Everything old is new again so let’s talk a little about Russia, American history, and how best to respond to the damage Donald Trump is doing to the presidency, the government, and the nation’s constitutional principles. It’s time for congressional Democrats to implement the familiar policies of “containment” and “deterrence” toward President Donald Trump and his increasingly rogue administration. Such policies are rooted both in the history of the nation’s foreign policy—thanks to George Kennan and his famous “Long Telegram” of 1946—and the nation’s criminal justice system (which is why we publish criminal laws and have prisons).
These principles aptly fit a situation where a presidency is acting as a foreign threat to the body politic. A threat that must be contained and deterred from further undermining our rule of law. You can use that word, “foreign” in two ways with Trump. His ties with Russia are still not fully explored, nor are the ways in which he may have sabotaged our foreign policy goals with Iran and North Korea. And his daily assaults on our constitutional principles, never mind our laws, are foreign to our experience with any past administrations. We are now beyond Nixon, who in the end was doomed by moderates in his own party.
Containment and deterrence make sense today as a justification for the start of impeachment proceedings in the House of Representatives. Those principles also make sense as a political and moral check on an amoral president, and a corrupt administration, that have shown for two years now they cannot be trusted to respect legal, political, or ethical norms. This is a president, and his functionaries, who have made it clear that only direct and continuous deterrence work to prevent or limit the misfeasance and malfeasance that are at the heart of this administration.
Nor are we dealing with a president, or an administration, that has shown a speck of remorse or regret for the arguably impeachable misconduct chronicled by special counsel Robert Mueller. There will be no self-reflection, no moderation, no acceptance of responsibility. Speaking of Russia, for example, we learned last Friday that the president and Russian premier Vladimir Putin may have shared a chuckle on the phone over the end of Mueller’s investigation. Not shared during that call, evidently, was any blunt warning from Trump to Putin to make sure the Russians don’t interfere in the 2020 election like they did in 2016. Just ponder that for a moment longer: Trump talked to Putin about Mueller but refused to talk to Mueller about Putin.
Let’s forget for a moment the arguably impeachable misconduct outside of what Mueller found. Let’s even forget all that Trump said and did before the redacted Mueller report was made public. In the past two weeks alone, since Mueller listed all those instances of presidential obstruction, Trump has declared that he does not want current and former White House aides to testify before Congress. And he has demanded both that his political opponents be investigated and that even the federal investigators who investigated him be investigated. Far worse than Nixon, this is a president who must affirmatively be contained and deterred and that means more than tsk-tsking and waiting for the next election.
And who is going to do that now if House Democrats do not? Certainly not Attorney General William Barr. He went to Capitol Hill last week and made it clear he intends to defend the president even at the cost of his own tattered reputation. That was bad enough. Worse was the way Barr dodged and deflected questions from Senate Judiciary Committee Democrats about the Justice Department’s role in the investigations to come against the president’s political enemies. No one should expect Barr to use the Justice Department to contain or deter the Trump’s worst instincts. He’s there instead to try to enable and legitimize what Trump wants to do. He is no friend to the Constitution as most of the rest of us see it.
Congressional Republicans certainly aren’t going to police Trump either, except in the rarest of circumstances involving their own economic interests. Consider Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, the Kentucky Republican who is deathly afraid of democracy, he’s ready, today, to declare the Mueller case “closed.” Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina Republican, made that clear last week during the Barr hearing. He thinks the attorney general is a victim in all this. So do the other Republican members of the committee who focused on Hillary Clinton and her emails and the FBI and Sally Yates but in their oversight function did not ask Barr a single substantive question about all of the evidence of Trump’s obstruction Mueller compiled in his report.
Back to Kennan for a moment. The good news, he wrote in that telegram in 1946, was that the Soviet Union was so confident in its ultimate victory that it hadn’t “embarked upon a do-or-die program to overthrow our society by a given date. The theory of the inevitability of the eventual fall of capitalism has the fortunate connotation that there is no hurry about it.” That’s not the case now, with Trump, no matter how hard the Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi would like it to be. The country cannot afford to wait until the November 2020 election because Trump is in a rush to bring the house down today. And tomorrow. And next week. He shows that in virtually every Tweet or other executive action.
We’ve already seen evidence that Trump will accelerate his obstruction as the 2020 election grows closer. During a Sunday Twitter rant, for example, Trump said for the first time that Mueller himself should not testify on Capitol Hill to explain his findings. As if that weren’t alarming enough, the president on Sunday also retweeted a post from Jerry Falwell suggesting that his term of office should be extended for two years as some sort of reparations for what Trump and his fellow travelers now call a failed coup by the FBI and the Justice Department. This gang is about the exercise of power and will respect only the exercise of power in response.
His Treasury Secretary, meanwhile, is refusing to turn over Trump’s tax returns that Congress has a legal right to see. His Commerce Secretary, Wilbur Ross, is playing games with the House Oversight and Reform Committee over the administration’s blatant attempt to skew the census. And Barr still hasn’t released the unredacted version of the Mueller report despite a series of deadlines to do so, which is why the House Judiciary Committee plans a contempt of Congress vote. This systemic obstruction, loudly and proudly heralded by Trump himself in his speeches and tweets, is itself unprecedented, unconstitutional, and worthy of an impeachment investigation.
And, as it was in Kennan’s heyday, there is always Russia and the threat it poses to our democracy. Has the president done anything since the redacted Mueller report was made public that makes you more confident he will direct the American government to do all it can to rebuff Russia’s next electoral intrusion? Has he taken any responsibility for the way his campaign officials colluded with the Russians in 2016? Is there anything about Trump’s public relationship with Putin, never mind Trump’s capitulation last year in Helsinki, that gives you comfort? House Democrats cannot wait for more of this nonsense to occur between now and January 2021. If Trump is bluffing, it’s time to call it.
In the foreign policy of the nation’s past, containment and deterrence often meant drawing hard lines and then aggressively defending them. In the justice systems of the nation’s present our prosecutors, juries, and judges make tough choices designed to contain and deter hardened criminals. House Democrats have contorted themselves over the past months to negotiate with administration officials over their oversight function and in countless ways have been rebuffed. It’s not going to get better. That ought to be painfully clear to any reasonable observer. And at some point if Democratic legislators don’t respond aggressively, they’ll effectively be enabling Trump.
It’s terrifying to have to think of an American presidency as some sort of hostile presence that must be contained or deterred by Congress and the federal courts. It’s terrifying to think of all the norms that have been ignored. But here we are. A significant majority of Americans believe the president is a crook. They also believe Trump obstructed Mueller’s investigation and that Barr can’t be trusted to protect the rule of law. That should end the debate for House Democrats no matter what those same polls may say about the country’s lukewarm desire for impeachment. As so many others have observed over the past two weeks, at some point you have to do right by the Constitution and damn the polls.
The contents of the redacted Mueller report, and the reaction to it by the president and his attorney general, loudly tell us the time for appeasement and negotiation is over. It’s time to aggressively subpoena White House documents and officials. It’s time to get these disputes into court. If the federal judiciary sides with Congress we can rest a little easier until November 2020. If the courts side with Trump over House Democrats on these constitutional questions, if we are living in a time when a corrupt president can decide for himself whether he can be investigated, we might as well know long before November 2020 how broken our democracy has become.
Andrew Cohen is a senior editor at the Marshall Project and a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice.