Countries like Venezuela used to look up to US democracy – under Donald Trump, that's all over

Even Republicans are pushing back on Trump's attempts to fire Mueller and Sessions

President Donald Trump speaks with Attorney General Jeff Sessions in happier times in May
President Donald Trump speaks with Attorney General Jeff Sessions in happier times in May

Count all the members of our club of democracies in danger of losing their right to call themselves such. Even within the European Union, Poland teetered towards subjugating its courts to explicit political control until its president saved the day with his veto power. But the ruling Law and Justice Party – ironically named, for sure – says it is not giving up.

Turkey apparently still has EU aspirations. The numbers arrested in President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s crackdown since last July’s coup have reached about 50,000. Tens of thousands of public servants have been stripped of their jobs. Now we have the spectacle of journalists on trial for allegedly consorting with Erdogan’s enemies. They face four decades in jail if convicted.

Who else? Venezuela, of course. The death toll from recent clashes between protestors and military police has topped 100 and President Nicolas Maduro now seeks a rewriting of the constitution as a way to throw up the barricades. The Philippines’ President Rodrigo Duterte is warning critics not to “trivialise” his bloody war on drugs by raising human rights concerns.

We’d normally start the next sentence with the United States, as in “the United States is reminding neighbours and allies of what being a democracy means and the consequences of straying from the path”. It can do this because its own record on the matter is unimpeachable.

Except the problem is that all is not quite well at the top of America’s chain of command either. Let’s see. Attempting to undercut the independence of his own judiciary? Yes. Assailing journalists, to the point of fantasising in public about putting them behind bars too? Yes. Waging campaigns of intimidation against those investigating you? Yes. Fumbling in the dark for new and untried ways to stay in power should disaster strike – self-pardons for instance? Yes.

Donald Trump is no Maduro or Erdogan. Nor is he Duterte, though the man who vowed to “butcher” criminals has won his admiration. Yet his behaviour, never a study in predictability, becomes ever more troubling as the probe into ties between his campaign and Russia widens. If preserving his power might entail breaking constitutional china, too bad. If it means dropping the axe even on your most loyal of friends, so be it. Loyalty doesn’t have to be a two-way street.

We should have seen this coming. You recall when Trump branded the judge presiding over the Trump University fraud case as incompetent because of his Mexican heritage? (The judge was in fact American-born). Or when he lashed out at the district courts for daring to block his attempts to ban Muslims and refugees from entering the United States? “So political,” he railed.

Never mind his firing of former FBI Director James Comey. Now he is attempting to weaken and sabotage both Robert Mueller, the special counsel and former FBI director appointed by his own Justice Department to get to the bottom of the Russia collusion allegations, and now his Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, as well. He has openly threatened to fire Mueller, invoking pretexts about possible conflicts of interests. That he had requested members of his own legal team to investigate what leeway he might have to pardon anyone who may fall foul of Mueller, possibly including himself, was first reported by The Washington Post.

As for Sessions, Trump is making it nigh impossible for him to stay in his job by serially undermining him. It began when he told The New York Times last week of his fury at Sessions for recusing himself from the Russian probe after he admitted to previously undisclosed contacts with the Russian ambassador. Trump said he would never have hired him if he’d known that was coming. So unfair, he said.

Now he is going after Sessions full bore. On Monday he called him “beleaguered” (as if he isn’t). On Tuesday he accused him of being “VERY weak” on Twitter for failing to return to the old chestnut of Hillary Clinton and her emails. Memo to Trump: she is not president, you are. Knowing what you may or may not have done wrong is somewhat more important at this point. His plan, it is assumed, is to appoint a new Attorney General while Congress is in recess in August. Whoever that person is could stay in the job for a full year without congressional confirmation.

Trump has even started on Andy McCabe, the acting director of the FBI, noting that when his wife ran for office in Virginia she took donations from a Hillary friend, as if that were a crime. “Problem is that the acting head of the FBI & the person in charge of the Hillary investigation, Andrew McCabe, got $700,000 from H for wife!” he blurted. In the meantime he has hired a new director of communications, Anthony Scaramucci, whose first order of business, it appears, will be to purge White House aides deemed to have been insufficiently loyal to the boss.

Scaramucci is now publicly exhorting Trump and Sessions to meet to work things out. Who’s is charge of whom here? Scaramucci’s experience of government spans all of five days, since his appointment last week. And now this threat by Mooch, as they call him, to Trump’s own cabinet. “The president wants his cabinet secretaries to have his back...we’ll get to a resolution shortly.”

Republicans are now stirring. “It looks sort of paranoid to me,” Congressman Michael McCaul said of Trump’s campaign to undermine Mueller. “I think the best advice would be to let Robert Mueller do his job,” said Paul Ryan, speaker of the House. “President Trump’s tweet today suggesting Attorney General Sessions pursue prosecution of a former political rival is highly inappropriate,” Senator Lindsey Graham posted on his own Twitter feed on Tuesday.

You may have missed this week’s angry spat between Venezuela and the US following public comments from CIA Director Mike Pompeo that he had been advising Mexico and Colombia “on the things they might do so that they can get a better outcome” from the Venezuela crisis. In the circumstances, America pontificating on the perils of running a banana republic looks a bit rich.

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