Welcome to our banana republic, where rules don’t matter but relationships and loyalty to the despot do.
Where to start?
Well, first there were the pardons. In the New Yorker, Jeffrey Toobin explained that authoritarians dispense both punishment and largesse based on their own whims–unconstrained by quaint mechanisms like legal rules.
The point of authoritarianism is to concentrate power in the ruler, so the world knows that all actions, good and bad, harsh and generous, come from a single source. That’s the real lesson—a story of creeping authoritarianism—of today’s commutations and pardons by President Trump.
By now, Americans who follow the news know the names of the high-profile criminals Trump pardoned: Rod Blagojevich, the corrupt former governor of Illinois, who was eight years into a sentence of fourteen years; Michael Milken, the junk-bond king; Bernard Kerik, the former New York City police commissioner, and Edward J. DeBartolo, Jr., former owner of the San Francisco 49ers. (The last three all pled guilty.)
The common link among this group is that all have some personal connection to the President. Blagojevich was a contestant on “Celebrity Apprentice,” and he was prosecuted by Patrick Fitzgerald, a close friend of and lawyer for James Comey, the former F.B.I. director who is a Trump enemy. Explaining his action today, Trump said of the case against Blagojevich, “It was a prosecution by the same people—Comey, Fitzpatrick—the same group.” Milken’s annual financial conferences are a favorite meeting place for, among others, Trump’s moneyed friends. (Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner spoke at last year’s gathering.) Milken is also an active philanthropist, as Trump observed: “We have Mike Milken, who’s gone around and done an incredible job for the world, with all of his research on cancer, and he’s done this and he suffered greatly. He paid a big price, paid a very tough price.” Trump’s explanation for the Kerik pardon is probably the most revealing. The President said that Kerik is “a man who had many recommendations from a lot of good people. (Kerik was appointed police commissioner by Rudolph Giuliani.)
Toobin says Trump’s pardons show that he can reward his friends and his friends’ friends. The message is clear: better to be a dictator’s friend, since he can also punish his enemies.
Other media sources have pointed out that all of the recipients–there were 11 total– had either an inside connection or had been promoted on Fox News. Then, of course, there was money: Business Insider reported that Trump also pardoned Paul Pogue, a construction-company owner who pled guilty in 2010 to underpaying his taxes by nearly half a million dollars. Coincidentally, Pogue’s son and daughter-in-law donated over $200,000 to Trump’s campaign just since August, although their cumulative previous donations to Republican campaigns came to less than $10,000.
And speaking of the pardon power…
According to Julian Assange’s lawyer, President Trump offered the WikiLeaks chief a pardon if he would agree to say that Russia had nothing to do with hacking emails from Democrats during the 2016 presidential election.
It’s all about helping your friends and screwing over those who are insufficiently devoted to the “dear leader.”
Last week, Trump named Richard Grenell, reportedly a “fierce advocate” of the President who has been the (detested and embarrassing) ambassador to Germany, as acting director of national intelligence, overseeing the 17 U.S. spy agencies. From all reports, Grenell is a massively unqualified rightwing political hack.
There’s also the fact that Grenell may have been put into the acting DNI role to protect the president’s political interests.
Grenell is replacing former National Counterterrorism Center director and retired Vice Admiral Joseph Maguire in the acting role. On Thursday afternoon, the Washington Post reported that Trump berated Maguire last week over a classified briefing one of his deputies had given Congress on 2020 election security.
The New York Times reports that the official, Shelby Pierson, “warned House lawmakers last week that Russia was interfering in the 2020 campaign to try to get President Trump re-elected” and that that briefing “angered Mr. Trump, who complained that Democrats would use it against him.”
Thanks to the spineless and arguably treasonous Republicans in the U.S. Senate, Trump no longer feels the need to hide his corruption. Instead, he revels in it.