The New York Times and the Washington Post each recently published news articles describing how Donald Trump intends in his second term to select political appointees who will unquestioningly follow his orders and turn the prosecutorial power of the Justice Department against his political adversaries.
What they were basically describing was a dictatorship, where one person makes all the rules, unchecked, and political opposition is considered a crime.
It is important, terrifying stuff.
But as the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Will Bunch argued in a standout column on Sunday, the tone the reporters and editors chose was understated to the point of cowardice and apathy.
At the Times, he wrote, the editors “made sure to present this major report in the blandest, most inoffensive way possible — staying true to the mantra in the nation’s most influential newsroom that the 2024 election shouldn’t be covered any differently, even when U.S. democracy is on the line.”
(By contrast, Bunch called on journalists to use “the keyboard as a weapon to fight for democracy instead of dispassionately reporting, evenhandedly, on its slow death.” Amen!)
The Post’s word choices were similarly pusillanimous. After describing Trump’s plans to prosecute critics and have the military put down protests, the authors arrived at this whingey conclusion: “Critics have called such ideas dangerous and unconstitutional.”
That’s insufficient. The essential, missing context is: This is how democracies die.
Let me rewrite that for you.
The New York Times
The article by Jonathan Swan, Charlie Savage and Maggie Haberman was eventually headlined: “If Trump Wins, His Allies Want Lawyers Who Will Bless a More Radical Agenda”. (Gift link.)
That’s way better than the original headline: “Trump’s Allies Want a New Style of Lawyer if He Returns to Power.” I guess we should be grateful for that.
But neither comes close to telegraphing the truth. Let me rewrite that headline for you: “If Trump Wins, His Allies Want No Obstacles to Dictatorship”.
The Times subhead was “Politically appointed lawyers sometimes frustrated Donald J. Trump’s ambitions. His allies are planning to install more aggressive legal gatekeepers if he regains the White House.”
Let me rewrite that, too: “Politically appointed lawyers sometimes frustrated Donald J. Trump’s ambitions. His allies are planning to install enablers instead.”
Here’s the top of the Times story:
Close allies of Donald J. Trump are preparing to populate a new administration with a more aggressive breed of right-wing lawyer, dispensing with traditional conservatives who they believe stymied his agenda in his first term.
The allies have been drawing up lists of lawyers they view as ideologically and temperamentally suited to serve in a second Trump administration. Their aim is to reduce the chances that politically appointed lawyers would frustrate a more radical White House agenda — as they sometimes did when Mr. Trump was in office, by raising objections to his desires for certain harsher immigration policies or for greater personal control over the Justice Department, among others…
At the start of Mr. Trump’s term, his administration relied on the influential Federalist Society, the conservative legal network whose members filled key executive branch legal roles and whose leader helped select his judicial nominations. But in a striking shift, Trump allies are building new recruiting pipelines separate from the Federalist Society….
But the move away from the group reflects the continuing evolution of the Republican Party in the Trump era and an effort among those now in his inner circle to prepare to take control of the government in a way unseen in modern presidential history.
Here’s my rewrite:
Close allies of Donald J. Trump are paving the way for dictatorship should he win a second term in office in 2024,
The goal, this time around, would be to get rid of the “adults in the room” who stymied the most radical and draconian elements of his first-term agenda.
Specifically, Trump allies have been drawing up lists of lawyers they view as ideologically and temperamentally suited to serve in a second Trump administration.
Lawyers from the hard-right Federalist Society who filled key legal roles in the administration – but largely rejected his attempts to overturn the 2020 election — are now considered “squishes.” [I moved that up from the middle of the story.]
The extremists Trump’s allies are lining up would enable Trump rather than rebuff him, for instance by following his orders to federally prosecute his political enemies.
“This is straight out of the authoritarian playbook,” said Ruth Ben-Ghiat, an NYU history professor who studies autocrats. “It would accelerate the destruction of the practices and principles of democracy.”
Those quotes, by the way, are from an interview I did with Ben-Ghiat a couple weeks ago; the Times only interviewed Republicans.
The Times also repeatedly described Trump’s allies as seeking “America First” lawyers — a weak euphemism for “radical extremist” or “fascist”.
The Washington Post
The Post article, written by Isaac Arnsdorf, Josh Dawsey and Devlin Barrett, was boldly headlined “Trump and allies plot revenge, Justice Department control in a second term.” (Gift link.) Props for that.
But the subhead was way too subdued, containing that awful phrase: “Critics have called the ideas under consideration dangerous and unconstitutional.”
I’d rewrite that subhead to say: “This is how democracies die.”
Here’s the Post’s top:
Donald Trump and his allies have begun mapping out specific plans for using the federal government to punish critics and opponents should he win a second term, with the former president naming individuals he wants to investigate or prosecute and his associates drafting plans to potentially invoke the Insurrection Act on his first day in office to allow him to deploy the military against civil demonstrations.
In private, Trump has told advisers and friends in recent months that he wants the Justice Department to investigate onetime officials and allies who have become critical of his time in office… Trump has also talked of prosecuting officials at the FBI and Justice Department, a person familiar with the matter said.
In public, Trump has vowed to appoint a special prosecutor to “go after” President Biden and his family. The former president has frequently made corruption accusations against them that are not supported by available evidence.
To facilitate Trump’s ability to direct Justice Department actions, his associates have been drafting plans to dispense with 50 years of policy and practice intended to shield criminal prosecutions from political considerations. Critics have called such ideas dangerous and unconstitutional.
“It would resemble a banana republic if people came into office and started going after their opponents willy-nilly,” said Saikrishna Prakash, a constitutional law professor at the University of Virginia who studies executive power. “It’s hardly something we should aspire to.”
Here’s my rewrite:
Using state power to punish political enemies is a hallmark of authoritarianism.
But Donald Trump and his allies are preparing to do just that should he win a second term, with the former president naming individuals he wants to investigate or prosecute and his associates drafting plans to potentially invoke the Insurrection Act on his first day in office to allow him to deploy the military against civil protest.
In the 50 years since the Watergate scandal exposed President Richard M. Nixon’s abuse of power – and led to his resignation in shame – Justice Department policy and practice have shielded criminal prosecutions from political considerations. But Trump and his aides are undeterred.
“You don’t need a statutory change at all, you need a mind-set change,” said Russ Vought, a former appointee expected to hold a major position in a second term. [I moved that quote up.]
Criminalizing dissent is a key element of autocratic rule. The Insurrection Act is intended to be invoked in case of rebellion, not civil protest.
Given his intentions, returning Donald Trump to power would be a rejection of democratic values that as recently as seven years ago appeared inviolable.
Better Than Nothing
It’s possible that I am being a bit churlish.
Perhaps I should celebrate the fact that these articles were published at all. They’re certainly a vast improvement over incremental horse-race stories. They at least raise the central and yet too-often-ignored issue of Trump as an authoritarian.
And these two articles did not appear in a vacuum. Over the last several months, our elite media has taken a few other stabs at explaining the stakes. Consider:
- “Trump touts authoritarian vision for second term: ‘I am your justice’”, an April Washington Post story by Arnsdorf and Jeff Stein which described how Trump “is proposing to apply government power, centralized under his authority, toward a vast range of issues that have long remained outside the scope of federal control.”
- “Trump and Allies Forge Plans to Increase Presidential Power in 2025”, a July New York Times article by Swan, Savage and Haberman describing Trump’s intention “to alter the balance of power by increasing the president’s authority over every part of the federal government that now operates, by either law or tradition, with any measure of independence from political interference by the White House.”
- “Conservative groups draw up plan to dismantle the US government and replace it with Trump’s vision”, an August Associated Press article by Lisa Mascaro about a Trump-allied group’s goal “to have the civic infrastructure in place on Day One to commandeer, reshape and do away with what Republicans deride as the ‘deep state’ bureaucracy, in part by firing as many as 50,000 federal workers.”
My beef with all of them, however, is that in maintaining such a neutral tone – and attributing any disagreement or context to “critics” and “experts” — these articles fail to convey to the less sophisticated readers just how alarming this all is.
By sticking to the age-old strictures of both-sides campaign reporting, they effectively underplay the danger presented by authoritarianism. They shouldn’t be treating it like it’s remotely normal. They should be ringing the alarm.
Bunch correctly described the Times story as just one example of “a bigger trend of newsroom timidity and even rank cowardice”
And he noted that the elite media seems “especially flummoxed by the new Republican House Speaker, Mike Johnson of Louisiana.”
I wrote about Johnson in my Oct. 26 column, “As Republicans embrace theocratic authoritarianism, the political media is tongue-tied.”
I’ve called upon the political media to sound the alarm bell countless times – about climate change, abortion, Trump’s mental state, his intention to steal the election (yes, he telegraphed it, other threats to democracy, and all of the above – but to no avail.
Over the years, I’ve also decried journalistic timidity. “Great political journalism requires the courage to state the obvious,” I wrote in 2019. “Sadly, our access-dependent, approval-seeking, risk-averse, group-thinking elite Washington press corps often doesn’t have the guts.”