Autocrats don't announce it publicly when they're taking a step toward greater authoritarianism.
As long as there's a free press, it's up to journalists to call them out.
But even as Donald Trump and members of his administration have asserted greater and more unilateral executive power, our top news organizations have tended to interpret those moves narrowly and naively — giving too much credit to cover stories, marginalizing criticism as just so much partisan squabbling, and leaving the accurate, alarming description of what's really going on to opinion writers.
News reporters seem particularly susceptible to pronouncements from Attorney General William Barr — despite his history of deception, and even though the Department of Justice is the most dangerous tool Trump has, short of the armed forces.
Much of the news coverage of Barr's decision last week to drop charges against Trump crony Michael Flynn — on an absurd pretext, accompanied by hypocritical pronouncements — was stenographic, credulous and short-sighted.
The coverage failed to alert the public to how seriously Barr's move undercut the employees of his own department and to how it showed Barr targeting the department's big guns at Trump's enemies — starting with those inside the law enforcement and intelligence communities.
And while reporting on Trump's Friday night decision to fire the State Department's inspector general has been aggressive and critical, it too has failed to sufficiently alarm the public about the consequences — in this case, an executive branch freed of even the most basic, routine oversight.
Most of what Donald Trump does and says these days is intended to draw attention away from his failure to lead an effective national response to the COVID-19 pandemic. News organizations, generally speaking, shouldn't let themselves be distracted.
But some of Trump's actions merit much closer and more diligent scrutiny. They need to be exposed and contextualized as part of a bigger picture: Under cover of the raging pandemic, Donald Trump is taking consistent steps towards authoritarianism.
Barr's assault on the rule of law
When the Justice Department announced on May 7 that it wanted to drop its criminal case against former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn, most major news outlets interpreted the news too narrowly.
It was a reversal.
It was a win for Flynn.
It was win for Trump.
It was an attempt to discredit the Mueller report.
All that is true, as far as it goes. But the most important and significant news — the aspect that should have been the central thrust of every headline and every story, that day and for days afterward — was not about Flynn as much as it was about Barr, and what he had just done to the Justice Department, the federal law-enforcement community and the rule of law.
Some news stories, somewhere along the way, included indications that "critics" or "Democrats" or "former Obama administration officials" saw troubling signs of politicization of the Justice Department.
But in the reckoning of anyone who has a basic understanding of federal law enforcement and is not a partisan hack, this was more than just a little politicization. This was a brazen show of fealty to the White House.
By filing a court document that embraced Trump's "deep state" conspiracy theories and by telling CBS News that charges against former officials were forthcoming, Barr essentially declared war against the federal law enforcement community he ostensibly leads. Indeed, it was a move toward the criminalization of federal law enforcement as it is traditionally practiced by devoted career civil servants — and toward the criminalization of accountability in particular.
By so blatantly letting a Trump crony get away with a crime, and by telling CBS that he hoped the move "sends the message" about the department's "standard of justice" going forward, Barr was making it clear that friends of Trump are off limits to law enforcement — and that Trump's enemies are on notice.
Barr actually said out loud that this was just the first of many more such actions to come. "I mean, it's not gonna be the end of it," he told CBS News. And in a wholly inappropriate comment about an ongoing investigation by U.S. Attorney John Durham into the origins of the Russia investigation, Barr said the department is "seeing if there are people who violated the law and should be brought to justice, and that's what we have our eye on."
Trump got the message that it was open season on his enemies, tweeting the very next morning:
"A lot of things are going to be told over the next couple of weeks and let's see what happens," Trump told "Fox & Friends" that same morning, adding: "I want Bill Barr to handle it. I want nothing to do."
Within three days, Trump was tweeting about "OBAMAGATE!" Within three more, his newly-installed acting director of national intelligence declassified information with the clear intent of gulling weak-minded voters and journalists into thinking it supported Trump's completely unsupported conspiracy theory.
And the next morning, without specifying what he was talking about, Trump told Fox Business' Maria Bartiromo: "It was the greatest political crime in the history of our country. … And people should be going to jail for this stuff. And hopefully a lot of people are going to have to pay."
That's what Barr's move set in motion.
Politicians don't make particularly credible press critics, but Obama had it exactly right when he told supporters in a private call on May 8:
The news over the last 24 hours I think has been somewhat downplayed — about the Justice Department dropping charges against Michael Flynn. And the fact that there is no precedent that anybody can find for someone who has been charged with perjury just getting off scot-free. That's the kind of stuff where you begin to get worried that basic — not just institutional norms — but our basic understanding of rule of law is at risk. And when you start moving in those directions, it can accelerate pretty quickly as we've seen in other places.
How it played in the news columns
Initial coverage of the Flynn decision garnered simplistic headlines, a lot of stenography and a focus on the optics — mostly through a partisan lens. Republicans were supportive, Democrats were critical.
What only some reporters bothered to point out was the overwhelming agreement among credible people with actual experience and expertise in law enforcement that what Barr had just done was terribly harmful and dangerous.
In the New York Times article headlined "U.S. Drops Michael Flynn Case, in Move Backed by Trump," Adam Goldman and Katie Benner noted in their lead that the move came "[a]fter an extraordinary public campaign by President Trump and his allies." And in their third paragraph, they explained that it was "the latest example of Attorney General William P. Barr's efforts to chisel away at the results of the Russia investigation."
But it wasn't until the ninth paragraph that they offered an indication of the real story, and even then, only by quoting a partisan source:
Democrats condemned the move. "A politicized and thoroughly corrupt Department of Justice is going to let the president's crony simply walk away," said Representative Jerrold Nadler, Democrat of New York and the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. "Americans are right to be furious and worried about the continued erosion of our rule of law."
An analysis by Charlie Savage cast the move primarily as "the latest in a series that the department, under Attorney General William P. Barr, has taken to undermine and dismantle the work of the investigators and prosecutors who scrutinized Russia's 2016 election interference operation and its links to people associated with the Trump campaign."
That was definitely a big part of it, but it missed the deeper implications, which weren't addressed until the very end of Savage's story, in a quote from Anne Milgram, a former federal prosecutor and former New Jersey attorney general.
Milgram argued that "the more important frame for assessing the dropping of the case was to recognize how it fit into the larger pattern of the Barr-era department 'undercutting the law enforcement officials and prosecutors who investigated the 2016 election and its aftermath,' which she likened to 'eating the Justice Department from the inside out.'"
That's the story.
In the Washington Post, under the headline "Justice Dept. moves to drop case against Michael Flynn," Spencer S. Hsu, Devlin Barrett and Matt Zapotosky made several broad hints in the direction of the real dynamics at play, but always from a distance.
They allowed that it was "a stunning reversal that prompted fresh accusations from law enforcement officials and Democrats that the criminal justice system was caving to political pressure from the administration." But look at their wording: A conclusion that could not be more obvious was nevertheless relegated to the level of "accusation."
The Post's "reaction" story, by Rosalind S. Helderman, Robert Costa and Shane Harris, offered the worst kind of false equivalence. The headline: "Flynn decision cheered by Trump and the right, as critics decry it as an attack on the rule of law." It should have read: "Attack on the rule of law cheered by Trump and the right."
And rather than focusing on the predictable partisan reactions, the authors should have taken more note of their own reporting that "a chorus of former federal prosecutors and FBI officials decried the move," and that "[c]urrent and former national security officials said they were dismayed."
A Post article the next day by Devlin Barrett, Matt Zapotosky and Josh Dawsey did focus on how "multiple federal law enforcement officials interviewed Friday expressed varying degrees of anger, resignation and alarm over the decision." But the implications of that were not fully explored.
Natasha Bertrand, writing in Politico, cast it as Trump "getting his revenge." She wrote:
Trump's allies and those who got caught up in the Russia investigation see the Flynn developments as more evidence that the tide is turning in their favor — the first sign being Barr's decision to overrule career prosecutors in February and slash the sentencing recommendation for longtime Trump associate Roger Stone.
"I want to see people prosecuted," said Mark Corallo, who served as the spokesman for Trump's legal team in 2017. "If the facts support it," he later caveated.
But too much coverage was stenographic. The first hint of the real story in Michael Balsamo and Eric Tucker's AP article came in a 10th-paragraph quote from Pelosi.
NPR's coverage was predictably low on skepticism. "Morning Edition" host David Greene's credulous question to Justice correspondent Ryan Lucas was:
So to what extent is the FBI facing some questions here? I mean, could this be a significant moment for the FBI and its reputation?
Special dishonorable mention has to go to CBS News and reporter Catherine Herridge for indulging Barr with a credulous and enabling post-decision interview in which his disingenuous explanations and hypocritical piety didn't just go unchallenged, they were invited. Consider:
Herridge: It sounds to me like one of your objectives is to never allow the Justice Department to be used as a political weapon. That's what you're saying you think happened here?
Barr: I think, yes. I think there was an aspect of that. And I think, for the last several decades, the Department has been used more and more, or the efforts have been made to draw the Department into that. And I think it's very important that that not happen.
The real news was off the news pages
It shouldn't be up to the opinion writers to explain what the news really is. But that's where we stand. We depend on them, the alt-news sites, the late-night comedians and the political cartoonists to tell us the searing truth.
As it happens, a perfect model for what the news analyses should have said about Barr's move was provided, in a matter of hours, in the form of a New York Times op-ed by Georgetown law professors and former Obama administration officials Neal K. Katyal and Joshua A. Geltzer.
They noted the widespread sense of outrage and "utter demoralization" among criminal law specialists and members of the law enforcement community.
They explained that "this move embeds into official U.S. policy an extremist view of law enforcement as the enemy of the American people" — and how, specifically, in that view, "federal investigators and prosecutors are a deep threat to the American people." They traced that narrative from far-right websites to Fox News to Bill Barr.
A Trump lackey took a major step Thursday toward establishing a Trump dictatorship.
An extraordinary court filing demonstrated that Trump has one standard of justice for his enemies and an entirely different one for his allies. The court action shows how fully Trump has turned our Justice Department into his personal protection agency. Goodbye equal justice under the law.
Later, Johnston wrote:
By demonstrating unfettered control over our Justice Department, Trump has achieved a critical step required for a transition from a president with limited authority to de facto dictator.
The motion to drop the Flynn case fits Trump's fact-free declaration last summer. "I have an Article II," he said, "where I have to the right to do whatever I want as president."
I find it amazing that when Trump says things like that, about his absolute rights, it sets off days and days of press coverage, generally leading to the conclusion that he is just talking smack. But when he or his attorney general actually do something that manifests that kind of authority, reporters seem to forget he ever said it.
In the Washington Post opinion section, writer Paul Waldman situated Barr's move in the narrative in a way the news stories failed to:
After complaining for months that the ideological extremist he installed as attorney general was insufficiently willing to act as his personal protector to enable his corruption ("I don't have an attorney general," he whined), the president installs a new attorney general, who makes his debut by misleading the public about the contents of an investigation into Russia's effort to manipulate our elections.
That attorney general then goes on to make extraordinary and unprecedented personal interventions into judicial proceedings to help the president's cronies escape full accountability for their crimes.
Waldman reached the obvious conclusion:
And trust me, Trump and Barr are not done yet. With six months to go before the election, it would be utterly shocking if Barr did not do what Trump tried to strong-arm Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky into doing: opening up an "investigation" into former vice president Joe Biden or his family, for no purpose other than creating headlines suggesting the presumptive Democratic nominee is as corrupt as Trump himself.
Writing in a Washington Post op-ed, former federal prosecutor Randall D. Eliason described the department's motion as "a political screed dressed up as legal analysis, promoting the 'deep state' conspiracy fantasies of President Trump. It epitomizes the politicization of the Justice Department under Attorney General William P. Barr. It is, in the truest sense of the word, lawless."
The New York Times editorial board also saw the dangers ahead:
It is a small step from using the Justice Department to protect your friends to using it to go after your political enemies. In other words, watch out, Joe Biden.
It is, of course, entirely in character for Mr. Trump, who lavishes praise on autocrats and dictators around the world. He is now emulating them, using the Justice Department to protect his friends, in the belief that he can do so with impunity. As long as Mr. Barr leads the Justice Department, he can.
Barr's alleged distancing
On Monday, reporters were yet again too willing to take what Barr said at face value, giving him way too much credit for supposedly distancing himself from Trump's rhetoric about Obama and Biden having conspired in a plot against their successors.
For instance, the New York Times headlined its story, by Katie Benner and Adam Goldman, "Barr Dismisses Trump's Claim That Russia Inquiry Was an Obama Plot."
In reality, all Barr said about Obama and Biden was that "not every abuse of power, no matter how outrageous, is necessarily a federal crime," and that "whatever their level of involvement, based on the information I have today, I don't expect Mr. Durham's work will lead to a criminal investigation of either man." He reiterated his view that "what happened to the president in the 2016 election and throughout the first two years of his administration was abhorrent."
That doesn't rule out filing high-profile criminal charges against underlings, as Barr has essentially promised, and then pointing fingers at Biden and Obama in the heat of the campaign.
But Benner and Goldman, like pretty much every other major news organization reporter covering the story, actually quoted Barr — without any caveats about audacity and hypocrisy — as saying: "As long as I'm attorney general, the criminal justice system will not be used for partisan political ends."
That's a breathtaking disservice to readers.
What happens next time?
I don't understand why any reporter gives Barr the benefit of the doubt, especially when he denies being influenced by politics. There is overwhelming evidence that he has been a dutiful enabler of Trump in every way imaginable. As reformer Fred Wertheimer recently wrote, Barr "has repeatedly abused his office to provide personal and political protection for Trump at the expense of the integrity and credibility of the department."
Reporters should feel particularly burned by Barr after his wild misrepresentation of the Mueller report in March 2019. As Washington Post media writer Margaret Sullivan wrote last year:
Recall how gullible — and therefore misleading to the public — the news media was in March when Attorney General William Barr characterized the unreleased report in a four-page letter.
Coverage of that letter set in place an inaccurate narrative that has been almost impossible to dislodge.
Many news organizations, including some of the most prominent, took what Barr said at face value or mischaracterized the report's findings.
Heck, Barr is still lying about the Mueller report, repeating on Monday that "[t]he law enforcement and intelligence apparatus of this country were involved in advancing a false and utterly baseless Russian collusion narrative against the president."
And there's fresh evidence all the time. Former Obama DOJ spokesman Matthew Miller pointed out on Monday:
The article by Spencer S. Hsu and Keith L. Alexander described how Barr had just taken the unusual step of sending a loyalist in a top job at Justice to be the top deputy in the federal prosecutor's office for Washington, "raising concerns that a key U.S. attorney's office handling multiple investigations of interest to President Trump is becoming further politicized."
Reporters need to be better prepared to push back the next time Barr does something outrageously political and claims he's taking the high road.
NYU law professor Ryan Goodman, co-editor-in-chief of Just Security, suspects that Barr's next move will be to file "well-founded criminal indictments against one or more former officials who leaked the content of the classified intercept of the Dec. 29, 2016 phone call between Flynn and Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak and Flynn's identity in that communication."
The leak led to some press coverage. Big deal. But Barr and other Trump loyalists would then presumably spin that leak as evidence of a high-level plot to take Trump down.
Reporters need to be ready to fight the next spin and disinformation campaign. They need to stop quoting Barr's pieties about being apolitical without context. They need to point out Barr will likely be violating a longstanding Justice Department policy to refrain from taking public action that could affect the outcome of an election.
And they need to have some boilerplate ready to describe Barr's history of politicized decision-making, and his lack of credibility. I recommend cribbing from the best news stories and opinion pieces above!
As for the State Department IG
Some of the coverage of Trump's Friday-night decision to fire State Department Inspector General Steve Linick was admirably blunt.
Philip Rucker, Karen DeYoung, Lisa Rein and Hannah Knowles, in the Washington Post, led their Saturday evening story this way:
President Trump accelerated his retaliatory purge of public servants by firing the State Department's inspector general, who had played a minor role in the president's impeachment proceedings and was said to have begun investigating alleged misconduct by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
They wrote that Trump was "again challenging established norms of American governance in his push to rid the federal bureaucracy of officials he considers insufficiently loyal to or protective of him and his administration."
They explained that: "Inspectors general serve as internal government watchdogs conducting oversight of federal agencies — and although they technically are political appointees, their independence has long been protected."
They described the context as "a series of moves by Trump since the Senate voted in February to acquit him in his impeachment trial" intended to destroy what he calls the "deep state."
And they quoted Walter Shaub, a former director of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics, noting that "Times of crisis are very dangerous for anti-corruption efforts and very dangerous for democracy because leaders use them to justify power grabs. I think that's what's happening here."
CNN political reporter Maeve Reston wrote a terrific analysis:
Trump's late Friday night firing of State Department Inspector General Steve Linick — at a time when America is preoccupied by coronavirus — once again had echoes of President Richard Nixon's Saturday night massacre more than four decades ago when he tried to thwart the investigation into his involvement in the Watergate break in.
But Trump's attempt to systematically dismantle the checks and balances that are the bedrock of America's democracy has arguably taken a far heavier toll.
He is showing that he can bend the levers of government to suit his whims, by simply disposing of respected, career government employees whom he perceives as having criticized him, crossed him or refused to carry out his bidding. With the firings, he is demolishing the ideal that inspectors general can operate independently without fear of retribution as they attempt to uncover waste, fraud and abuse that does not serve the interests of the American people.
Washington Post reporter Philip Bump situated the move within "The key political fight of this era: Trump vs. accountability"
David A. Graham, in the Atlantic, wrote:
In context, the war on inspectors general is the third and final front in Trump's war on any kind of check on the executive branch. In the past few months alone, the White House has argued that Congress doesn't have the right to oversee the executive branch. It has sought to convince courts that matters of oversight shouldn't be decided by the judicial branch, either. And in going after inspectors general, an accountability mechanism embedded in the executive branch, it is staking a simple but sweeping claim: No one has the right to check the executive outside of quadrennial elections.
Graham wrote that although Trump doesn't seem to be ideological about this, "[a]dvocates of the so-called unitary executive have sought to harness Trump's efforts to avoid accountability for his own specific corruption and lawlessness in order to enshrine a more powerful executive branch generally."
But in Politico, Meredith McGraw and Nahal Toosi cast this mostly as just another partisan squabble, reporting that "Trump's move infuriated Democrats who say he's trying to circumvent oversight of his administration, undermining the ability of other branches to hold him accountable."
A lot of the coverage has focused on what Linick was investigating that might have ticked Pompeo and Trump off, rather than on Trump's enthusiasm to get rid of anyone who might hold him accountable.
Finally, reporters have not followed the excellent advice provided on Twitter by Shaub, who resigned his ethics job six months into Trump's presidency after repeated clashes, and has emerged as a leading political reformer.
Shaub called reporters' attention to the Inspector General statute, and particularly the section requiring a president to give Congress advance notice of the intent to fire an IG — in order to give Congress time to prevent it. So Trump hasn't actually fired Linick: He has announced that he plans to do so in 30 days.
Republican members of Congress haven't put up real fights for any of the other inspectors general Trump has fired in the last few months. Shaub said reporters should pressure them to stand up for the rule of law:
COVER THIS AS THE START OF A 30-DAY COUNTDOWN! DO YOUR JOB! The assault on the IG's is late-stage corruption, and Trump's kicking down one of the last bulwarks that stand between us and the burgeoning corruption-driven authoritarianism. Cover it like you're a foreign correspondent in a collapsing republic. Because you are.
The closest we've come to that is the Washington Post's James Hohmann, calling attention on Monday to the way Trump's "systemic effort to shield his administration from oversight and accountability has been aided and abetted by the relative silence of congressional Republicans after each move."
So where are we now?
Chris Megerian, Noah Bierman and Eli Stokols in the Los Angeles Times tried to explain where things stand on Monday, and did so without mincing words:
President Trump has accelerated his attacks on government watchdogs, judges, reporters and other independent voices as he runs for reelection, escalating his spread of disinformation about perceived enemies and his administration's record during the COVID-19 crisis.
Trump fired yet another inspector general, raged against a government whistleblower and repeatedly retweeted video of a local TV reporter being harassed in New York — all since Friday. He also amplified a sinister conspiracy theory he dubbed "Obamagate" in which he alleges, but never specifies, crimes by his predecessor.
On Monday, Trump abruptly said he has been taking hydroxychloroquine pills daily for "about a week and a half" as a preventative against the novel coronavirus, dramatically intensifying his efforts to promote an unproved anti-malaria drug that he has touted as a potential "game changer" for dealing with the pandemic.
That's powerful stuff. But by lumping all those things together, I think the authors risked erasing the distinction between some idiotic thing Trump may (or may not) be doing to himself, and acts that are dangerously authoritarian in nature.
Trump's growing authoritarianism could end up being the second most important story, after the pandemic, in the run-up to the November election — especially if Trump sees there are no negative consequences to grabbing more and more power. After all, with no downside, who knows where he will stop?