Kate Maltby: For Europeans, Trump's firing of Comey is proof even American democracy isn't immune from authoritarianism
Checks and balances only exist when separate parties control the executive and legislature, writes Maltby
Editor’s Note: Kate Maltby is a regular broadcaster and columnist in the United Kingdom. She writes a weekly column on politics and culture for The Financial Times and is a theater critic for The Times of London. She was on the founding team behind the reform conservative think tank Bright Blue and is also completing a Ph.D. in renaissance literature. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.
Eight years ago, early in the Obama presidency, I was sitting with a group of conservative students in the cafeteria of a liberal Ivy League college. I was the only non-American among them. One of the campus liberals approached us to pick a fight: She was agitating for the new Democratic administration to pursue a case for war crimes against former President George W. Bush.
My GOP cronies bridled. “This is America,” one insisted. “When one side gets into power, they let the other side retire quietly – they don’t stick their predecessors’ heads on spikes. We don’t use the law as a tool to punish political opponents. That’s what makes us different from banana republics in Africa. That’s what makes us the greatest democracy in the world.”
Regardless of what you think about George W. Bush – or this characterization of the entire African continent – my friend summed up what many Americans believe about their nation’s strengths. From Thomas Jefferson onward, the rhetoric of the democratic example has been fundamental to the mythology of American exceptionalism.
Central to this reverence is the faith Americans have in their Constitution: a document which promises to punish corrupt representatives, constrain executive overreach and protect judicial independence. But beyond America’s borders, even its greatest admirers reserve a dose of skepticism. America’s confidence that its Constitution uniquely protects against abuse of power feels, at best, naïve.
For those of us who split our lives between America and Europe, the series of scandals now emanating from the Trump White House will prove the true test of whether American checks and balances are all they promise. Our European friends are doubtful. No nation is exempt from the risk of an authoritarian coup. The clear feeling in Europe today is that America is, as Sen. Brian Schatz recently tweeted, “in a full-fledged constitutional crisis.”
People are concerned about traveling to the US, even concerned about doing business in a country that no longer seems to uphold the rule of law. No longer is America a shining example, as my college friends would have it, to the tin pot dictatorships of Africa.
Views on Comey's firing
In nations without local surrogates ready to defend his GOP, you’ll find few people who believe President Donald Trump’s claim that he dismissed FBI Director James Comey in response to Comey’s past criticism of Hillary Clinton. Trump’s letter to Comey references a memo from Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein, which in turn describes Comey as “wrong to usurp the authority of the Attorney General on July 5, 2016.” That’s the date, in the middle of the presidential campaign, when Comey issued a damning statement on Clinton, just falling short of recommending prosecution. Though Trump initially called Comey’s decision not to pursue prosecution a “travesty,” he later praised Comey for his handling of the investigation.
It seems much more revealing that Comey’s firing took place a day after he reportedly stepped up his own inquiry into the Trump campaign’s alleged links to Russia. (It is worth noting, too, that Rosenstein, an Obama appointee, does not explicitly call in his memo for Comey’s dismissal – just as Comey himself criticized Hillary, but declined to recommend charges. Precision matters in high-stakes legal inquiries.)
None of this makes comfortable watching for America’s allies. Should British Prime Minister Theresa May trust her friend Donald to treat her as professionally as he has treated James Comey? Should she direct her intelligence agencies to share with American colleagues their information on Vladimir Putin’s activities?
If there is a scrap of hope to be gleaned from President Trump’s obvious misdirection this week, it is that Trump has veiled his attack on his own FBI director in the language of bipartisan constitutionalism. The attempt to present this sacking as a favor to Democrats – who blame Comey for styming Clinton’s campaign – at least suggests that he knows the directors of major civic infrastructure should command bipartisan support.
Or does it? The problem with being European, looking at America, is that we know dictators have always used the language of constitutionalism to camouflage their land grabs.
In Turkey, President Erdogan began his reign by appointing senior men of his own party to leading civic positions. His international spokesmen’s rationale? That Turkish public life had for too long been dominated by the army: Only his appointees could provide the civilian oversight necessary to a modern democracy. This proved a particularly appealing fig leaf for American commentators: In August 2011, the headline of a Boston Globe editorial called Erdogan’s reforms “Sign of a maturing democracy.” Six years later, and he is widely accepted in America to have established a dictatorship.
If there’s a single question on every European’s lips, it is: How long can Trump last? To those of us who’ve heard Americans wax lyrical about the legacy of the Founding Fathers, now is the time when we expect to see the US Constitution’s checks and balances swing into action. We know that Americans are good at getting rid of presidents: In the American TV series that form our stable diet, it happens all the time, from “Veep” to “24.” It’s happened in living memory, too. If you can impeach a president simply for lying about sex, surely you can impeach a president who sacks the person investigating him?
Now, however, it’s American observers who sound more skeptical. If you’re actually living in America, you know that it’ll be hard to get much of the congressional GOP on board for an impeachment; that nothing really constrains the executive branch’s power over civic appointments.
It is evident that separation of powers only truly exists in the United States when separate parties control the executive and legislature.
Smug Europeans are congratulating themselves that Americans were always wrong about their exceptional democracy. Those of us with a foot in both continents are not so much smug as heartbroken.