Symposium | Trump Vs. Democracy

Holding Trump—and Future Trumps—Accountable

By Neera Tanden

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This summer, the Trump Administration carried out an extraordinary assault on our democracy by attacking peaceful protesters and supporting violence. In June, Donald Trump and Attorney General Bill Barr ordered National Guard and federal police forces to aggressively fire chemical agents at peaceful protesters in order to clear the way for a photo op across the street from the White House.

In July, unidentified federal agents—including hundreds of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents—roamed the streets of Portland in unmarked cars. They beat, intimidated, and spirited away citizens without cause. Americans were taken into custody, their eyes covered, without any sense of what authority was arresting them. CBP agents used the very powers bestowed on them to guard our borders as a means to instead terrorize American citizens.

And in August, in the wake of the horrific shooting of Jacob Blake by police in Kenosha, Wisconsin, Trump openly fanned the flames of violence, even going so far as to defend the actions of Kyle Rittenhouse, the 17-year-old charged with the murder of two individuals and the serious injury of another.

A government where lawlessness is ignored and excused is a government where lawlessness is encouraged.

With this dangerous escalation in tension, it seems possible—perhaps even likely—that in the short period prior to the November election, employees of the federal government may be ordered to do things that violate the law or the rightful powers of the executive branch. Members of the executive branch, from political appointees to civil servants, take an oath to uphold the Constitution and the laws of the United States; they are not the employees of Donald Trump, bent to his whim. They work for all of us.

It must be made clear now that any official who engages in law breaking will be held accountable by a future administration. President Trump and Attorney General Bill Barr’s excuses and rationalizations for illegal behavior should not get in the way of any future prosecution. Individuals who work in the Trump Administration must be treated like anyone else: If they break the law, they must be held to account. This will help ensure that any future administration is discouraged from repeating such outrageous and lawless behavior.

But promising to prosecute Trump’s lawlessness is not enough. The last four years have demonstrated that our current laws are not sufficient to ensure an administration free of grift and graft. Trump’s presidency has shone a light on critical structural flaws in the system that have allowed for executive powers to be used and abused with reckless abandon. To have an executive branch that seems more interested in personal gain than serving the public deeply corrodes our democracy.

Since Trump became President, his lawlessness, norm breaking, and disregard for the sanctity of the office has touched on all aspects of his presidency. He has refused to provide copies of his tax returns, precluding Americans from knowing of potential conflicts of interest. He has appointed highly unqualified, big money donors to crucial positions. He has held dozens of political events at Trump properties, hosted scores of foreign officials in his hotels and, in October last year, he even went so far as to award a huge government contract to his Doral resort in Miami to host the G7 summit (a move that was quickly rescinded after backlash from all corners of the political arena). For President Trump, conflicts of interest are so ubiquitous they have quite literally become an everyday occurrence. According to the non-partisan Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, Trump has over 3,340 conflicts to date. That averages two-and-half conflicts of interest per day since he became President.

We cannot afford to have another President so brazenly pursue personal profit and political self-interest over duty. That’s why the first order of business for a Biden Administration and Congress should be to overhaul the anti-corruption requirements for people serving in the Administration. And it starts at the top.

The President and vice president should be required to limit personal holdings to assets that do not create any potential conflict of interest, or use a blind trust. The President and vice president should also be required to disclose all appropriate financial dealings, and that includes releasing their tax returns. Since President Nixon, every President—with the exception of President Ford—has released his tax returns. (President Ford instead made public a decade’s worth of summary data on his federal taxes.) In the lead-up to the 2020 presidential election, Vice President Joe Biden made available all of his tax returns dating back to 1998. It is that commitment to transparency and honesty that we need in the White House.

These ideas are not a pipe dream or a long-term goal. They are achievable now. Last year, the House passed the For The People Act, otherwise known as H.R.1. This historic anti-corruption bill is a comprehensive overhaul of our democratic system. It is something voters are desperately calling for. It expands voting rights, limits partisan gerrymandering, and amplifies the voices of small dollar campaign donors instead of wealthy special interests. It also outlines clear and robust ethics requirements for the President and vice president. It would require both individuals to adhere to the ethics rules highlighted above and it would help ensure the removal of any conflicts of interest.

If Vice President Biden wins in November, he will have a monumental task on his hands. In the wake of the division and violence stoked by his predecessor, it will require a common vision and a government that people can trust, especially as the country looks to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. Restoring public trust will be essential to galvanizing broad support for a progressive agenda that truly solves the challenges this country faces. By passing political reform and ethics reform early on, a President Biden can show that he will be a President that serves not his financial interest, but the people’s interest. And he can end the era of lawlessness that has gripped our country for four long years.

From the Symposium

Trump Vs. Democracy

No President in our history has presented such a threat to the Constitution and our democracy as this one. In this special issue, we asked 35 contributors to describe different aspects of the assault. We could have asked twice that number.


Mocking the Emoluments Clause

By Zephyr Teachout


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Neera Tanden is president of the Center for American Progress. 

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