WASHINGTON–Prominent opponents of President Donald Trump debated Wednesday whether the U.S. president has damaged American democratic institutions during a panel at the center-left Brookings Institution.
David Frum has been among the most vociferous right-leaning critics of the President, outlining his attacks on Trump in a book published last month: “Trumpocracy: The Corruption of the American Republic.”
One institution that recently suffered reputational injury, Frum said, is the House Intelligence Committee, which last week garnered headlines with its release of a memo that criticized the FBI.
He said most national security institutions could recover from what he described as the Republicans enabling offenses by the President that would normally spur impeachment. But in the wake of the debate over the memo, the trust between those Republicans and the intelligence community is gone, rendering the committee “dead” as an effective oversight body.
“The House Intelligence Committee depends on the intelligence community sharing information voluntarily, because their ability to get hold of information the intelligence people don’t want to share is pretty limited,” Frum said at the panel, which was titled “Threats to Democracy in the Trump Era.”
Brookings fellow Elaine Kamarck, who was also on the panel, disagreed, arguing that the U.S.’s history of a professional bureaucracy protects democratic institutions from influence because the state operates on the rule of law. In the case of Trump’s controversial travel ban, for example, border agents began enforcing it, but stopped as soon as it was ruled unconstitutional.
“They’re not listening to Donald Trump. They’re listening to the rule of law,” Kamarck said. “That’s a mature democracy.”
Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, could not be reached for comment, but Rep. Will Hurd (R-Texas) spoke on Sunday to ABC about the committee’s recent memo release.
“I don’t believe this is an attack on the men and women in the FBI,” Hurd said. “I’ve served shoulder to shoulder with them and they are hard-working folks that keep us safe.
Frum said that as government bureaucrats push back against the president, they may bend the rules, harming democracy. He described this effect as an autoimmune disorder in which government officials or staff believe they are protecting their institutions but are instead undermining its integrity.
Kamarck said that opponents of the president have undermined the function of impeachment by politicizing the issue now, before Special Counsel Robert Mueller has decided whether or not to recommend charges against Trump. Ads that billionaire Tom Steyer’s bankrolled which call for Trump’s impeachment, she added, were done for Steyer’s “own personal political benefit.” By making it a partisan issue, “he is undermining the possibility that next year there will be articles of impeachment of obstruction of justice.”
“What we’re seeing is a breakdown of not just of the presidency, not just of the White House staff, not just of the executive office of the presidency, but there are large systems of enabling,” Frum said.
Frum said that “enabling” includes the dynamic between Trump and Congress in which the president supports any Republican legislation as long as they support his presidency.
“He will sign bills that are very unpopular that certainly no Democratic president would sign and probably few first term Republican presidents would sign,” Frum said. “He will sign those bills if in return he is given protection for actions that no president in American history has dared undertake.”