According to Tuesday's report, 2017 marked the 12th consecutive year of decline in global freedom
Concerns have only been magnified by recent criticism over Trump's disparaging remarks about immigrants
President Donald Trump often claims that he has achieved unprecedented levels of success during his first year in office but a damning assessment from one non-partisan group warns that the administration’s attacks on the press and brash foreign policy approach have intensified the ongoing global assault on democracy.
Released Tuesday by the watchdog group Freedom House, the new report concluded that the Trump administration has facilitated the erosion of American democratic standards and contributed to the decline of global freedom.
“Democracy is under assault and in retreat around the globe, a crisis that has intensified as America’s democratic standards erode at an accelerating pace,” a summary of the report states.
The report found that 2017 marked the 12th consecutive year of decline in global freedom with states like Turkey, Venezuela, Poland and Tunisia among the 71 countries registering declines in standards.
That trend illustrates the “fragility of freedom and democracy when institutions have not been established,” according to Republican Ohio governor and former presidential candidate John Kasich.
While Freedom House has tracked a slow trend of decline in the US over the last seven years, that decline accelerated in 2017 due to “growing evidence of Russian interference in the 2016 elections, violations of basic ethical standards by the new administration, and a reduction in government transparency.”
Trump’s ‘unprecedented attacks’ on the press
While the press and judiciary have “remained resilient” in the face of Trump’s “unprecedented attacks,” Freedom House warned that the administration’s combative media tactics could ultimately weaken those key institutions – a result that would carry significant implications for US democracy and America’s standing in the world.
“The core institutions of American democracy are being battered by an administration that has treated the country’s traditional checks and balances with disdain,” said Michael J. Abramowitz, president of Freedom House.
Kasich, who has been a vocal critic of the current administration at times, warned that Trump’s attacks on the press could also encourage a growing number of authoritarian regimes to further restrict freedom of speech in their own countries.
“My concern is I don’t want any autocrats to look at what’s happening here and apply it to their own countries,” he told reporters.
Republican Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona is expected to deliver a floor speech on Wednesday in which he will compare Trump’s attacks on the news media to the rhetoric of late Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin.
According to an excerpt of the speech, Flake will criticize the President for calling the news media the “enemy of the people,” calling it “an assault as unprecedented as it is unwarranted.”
Flake made clear in an interview Monday with CNN, however, that he did not intend to compare Trump to Stalin but wanted to note that the President’s attack on the press as “the enemy of the people” recalled Stalin.
Opening the door for Russia
On the international stage, the report said that the administration has abdicated the US’s traditional role as a “leading champion of democracy” and opened the door for repressive nations like China and Russia to extend their global influence.
Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright pointed to Russia’s “orchestrated anti-democratic campaign” as one of the most complex factors currently at work.
“We are dealing with a KGB officer playing a weak hand really well,” she said of Russian President Vladimir Putin, pointing to his strategy of undermining American democracy and dividing the US from other democratic countries.
“I think we have to see this is asymmetric but really be aware of what’s really going on,” she said.
Last week, Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin released a report that concluded the US will not be prepared to defend against possible Russian meddling in the 2018 midterm elections or the 2020 presidential contest unless it takes action now.
Titled “Putin’s Asymmetrical Assault on Democracy in Russia and Europe: Implications for U.S. National Security,” the report draws from European experience to outline ways in which Russia’s “malign influence operations” can be deterred.
It also highlights Trump’s repeated refusal to acknowledge US intelligence assessments that Russia interfered in the 2016 election.
“Without leadership from the President, any attempt to marshal such a response will be inherently weakened at the outset,” it says. “President Trump has been negligent in acknowledging and responding to the threat to US national security posed by [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s meddling.”
The administration pushed back against the report and a statement from the National Security Council said: “There will most certainly be consequences for those who seek to interfere with our elections.”
But the Trump administration’s fundamental view on US responsibility to protecting global democracy presents challenges to the struggle against authoritarian regimes, according to the report.
“The Trump administration has made a sharp break from the political consensus of the last 70 years by casting aside democracy as the animating force behind American foreign policy,” Abramowitz said.
“The hastening withdrawal of the United States from its historical commitment to supporting democracy overseas makes the challenge posed by authoritarian regimes all the more powerful and threatening,” he added.
Albright echoed Abramowitz’s concern over the US failing to set the example for other nations.
“One thing we’ve said is compromise is important – at this moment we are not a great example,” she said. “We are an exceptional country but exceptions can’t be made for us.”
Kasich raised concerns that Trump administration’s threats of unilateral action to undermine the Iran nuclear deal and “confusing” push to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel could have serious repercussions with key US allies.
Fueling the fire
Concerns that the US is retreating as a leader of global democracy have only been magnified by recent criticism over Trump’s disparaging remarks about immigrants from the African continent and Haiti.
Several US lawmakers and international leaders have slammed the reported comments as racist and a reflection of the administration’s willingness to sacrifice American values to pander to a base of supporters who support exclusionary policy measures.
Trump has rejected accusations of racism in recent days and defended any comments he made during the Oval Office meeting as tough talk on immigration that aligns with his “America First” agenda.
He has also taken the opportunity to launch another attack on the media, claiming his comments were misrepresented.
But the controversy and ensuing battle to shape public perception are consistent with many of the administration’s actions that prompted criticism in Tuesday’s report.
CNN’s Nicole Gaouette contributed to this report.