Ransacking the Republic

Donald TrumpDonald Trump; illustration by Ellie Foreman-Peck
The Watergate scandal left many Americans wondering if they could ever trust their government again. In October 1978, hoping to restore public confidence in federal institutions, Congress created new mechanisms for oversight and new agencies to administer them, including the Office of Government Ethics, the Merit Systems Protection Board, the Office of Personnel Management, and the Federal Labor Relations Authority. It further established a cadre of inspectors general at large federal agencies. Public servants like me who have worked in these agencies or inspector general offices think of 1978 as the 1776 of our anticorruption work.

Jimmy Carter, who signed the Inspector General Act into law, saw the new inspectors general as a tool to “root out fraud and abuse.” As his chief domestic policy adviser Stuart Eizenstat later put it, “For him, Watergate was not simply the break-in and the cover-up. It was the abuse of power, the misuse of the IRS and the CIA against domestic enemies.”

If Donald Trump’s goal is to abuse power, he may have special cause to fear the seventy-four inspector general offices. They investigate wrongdoing and audit the performance of federal agencies and government programs to detect problems or identify systemic risks that could harm the public. They are supposed to be nonpartisan and independent; as a line of defense against the various forms of corruption that can infect government agencies, they have traditionally enjoyed bipartisan support. But that tradition is being tested as Trump seeks to gain control over these watchdogs.

On April 3, he announced his intention to fire Michael Atkinson, the inspector general of the intelligence community. Last September Atkinson complied with a legal duty to notify Congress of the whistleblower complaint that led to Trump’s impeachment. A law intended to buy Congress time to defend inspectors general mandated a thirty-day hold on Atkinson’s firing, but Republican senators expressed only mild unease at the threatened dismissal. (It became final on May 3.)

During an April 6 briefing on the coronavirus, Trump attacked Christi Grimm, acting inspector general for the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), because her report on supply shortages in hospitals during the pandemic embarrassed him. Having left the inspector general post vacant for nearly a year, he rather promptly selected Jason Weida, an assistant US attorney in Boston, to replace her. What little public information there is on Weida’s career suggests that he has not led an office before, which could be a problem since the HHS inspector general leads a 1,600-person office that monitors the response to the pandemic; more than $1 trillion in annual federal expenditures; and, under the Food and Drug Administration, which is part of the department, the government’s regulation of food, drugs, cosmetics, medical devices, medicated animal feed, and other products that together account for twenty cents on every dollar spent by American consumers. Leadership experience may not have been the criterion that led Trump to select Weida.

The day after criticizing Grimm, Trump replaced Glenn Fine as the acting Defense Department inspector general just as his office was wrapping up an investigation of suspected White House manipulation of a $10 billion defense contract for cloud computing services, and one week after he was chosen by a council of inspectors general to chair a panel monitoring the $2 trillion coronavirus bailout fund. Fine’s return to his position of deputy inspector general disqualified him from serving on the panel.

And then on May 15, Trump announced that he would fire State Department inspector general Steve Linick. Eliot Engel, the Democratic chair of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, called it “an outrageous act of a President trying to protect one of his most loyal supporters, the secretary of State [Mike Pompeo], from accountability.” Linick had been nearing the end of an investigation into the legality of the Trump administration’s sales of weapons to Saudi Arabia. He was also investigating claims that Pompeo may have directed his staff to run personal errands for him in violation of regulations of the Office of Government Ethics (OGE). Trump and Pompeo have admitted that, in a case of the investigated targeting the investigator, Pompeo requested the firing. Trump has also admitted that he’s told his appointees he’d be willing to fire others:

I would’ve suggested, and I did suggest in pretty much all cases, you get rid of the [inspector] generals because it happens to be very political, whether you like it or not, and many of these people were Obama appointments.

To replace Linick, Trump appointed as acting inspector general Stephen Akard, who has worked with Mike Pence and is now the director of the Office of Foreign Missions in the State Department. Akard will keep that position while filling in as inspector general. This dual responsibility is an extraordinary breach of the principle that inspectors general must be independent. It also gives a member of the State Department’s management team access to whistleblower files, exposing employees who report wrongdoing to the risk of retaliation. And the night Trump declared his plan to fire Linick, he announced that he was replacing the Department of Transportation’s acting inspector general, Mitch Behm, who was reportedly investigating DOT Secretary Elaine Chao, who is married to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Like Linick’s replacement, Behm’s replacement will hold two positions.

These recent moves against inspectors general were not Trump’s first against law enforcement officials. When he came into office, he initially attempted to court Preet Bharara, US attorney for the Southern District of New York, by assuring him that his position was safe. Then he tried to telephone Bharara, who declined to speak with him because Justice Department policy restricts direct communication between US attorneys and the White House. After that, Trump included Bharara in a demand that dozens of Obama-appointed US attorneys resign. Bharara refused to do so, and Trump fired him. Although presidents have generally stayed out of the selection process for US attorneys to avoid appearing to politicize law enforcement, Trump then personally interviewed replacements for the Southern and Eastern Districts of New York and the District of Columbia. He also took a special interest in the search for a US attorney for the Southern District of Florida. What these four districts had in common was that their jurisdictions covered important business interests of the Trump family and that of Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner. Trump had explicitly asked former FBI director James Comey for a pledge of loyalty; his reversal on Bharara and his personal involvement in the selection of these four replacement prosecutors conveyed a similar, if implicit, requirement.

Trump fired Attorney General Jeff Sessions the day after the 2018 midterm elections. The months Trump had spent berating Sessions for not ending the investigation of him and his campaign left no doubt as to the reason for the firing. Having also ousted Comey from his post as FBI director, Trump got away with decapitating the nation’s two top law enforcement agencies in retaliation for their investigating him. And Bill Barr, who replaced Sessions, is now investigating the Justice Department and FBI officials who conducted those investigations.

Trump appears to recognize no line between his political career and the government’s administration of criminal justice. He has set off alarms by disregarding the traditional independence of the Justice Department, which at least aspired in past administrations to avoid politicizing prosecutions. There are distressing signs it may be doing so now. After Trump called for reducing the government’s sentencing recommendation following the conviction of his friend Roger Stone, political appointees in the department surprised the court by doing so, overruling career prosecutors—who all withdrew from the case in protest, with one quitting the federal government entirely. In May the Justice Department also seemed to do Trump’s bidding when it sought to drop charges against former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI. Not long thereafter, FBI Director Christopher Wray announced a probe of the FBI agents who investigated Flynn.

There are indications that Trump may be preparing to blur another line, the one between the political and career layers of government. Unlike his political appointees, career government employees are insulated from politics by laws limiting the conditions under which they can be fired. Our system of government expects, even requires, them to reject illegal orders and report wrongdoing. That makes the career civil service—Trump’s phantasmagoric “deep state”—a potential threat to him. Trump has shown a willingness to go after career officials. For example, he called for the firing of FBI Special Agent Peter Strzok and FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe. In response to the president’s call to strip McCabe of his retirement benefits, the FBI not only fired him, it deviated from its normal process and did so a day before he qualified for a special law enforcement pension.

More recently, the administration ousted Dr. Rick Bright, who was head of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, a crucial participant in the development of a coronavirus vaccine. Bright had resisted Trump’s effort to promote a potentially dangerous antimalarial drug, hydroxychloroquine, as a coronavirus treatment. (He was reassigned to a lower position at the National Institutes of Health in April. Trump denies involvement. Bright has filed a whistleblower complaint.) A few weeks earlier, on February 25, while on board Air Force One, Trump threatened to remove another career official, Dr. Nancy Messonnier, from her position in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, after she publicly described the threat of the coronavirus pandemic in terms that contradicted his effort to downplay it. Trump was talked out of the decision, but the next day he put Vice President Mike Pence in charge of a coronavirus task force that HHS Secretary Alex Azar, whose department includes the CDC, had been leading.

Inside the White House, an obscure office may be laying the groundwork for a broader purge. Trump has packed the Presidential Personnel Office (PPO), which vets candidates for top political positions, with twenty-somethings—including three college seniors. The head of the PPO, Johnny McEntee, who recently turned thirty, is on his second tour of duty in the White House. During his first, he served as Trump’s “body man,” a kind of personal assistant. That job ended when he was reportedly escorted from the White House after failing to obtain a security clearance. Reports at the time suggested that online gambling issues may have been one of the reasons for the failure. Following his firing, McEntee filed a termination financial disclosure report containing a note that read, “On the advice of counsel, I am not providing further information regarding additional sources of non-investment or non-employment income.” Although the White House declined to certify this report as compliant with the disclosure law, it rehired McEntee ten months later. Soon thereafter, Trump promoted him to lead the PPO.

McEntee has reportedly expanded his position and is treading on the traditional turf of the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), the agency that maintains integrity in the civil service. His clashes with the OPM’s Senate-confirmed director are suspected of contributing to her decision to resign after only six months. Trump’s previous OPM director lasted only seven months in the job. That agency is now headed by an acting director who reportedly thinks all federal employees should be political appointees.

According to a recent article in Axios, “Trump has empowered McEntee—whom he considers an absolute loyalist—to purge the ‘bad people’ and ‘Deep State.’” White House spokesman Hogan Gidley seemed to confirm that this will include career officials, referring to employees working in the “bowels of the government,” far below the level of political appointees. Axios noted that “McEntee suggested the most dramatic changes may have to wait until after the November election.” In a television interview over Memorial Day weekend, Trump announced:

I’m exposing the swamp. I think if it keeps going the way I’m going…. If it keeps going the way it’s going, I have a chance to break the deep state. It’s a vicious group of people. It’s very bad for our country. And that’s never happened before.

He also brought up McCabe and Strzok in the interview, saying, “These are all bad guys.”

As director of the Office of Government Ethics, I began working with the Trump team in the summer of 2016; our staff had spent a year and a half training government officials for the presidential transition, and we used the next five months to prepare the Trump and Clinton transition teams to put together a new government in just ten weeks. Senior officials from the Obama, Bush, and Clinton administrations joined us in delivering presentations to both campaigns. OGE emphasized that the ethics work alone on presidential nominations for top administration posts, which require Senate confirmation, was a protracted process that often took longer than a month, with OGE overseeing the nominees’ revision of their financial disclosures and crafting ethics agreements to resolve any conflicts of interest.

By the day of the 2016 election, I was confident that we had equipped Trump’s transition team, then led by former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, to manage the huge task of getting a new administration running before the inauguration. But after a few brief e-mail exchanges seeking to launch work on that transition, all but one junior member of the team disappeared, and the Trump transition effort imploded. Nobody knew for certain why Trump dismissed his team. In January 2019 Christie wrote a piece for Politico hinting that Jared Kushner was responsible, carrying out a personal vendetta against him for prosecuting Kushner’s father when Christie was US attorney for New Jersey, and he appeared to level the accusation more directly in a June 2019 interview with Axios—though Kushner denies he had any part in the matter.

Whatever the cause, the result was a calamitous and chaotic presidential transition. What the Trump team managed to put together was hobbled by a lack of training, inadequate staffing, no discernible chain of command, and competing spheres of influence. Nearly two weeks passed before we got a meeting with transition team counsel and later White House counsel Donald McGahn. He seemed exhausted, distracted, distressed, and unaware of what a presidential transition entailed. He had been traveling between New York City and Washington, and his team seemed to consist of one associate attorney. Nothing about our interaction gave me any reason to believe that he could push his boss to resolve conflicts of interest or that he would even try. Weeks passed before McGahn started sending us first a trickle, then a stream of nominee paperwork to review. We did what we could to make up for the lost time. On New Year’s Eve, members of my staff and I worked on Trump’s nominations past 11:00 p.m. As the transition effort cratered, McGahn played one last gig that night with his garage band at a bar in Philadelphia.

At one point, we were told that someone on Trump’s transition team working the legislative side of the process was telling the Senate that nominees who had submitted their financial disclosures to OGE were done with the ethics process. But filing a disclosure was the beginning of the ethics process, not the end. The disclosure law is complex, and it takes weeks for nominees, especially those as wealthy as many of Trump’s were, to revise their initial disclosures through successive rounds of feedback from OGE.

Likely because of the false assurances that the process had been completed, the Senate started scheduling confirmation hearings before my office could sign off on disclosures and negotiate ethics agreements with nominees. The Senate normally won’t schedule hearings on nominees until OGE has signed off on their paperwork, which motivates them to comply with OGE’s demands for the content of their ethics agreements. When the Republican-controlled Senate granted the nominees hearings before they’d agreed to those terms, it stripped OGE of its leverage in pressuring them to resolve their conflicts of interest. It took two letters to Senate committees to get them to reschedule the hearings.

Besides foot-dragging and resistance to our efforts from some nominees, Trump made things harder when he kept announcing prospective nominees before they’d cleared the ethics process or FBI background checks. It was clear that Trump’s own refusal to divest his businesses had set a bad ethical tone for his nominees. He had not consulted OGE regarding the resolution of his own conflicts of interest, and McGahn shut me down when I tried to pass recommendations through him.

Out of desperation, on November 30, 2016, I resorted to Twitter in an effort to nudge Trump to divest by following up on a tweet he’d posted saying he was taking steps to ensure he would “in no way have a conflict of interest with my various businesses.” My prodding failed: on January 11, 2017, he gave a press conference at which he announced that he would not be divesting his sprawling network of businesses, layered in tiers of shell companies. Instead, he would place his businesses in a revocable trust for which he was the beneficiary—as though he were placing a series of Russian nesting dolls inside an even bigger one.

Having spent my career avoiding the news media, holding a press conference was the last thing I wanted to do, but I felt it was my responsibility to do everything I could to protect the government ethics program. “I’ve been pursuing this issue,” I explained to a roomful of reporters on January 11, 2017, “because the ethics program starts at the top. The signals a president sends set the tone for ethics across the executive branch. Tone from the top matters.” I told the reporters, “I think Politico called this a ‘half-blind’ trust, but it’s not even halfway blind…. His sons are still running the businesses, and, of course, he knows what he owns.” Although presidents have always been exempt from the criminal conflict-of-interest law, I explained that it had been “the consistent policy of the executive branch that the president should act as though the financial conflict-of-interest law applied.”

I assumed I would be fired for speaking out. And my remarks did not go unnoticed by Trump’s allies. The next day, the Republican chairman of the powerful House Oversight and Government Reform committee, Jason Chaffetz, summoned me to give a sworn deposition—a grilling behind closed doors. Although declining to be deposed was not an option, I followed the traditional route of accommodation and wrote the chairman to propose that he convene a public hearing, at which I would be happy to testify. Under public pressure and media scrutiny, Chaffetz backed down, and when we instead arranged a less formal meeting, he was the only Republican member of Congress in the room, accompanied by a number of Democratic members. Even so, I felt the need to bring a team of lawyers. While this encounter ended well, the message had been delivered: congressional Republicans did not care about the ethical risks posed by Trump’s financial interests.

That July, I resigned in protest over the Trump administration’s open disdain for the government ethics program.

Looking back, the negotiations over that meeting seem like a relic of the past. Now the Trump administration ignores congressional requests at will. Written demands for records and answers go without response. Administration officials have simply refused to testify before Congress. What has caused the breakdown is the dereliction of members of the president’s political party. The check on Trump should have been Congress. But there was no meaningful scrutiny of his administration during the first two years of his presidency, when Republicans controlled both chambers. Congressional Republicans did not hold a hearing on his decision not to divest his financial interests, unlike every president elected after the enactment of the Ethics in Government Act of 1978. They did not investigate Trump’s violation of the Foreign and Domestic Emoluments Clauses of the Constitution. When Democrats took control of the House in January 2019, they tried to investigate Trump’s abuse of power and the many scandals of his administration. But without the threat of removal from office by the Senate, which remained in Republican control, Trump has been able to ignore House Democrats’ requests for information, records, or testimony.

Rather than investigating Trump’s conflicts of interest, congressional Republicans have seemed to revel in them. Since his inauguration, 128 members of Congress have visited his properties. Representative Jim Jordan, Republican of Ohio, spent campaign money at Trump’s hotel in Washington’s Old Post Office building, posed for giddy photos in its atrium, and let Trump’s eldest son host a fundraiser for him there. But House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, Republican of California, has Jordan beat in total billings: according to a 2019 news report, “McCarthy’s campaign, leadership PAC, and joint fundraising committees have spent a combined $245,884.44 at Trump properties.” Dozens of other Republican members of Congress have attended fund-raisers at Trump properties, and political spending accounted for 3.4 percent of Trump’s reported income for 2018.

This complicity by congressional Republicans has allowed ethics problems to metastasize throughout Trump’s administration. Over a dozen political appointees have resigned under the taint of an investigation, ethics issue, or security clearance concern. The US Office of Special Counsel (OSC), an enforcement agency led by one of Trump’s own appointees (and which has no connection to former special counsel Robert Mueller), has determined that thirteen members of the administration have violated the Hatch Act, which prohibits the misuse of official position to influence elections, but they have faced no consequences. Trump ignored a recommendation from OSC that he fire Special Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway for her repeated violations of the Hatch Act.

In addition, Trump’s Justice Department reversed a half-century of interpretation of the antinepotism law and allowed him to hire his daughter Ivanka and her husband, Jared Kushner, as his close advisers, which precipitated Trump’s intervention in the White House security clearance process on their behalf. His involvement may have contributed to the White House’s initial failure to process dozens of other security clearances, possibly out of concern that taking adverse action on them could create the appearance that it was giving Kushner favorable treatment. Absent the influence of nepotism, Kushner might have been denied a clearance or been fired because his application omitted contacts with foreign governments. He has also likely violated federal records law by using a commercial encrypted messaging application to communicate with Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, and US intelligence officials have intercepted communications between foreign officials in which they plotted to use his undivested financial interests as leverage against him.
Donald TrumpDonald Trump; illustration by Ellie Foreman-Peck

At the heart of any government ethics program lies the basic principle that entrusted power should not be used for private gain—and Trump’s most visible unchecked corruption has been his monetization of the presidency.

In violation of the Emoluments Clauses, Trump’s properties have now played host to at least thirteen foreign government–sponsored events, 143 foreign government officials, and officials from the state of Maine. Since January 2017 Trump has taken 470 trips to his private properties, including 272 trips to his golf courses—the cost of those alone was estimated in May 2019 at more than $100 million. Each of these boondoggles has been a taxpayer-funded advertisement because he travels with the media in tow and misuses his official position to promote his properties. Trump has made his administration a customer of his businesses: the Secret Service has regularly paid the Trump Organization up to $650 per night for rooms at his Mar-a-Lago club and, in one case, paid what appears to have been an above-market rate of $17,000 per month for a cottage at the Trump National Golf Club Bedminster.

Following Trump’s example, other government officials, including Vice President Pence and Secretary of Treasury Steven Mnuchin, have stayed at his properties, bringing Secret Service protection with them. The full amount paid by the Secret Service to President Trump through his businesses is unknown because payments have, without explanation or oversight, been omitted from a government spending database, according to reports by The Washington Post.

One illuminating case of concerns arising from Trump’s conflicts of interest was his intervention in the relocation of the Washington headquarters of the FBI, which an inspector general later investigated. On January 24, 2018, Trump discussed the long-planned move with FBI Director Wray and Emily Murphy, whom he had recently appointed to lead the General Services Administration (GSA), which manages federal buildings. By then the government had spent a decade and $20 million preparing to move the FBI out of the aging J. Edgar Hoover building, whose façade is outfitted these days with netting to catch falling chunks of concrete. But the building sits almost catty-corner across Pennsylvania Avenue from the Old Post Office building, which the Trump International Hotel leases from the GSA. Moving the FBI could have opened space for a competing hotel.

Three weeks after that meeting, the administration submitted a new plan to Congress indicating that it would raze the building and construct a new one on the site. The GSA’s inspector general found that the FBI and GSA had been in communication with the White House regarding the long-planned move since at least December 2017. The inspector general also found that the plan the administration submitted to Congress misrepresented the costs of rebuilding on the site as the most cost-effective option; it would have been cheaper to stick to the original plan of moving the FBI’s headquarters to the suburbs.

Murphy didn’t mention the meeting when she testified before Congress at a hearing in April 2018. Representative Mike Quigley, Democrat of Illinois, asked if the president or anyone else at the White House had weighed in on the move. Murphy deflected the question by talking only about her agency’s consultations with the FBI. Quigley followed up with a more direct question about White House involvement in the decision. Murphy replied, “Sir, to my knowledge—the direction that we got came from the FBI.” She added that her agency had also consulted the Office of Management and Budget regarding funding, but reiterated that the FBI had made the call. Murphy later claimed that she misunderstood Quigley’s questions, though she admitted to having planned in advance to avoid any mention of the White House.

The inspector general found that her “answers to the questions about White House involvement were incomplete and may have left the misleading impression that she had no discussions with the President or senior White House officials in the decision-making process about the project.” Wray and Murphy continue to insist that the change in plans had nothing to do with protecting Trump’s financial interests. But the public has no way to confirm this. Acting on instructions from the White House counsel’s office, Murphy and her staff refused to tell the inspector general what President Trump said in the meeting with her and Wray. Murphy’s refusal to cooperate highlights a weakness of the inspector general program: the Inspector General Act authorizes sworn investigative interviews and guarantees access to heads of agencies, but fear of getting fired for refusing to answer questions only motivates agency heads if the one person who can fire them heeds the Inspector General Act.

The swamp murk moves in both directions. Executives of T-Mobile have spent $195,000 at Trump’s Washington hotel even as the government was reviewing the company’s planned merger with Sprint. The private prison company GEO Group, which has landed lucrative government contracts during the Trump administration, has rented event space and hotel rooms from the Trump Organization. Other companies with interests before the federal government have paid the Trump Organization millions in rent, including Nike, Microsoft, AXA, Neuberger Berman Group, State Street Corp., JPMorgan Chase, and UBS Financial Services. Trump has considered or nominated nine customers and members of his resorts for ambassadorial positions, and his Mar-a-Lago club doubled its membership fee after he was elected. A secretive triumvirate of Mar-a-Lago members even became, as ProPublica put it, the “Shadow Rulers” of the Department of Veterans Affairs.

President Trump’s conflicts of interest are foreign as well as domestic. One of the more startling instances involved the Chinese government–controlled telecommunications giant ZTE. Trump upended his administration’s sanctions against ZTE in May 2018, just seventy-two hours after the Chinese government announced its approval of $500 million in loans to a project in Indonesia benefiting his businesses. He tweeted that he wanted to give the company “a way to get back into business, fast.” Less than a week earlier, China had granted Ivanka Trump initial approval of five new trademarks. A Chinese government–controlled entity was also paying $2 million a year in rent to the Trump Organization at the time. The Saudi government, another favored Trump customer, benefited when he defended it after the murder of the Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, authorized legally dubious sales of weapons, and transferred nuclear technology to the kingdom.

The Trump era has revealed that our systems for accountability and checks on executive power are too fragile. What can be done? The House of Representatives is now considering a bill to amend the Inspector General Act to limit the reasons for which inspectors general can be fired and to require the president to produce documentation showing cause exists before firing any of them. That’s a good idea, even if there’s little chance the Republican-led Senate will consider it, and it may be challenged in court on constitutional grounds. Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project on Government Oversight, has offered another worthwhile suggestion, this one for whistleblowers. She urges Congress to give federal workers the right to press claims of whistleblower retaliation in jury trials. As for the civil service, I encourage Congress to shore up due process protections for career federal employees by guaranteeing all of them the right to seek independent review of major disciplinary actions against them, with ample time for processing their complaints and filing appeals.

My employer, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, is trying to get at the root of Trump’s corruption by asking members of Congress to enact a law requiring that presidents divest conflicting financial interests. Some have objected to imposing ethics restrictions on presidents, emphasizing that only the Constitution can establish the qualifications for being president. This proposal, however, would not preclude anyone from being president. Concerns about qualifications could be avoided while giving the law force by imposing a penalty other than removal from office, such as a civil penalty that escalates over time, and a statute of limitations that exceeds two presidential terms to ensure enforcement.

I believe we need reform, yet there’s a limit to what laws can do. The Supreme Court has weakened the conflict-of-interest laws we have on the books. Trump and his Republican wrecking crew are ripping out the floorboards under the government ethics program. His administration has taught us the difference between theory and application and shown us what immunity to accountability looks like. What good are laws if no one in power will enforce them? Before Trump, our nation was admired for its anticorruption mechanisms, and its ethics program was considered the gold standard. No more. Once a model for other nations, we are now an object lesson for them.

If Congress breaks free of this president’s spell, reforms may help. In the meantime, Trump and his allies in Congress, in the service of his kleptocratic ambitions, are weakening much of the architecture that stands between us and boundless executive power. For all Trump’s difficulties in governing—demonstrated most recently by his floundering response to the coronavirus pandemic—he has excelled at self-dealing, shattering illusions about the republic’s institutional integrity. We are running out of safeguards for Trump to attack. Things will only grow worse if America fails to stanch his corruption.

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