The power of an incumbent president to aid re-election by abusing the executive branch has in the past been limited by a few powerful forces: Presidential integrity; the fear of a scandal emerging in the media; and the prospect of aggressive congressional oversight.
Due to forces outside their control, the Democratic nominee won’t be saved by the first two “norms based” options. And as a result of Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s strategy of not “focusing on Trump,” the president has every reason to scoff at the prospect of aggressive congressional oversight, up to and including a genuine “go big” effort at impeachment.
Combined, these elements must force us to consider a truly horrifying series of questions: Does President Trump have the means, motive, and opportunity to tilt the 2020 election? The answer, unfortunately, is yes, yes, and yes. And it behooves Democrats to understand that now, before it is too late.
First, means. Even a normal president has some ability to manipulate government spending and contracting decisions in such a way as to goose, say, purple state economies at the expense of dark blue and red states. Think it’s bad that Trump appears to be manipulating Air Force decisions to benefit his Scottish hotel? Amid a potentially slowing economy, think about how many ways Trump could shift resources across the entire federal government to, say, Sheboygan, Wisconsin, or Tempe, Arizona, at the expense of New York City or Birmingham, Alabama.
And of course Trump can use the military as a tool to alter the national conversation, such as when he sent 5,200 troops to the border last October in order to provoke panic about the approach of a desperate caravan of Central American migrants.
How much Trump can use “authoritative” voices of the federal government to misinform voters is unclear. However it is not safe to assume that all Cabinet secretaries are as ham-handed as Wilbur Ross, who has been caught doing just that with respect to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Trump might also scare corporations into supporting his re-election. The Wall Street Journal has reported that Mercedes-Benz’ failure to participate in talks with California about vehicle-emission standards was due to fear of reprisal from Trump. For every report of a corporation bent to the will of Trump, how many corporations are complying without any reporting?
And as House Democrats are, to their credit, beginning to appreciate the extent to which the president’s team will use the levers of foreign policy to achieve domestic political ends, Trump still has enormous leeway to operate in this murky domain. It’s not hard to imagine the president privately pressuring foreign countries such as Ukraine to assist his effort in 2020 as Russia and perhaps Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates did in 2016.
But more alarming scenarios must also be contemplated. Would China grease the wheels of trade negotiations with the Trump Administration by throwing in a little hacking of the Democratic nominee or social media manipulation in the way NBA teams complete teams by throwing in a future second-round draft pick? It’s far from inconceivable in the context of, well, everything we know about the transactional way Trump views the presidency.
Next, motive. Remember “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing’” was a Trump statement at a 2016 press conference. Also recall the Trump team’s willingness to sit down with Russian assets offering dirt on Clinton. That was in the service of winning an election. Now he has the added motive of not losing one. Trump, lest we forget, has ample reason to fear that indictments could well await him should he not prevail in 2020.
It’s hardly speculative to think that Trump and his team would think along these lines. His administration was caught manipulating the 2020 census. And they only dropped the charade because a narrow majority on the Supreme Court simply couldn’t dismiss their lies about it. That was to affect a process that would govern elections from 2021 to 2030. Think what they will do when Trump is actually on the ballot.
So means and motive have been established. What about opportunity? Well, it’s best to commit a crime if you control law enforcement. With Bill Barr as attorney general, it’s fair to surmise that Trump’s fear of federal law enforcement is not especially high.
“It’s optimal for a president seeking to act underhandedly if the mainstream media’s reach and influence have been under assault—as, of course, they are.”
It’s also optimal for a president seeking to act underhandedly if the mainstream media’s reach and influence have been under assault—as, of course, they are.
And so that leaves as the last line of defense… House Democrats. Speaker Pelosi has been trying to do the minimal amount of oversight necessary to avoid a revolt within her caucus and among the grassroots. Outside of efforts to supplement the public parts of the Mueller Report and the belated effort to obtain Trump’s taxes, Democrats have filed almost no lawsuits to enforce their oversight requests for documents and testimony. That’s despite unprecedented and intentionally complete stonewalling. Don’t take my word on it. Trump told reporters that “we are fighting all the subpoenas.”
Even though Pelosi’s situation is historically unprecedented, she does have options. For one, she could act like impeachment is a real option rather than visibly gritting her teeth and informing all within range of her voice that she thinks impeachment would be bad for Democrats. No matter Trump’s braggadocio, it is unlikely that he wants to be the third president ever impeached—and the first to run for re-election under such a cloud. Pelosi strongly desiring to take the option off the table, alternately, empowers Trump to think he is above the law so long as he occupies the White House.
Secondly, the government is not yet funded for fiscal year 2020 starting in October. Trump badly needs economic stability amid rising uncertainty, and as a president whose re-election is premised in no small part on the economy, he and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell need a deal more than House Democrats do. Pelosi can use “must pass legislation” to preempt as many shenanigans as possible, starting with banning the repurposing of previously appropriated funds such as the money Trump pulled from the Department of Defense to pay for his border wall.
Big picture, House Democrats must signal to Trump that they are up to the task of being the last line of defense against a federal government being organized as a partisan tool. Otherwise, their “let the voters decide in 2020” plan might have a fatal flaw.
Jeff Hauser is the founder and executive director of the Revolving Door Project at the Center for Economic and Policy Research.