If Donald Trump was elected with any mandate, it was to shake up the orthodoxy—to challenge the establishment and its established ways of operating. To drain the swamp. What he actually delivers, however, may be transformation that even many of his supporters come to regret.
Nowhere has the mandate for change been more forcefully exercised than in the field of criminal and counterintelligence investigations of the president and his closest associates. His last tweet of the day on May 20 sounded more like a proclamation:
I hereby demand, and will do so officially tomorrow, that the Department of Justice look into whether or not the FBI/DOJ infiltrated or surveilled the Trump Campaign for Political Purposes - and if any such demands or requests were made by people within the Obama Administration!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 20, 2018
The tweet provoked complaints that the president was breaching norms essential to the functioning of our democracy: As The New York Times wrote, it “ratcheted up his willingness to impose direct political control over the work of law enforcement officials.” And yet it seems that much of America shrugged, apparently either supportive or tolerant of the president’s efforts to stick it to the man. One person’s hallowed tradition is another’s hidebound ritual. Why should they care?
Here’s why you should care. The current tradition of congressional oversight of intelligence is only 40 years old, having started in 1976. Hallowed, perhaps, but too fresh yet to be venerable or invulnerable. And the abuses of Watergate that precipitated the new tradition, including a White House eager for ways to “use the available federal machinery,” like IRS audits, “to screw our political enemies,” are still too recent to be dismissed as ancient history. Keeping the intelligence community operating under the law and preserving the apolitical nature of law enforcement helps to preserve perhaps the most important value underlying any functioning democracy—the idea that no one, not even the president, is above the rule of law. Today, with the enormous and powerful machinery of federal law enforcement and intelligence, these principles are more important than ever. But they are not self-reinforcing; they need care and feeding to remain vital.