Trump said this, Trump said another thing, he tweeted this. This is something that is so far outside the mainstream of American law and politics, it’s just really remarkable.

BOLDUAN: And very much not the first time he’s questioned the judicial system. And Walter, you were in charge of the Office of Government Ethics. The President is calling on the Justice Department to go after his political enemies. From your perspective, should this raise red flags?

SHAUB: Well, Jeffrey’s right. This is the stuff that authoritarianism is made of. And it’s just absolutely terrifying. It’s simply the scariest thing that I’ve seen happen so far in this administration. He just simply seems to have no appreciation for or interest in the importance of the independence of the Department of Justice. And it’s just been a consistent assault on our justice system, from him calling it a laughingstock, to him attacking judges, to him firing the head of the FBI, implying that he might be willing to fire the head of Department of Justice for not going after his political opponents. You’re just simply not, in a free society, supposed to use the apparatus of the state to go after your political rivals.

As Mueller’s investigation continues to heat up, Trump’s attacks on the judicial branch are likely to increase in frequency and intensity. While his Twitter tirades may seem like a joke, they reflect an unsettling lack of regard for the basic norms and principles that form the foundation of our democracy.

Even more alarming is the fact that Republicans have shown little willingness to stand up to his authoritarian tendencies.

We would all be wise to heed the warning issued by journalist Masha Gessen  just days after Donald Trump won the election: “Believe the autocrat. He means what he says.”


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