It is no longer surprising to see President Donald Trump wielding the government as an instrument purely for his personal benefit or vengeance.
What is both alarming and new is how government, increasingly, is giving way and giving in.
Three years into Trump’s term, we are witnessing the accelerating erosion of a bedrock American principle: that the awesome power of government will be wielded fairly, based on facts and evidence, and without regard to political fear or favor.
A normal government that cared about corruption in Ukraine, as officials in this administration sometimes pretend they do, would seek improvements in its judicial system. But Trump has no such concern, as you can tell from his July 25 phone call with Ukraine’s president. He never mentions corruption, but presses only for two specific investigations he hopes will benefit his domestic political fortunes.
A government committed to rescuing Americans from unfair detention abroad — as Trump likes to boast he is — would be committed to rescuing all Americans from unfair detention abroad.
But this administration picks and chooses, based on Trump’s whims and grudges. For a Christian cleric held in Turkey, Trump goes all out. For a New York Times reporter endangered in Egypt, the administration does not bestir itself, as Times publisher A.G. Sulzberger recently recounted.
Some officials have indulged these impulses almost from the start. That Times reporter barely escaped arrest two years ago. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross’ dishonest maneuverings to get a question about citizenship added to the 2020 Census took place in the spring of 2017. Last year, officials devised their policy to separate children from parents at the border, and then repeatedly lied about it.
But as time goes on, the government more and more is endorsing and amplifying policies that serve Trump’s political interest. Just recently:
As soon as Trump decided to make political hay out of California’s homeless population, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler accused the (Democratic) state of allowing human feces to pollute its waterways and demanded action. Around the country, 3,508 community water systems are out of compliance with standards; only California attracted the EPA’s attention.
When the House Ways and Means Committee requested Trump’s tax returns, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Internal Revenue Service Commissioner Charles Rettigflatly refused — though the law says the returns “shall” be turned over if requested.
When another House committee wanted former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski to testify about Trump’s efforts to fire special investigator Robert Mueller, White House counsel Pat Cipollone — who is supposed to represent the law, not the president’s personal well-being — happily asserted executive privilege on behalf of this tale of obstruction, though Lewandowski never actually worked in the White House.
Indulging another Trump obsession, the State Department has intensified an investigation of Obama-era officials who sent emails to Hillary Clinton — including by retroactively classifying some of their messages, as The Washington Post reported a few days ago.
When the intelligence community’s inspector general ruled that the whistleblower complaint about Trump and Ukraine should be sent to Congress, the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel conveniently offered a contrary opinion. No, the Office of Legal Counsel said, “the appropriate action is to refer the matter to the Department of Justice.”
Which was doubly convenient, in fact, because Justice, with great efficiency, determined that — although soliciting assistance from a foreign power on behalf of a political campaign is against the law — Trump had nothing to worry about, on the pretext that prosecutors were unable to assign a dollar value to the help he had solicited. Case closed. Case never even opened, in fact.
What’s going on? Senior officials who had the fortitude to defend the rule of law have gradually been replaced by those who put ambition over principle. A few who still try to do the right thing are kept in vulnerable “acting” positions and hemmed in by toadies and hacks in subordinate positions.
Meanwhile, honest civil servants leave or become demoralized. They watch first-class research agencies be deliberately disrupted and degraded. They see Trump firing (Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch) and threatening (the still anonymous whistleblower) honest professionals. Resistance to abuse of power naturally dwindles.
Yes, take this as a warning of what a second term would mean. Norms get eroded, a nonpartisan bureaucracy can be corrupted.
But remember also that the whistleblower and intelligence inspector general refused to bend. Thousands of public servants like them are continuing to fulfill their missions as best they can. We need to keep faith with them as they work, often under pressures we can’t imagine, to keep government fair and honest.
Fred Hiatt is the editorial page editor of The Washington Post.