The nightmare that is Donald Trump’s presidency keeps getting worse, as one crisis is compounded by another.
On December 18 of last year, the House of Representatives voted to impeach in the face of very public Republican obstructionism. Within hours of the vote, Nancy Pelosi announced that she had yet to decide how to move forward with delivering the impeachment articles to the Republican-controlled Senate, and was waiting to learn more about whether and how that body would organize a trial. A brief furor ensued. And then Congress took its winter recess, with one constitutional crisis brewing.
Congress is now back in session. But the articles of impeachment remain in limbo, with much rhetorical maneuvering by leading Senate Republicans and Democrats, and new speculation about the possibility of testimony from former National Security Advisor John Bolton. There remains great uncertainty about what will happen next, as well as the larger question about whether Trump can be constrained by Congress, or by the law, in any way.
But something has changed: while Congress was sleeping, the Trump administration chose to assassinate Qassem Suleimani, perhaps Iran’s top military official, and as a result the country is now, arguably, at war with Iran. And while Trump today has apparently stepped back from the precipice of full-on military confrontation, at least for the moment, the emergency that his actions have precipitated, in the region and in U.S. foreign policy, remains, and with it the ever-present danger of further military confrontations.
Impeachment. Iran. War. There are obvious questions to be raised about the connections, and whether or not the Soleimani assassination this week was motivated, at least in part, by Trump’s desire to distract from his own political difficulties. Elizabeth Warren, among others, has pressed such questions. Heather Digby Parton’s recent analysis in Salon poses the right question: “Why Trump Did It? A strategic distraction, or a spoiled child showing off his new toys?”
Trump’s domestic abuses of power have now extended themselves further into the international arena, where they put the United States, and several Middle Eastern countries, in imminent danger. There is no point in arguing further about the folly of the House Democrats’ narrow impeachment strategy. Trump definitely abused his presidential power in the ways that the impeachment articles claim. And however “small” these abuses were in the scheme of things, they were real, provable and, most important, they were a convenient and seemingly sturdy hook on which to hang a political “prosecution” of Trump for the wide range of abuses of power, small and large, that he has committed.
Yet the greatest danger from Trump has always been his recklessness and irresponsibility in foreign affairs. This has included the chance that he would use his extensive executive powers either to lash out at an “enemy” in disregard of the global consequences or, perhaps more ominously, to use “danger” to justify not simply an “October surprise” but, in the manner of a “Reichstag fire,” to justify further autocratic measures — something that has been discussed by serious people in major magazines ever since his inauguration (see here, here, and here).
As Masha Gessen pointed out in “the Reichstag fire next time” (Harpers, July 2017), if and when Trump were to engineer a crisis on the grounds of a “terror threat,” he would draw upon an apparatus, a set of precedents, and “a perpetual state of emergency” that were established after 9-11 by George W. Bush and, in many ways, continued by Barack Obama. And this is why the current crisis raises enormous questions of U.S. foreign policy that go far beyond “Trumpism.” Yet Gessen, more skeptical than most, saw then, and continues to see now, that Trump represents a distinctive, “autocratic” danger because of his complete disregard for institutions and procedures, his deeply-rooted authoritarian disposition, and his strong hostility to basic norms of liberal democracy.
In this sense, whatever the motivational connections, Trump’s recent move against Iran is of a piece with the collusions and obstructions and illegalities noted in the Mueller Report and with those further abuses documented in his impeachment. In all things, Trump does what he wants, with reckless disregard for the consequences for others.
The consequences of his attack on Iran are already becoming clear.
More importantly, Trump continues to undermine the idea of Congressional oversight. While he acted against Iran without any kind of Congressional authorization, and without even informing Congressional leaders in advance, he has now delivered formal notification to Congress of his military action in compliance with the War Powers Act. But he has also declared that his tweets constitute official notifications to Congress of his military intentions; his administration has offered conflicting accounts of the Iran action; and the administration will only brief Congressional leaders, in closed-door hearings, this week, many days after the attack.
Perhaps most disturbingly, last week Trump re-tweeted a tweet from far-right commentator Dinesh D’Souza that implied that Chuck Schumer and other elected Democratic leaders were traitors who should be excluded from consultation because they could not be trusted. D’Souza, responding to a CNN report that Trump had not contacted Schumer about the assassination, “Neither were the Iranians, and for pretty much the same reason,” D’Souza tweeted.
The Trump administration has also used the crisis to renew its disregard for the civil liberties of Americans, and especially those who are not white. As the New York Times has reported, “Dozens of Iranians and Iranian-Americans were held for hours at Washington State’s border with Canada over the weekend as the Department of Homeland Security ramped up security at border ports after Iran threatened to retaliate against the United States for the strike that killed its top military leader.” Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal, who immediately expressed public concern about this on Twitter, and held a press conference on Monday afternoon that featured individuals who had been detained.
How did this happen? According to Common Dreams, the Washington state chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), citing an anonymous source from Customs and Border Protection (CBP), alleged that “the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has issued a national order to CBP to ‘report’ and detain anyone with Iranian heritage entering the country who is deemed potentially suspicious or ‘adversarial,’ regardless of citizenship status.” The Department of Homeland Security has denied this allegation. But Washington Governor Jay Inslee has strongly refuted this, declaring that “Customs and Border Protection denials of these reports are simply not credible. There are multiple firsthand accounts of CBP agents seizing people’s passports while they waited for up to 12 hours for re-entry into the United States.”
As the Guardian reports, “Iranian Americans are on edge as tensions soar. CAIR has just issued a “Know Your Rights” community advisory for Iranian-Americans, Syrian-Americans, Iraqi-Americans, and others who may be impacted by the threat of war of between the United States and Iran. There is every reason to fear that as the situation escalates the civil liberties of Iranian-Americans, and indeed of all Muslim-Americans, will be placed at risk by an administration that has time and again made known its desire to institute “Muslim bans.”
Back in December, in a post on the impeachment lessons of Watergate, I pointed out that the sequence of crimes known as “Watergate” was inextricably caught up with Nixon’s war policies in Vietnam and Cambodia, and that then-Congressman John Conyers, who had made this a big issue, indeed proposed, unsuccessfully, an impeachment charge for Nixon’s secret war in Cambodia. The situation with Trump is obviously different in many ways. And I am not suggesting that it makes any sense to incorporate the current war situation in a new impeachment charge against Trump (though I recommend Matt Ford’s recent New Republic piece: “Trump’s Next Impeachable Offense is Nigh: Congress may have no other choice but to deploy the ultimate check again against a rogue president bent on committing atrocities.” But I am suggesting that it is now impossible to understand this new escalation with Iran separately from the impeachment, and it is equally impossible to understand the impeachment separately from about the war.
Both underscore the simple fact that Trump is a dangerous man who threatens constitutional democracy and must be stopped by all political means necessary.
Impeachment is one such means. We will have to see how that unfolds, and hope that House and Senate Democrats proceed with great savvy, so that the eventual acquittal of Trump will at least further weaken him politically and strengthen the Democratic base.
Congressional action to limit Trump in Iran is a second. The war powers resolutions being advanced by Tim Kaine in the Senate and Nancy Pelosi in the House are important, even though it is clear that no such resolution can pass the Senate. The bill introduced last Friday by Bernie Sanders in the Senate and Ro Khanna in the House is an even stronger bill, as it would block all funding for an Iran war without Congressional approval. It too cannot possibly succeed in the Senate. But these kinds of Democratic initiatives in Congress, if properly publicized, can at least lay down another strong marker against this president.
Citizen action to protest war is a third means of opposing Trump. Last weekend’s demonstrations, in over seventy U.S. cities, are important, and it can be expected that if the war intensifies, further and much larger demonstrations will occur. And while the many “resistance” demonstrations against Trump since 2017 have thus far been sporadic, we can hope that at some point soon they will become more pronounced, and powerful.
But the most important way of stopping Trump remains the campaign to defeat him in November.
I will conclude here by recommending the recent Nation piece by Jeet Heer: “Bernie Sanders Is the Anti-War Candidate: The candidate is trying to chart a bold alternative to Trump’s foreign policy — but are voters ready for his message?” But the current crisis makes two things perfectly clear. First, the opposition to Trumpism must now be about “foreign” as well as “domestic” policy; and second, if we do not arrive at a compelling alternative to Trumpism capable of halting the rush to war, and of mobilizing the vast numbers of Americans who are not Trumpists, we will face a disaster in November and beyond.
Jeffrey C. Isaac is James H. Rudy Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, Bloomington.