Now We Know What Kind of Authoritarian Trump Aspires to Be
Over the past week, Trump has showed his commitment to creating Kyiv-on-the-Potomac.
Donald Trump’s obsession with Ukrainian corruption turned out to be genuine: He wanted it thoroughly investigated—for the sake of its emulation. The diplomats who testified in front in Adam Schiff’s committee explained and exposed the Ukrainian justice system. Their descriptions may have been intended as an indictment of kleptocracy, but the president apparently regarded them as an instructional video on selective prosecution, the subversion of a neutral judiciary, and the punishment of whistle-blowers who expose corruption.
Over the course of Trump’s presidency, his critics have speculated about the model of illiberal democracy that he would adopt as his own. After the past week—which saw the firing of Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman, the revocation of the Justice Department’s sentencing memo for Roger Stone, and Attorney General Bill Barr’s increasingly heavy-handed control of the investigations into his boss—there’s less doubt about the contours of the state Trump hopes to build. He’s creating Kyiv-on-the-Potomac.
The House Intelligence Committee narrative featured a villainous bureau in Kyiv called the Office of the Prosecutor General. On paper, this department is akin to America’s own Department of Justice, but in practice, it acted more like an auction house where top government lawyers would entertain bids from oligarchs. These prosecutors have been integral to the maintenance and perversion of the system. Oligarchs would abuse the office to bring cases against old enemies; they also used the office to punish critics of their corrupt practices. And, in the most extreme example, one Ukrainian president weaponized the office against his primary political opponent: He actually locked her up. (It was Paul Manafort’s job, as a consultant to that president, to justify the arrest to the rest of the world.)
The United States has tried to push Ukraine away from this corrupt system. When Joe Biden bragged about how he conditioned U.S. financial assistance on the firing of the prosecutor Viktor Shokin, he was boasting about a legitimate accomplishment. Thanks in part to his efforts, Ukraine’s judiciary moved toward a system more like our own—at least more like the system that existed before William Barr entered the Justice Department—where the state shows no favor to its friends and no punitive malice towards its enemies.
There’s an irony to this tale. Just as the United States was succeeding in pushing the Ukrainian judiciary in a more democratic direction, it began plundering Ukraine’s recent past, borrowing its worst practices. The corrupt prosecutors who were displaced in the course of reform have reemerged as the conspiratorial figures whispering in Rudy Giuliani’s ear, stoking unfounded theories about Burisma and Biden. They urged Trump to exact revenge against his enemies, with the same malevolent prosecutorial intent and flimsy evidence that they might themselves have deployed.
At the core of liberal democracy, especially as it evolved in the 20th century, is the notion that a swath of the state should be preserved as a neutral territory. One of the constraints on political power is a governmental structure that removes politics from important tasks. This commitment extended well beyond insulating the judicial system. The government installed a layer of experts and civil servants, who sat below political appointees. These are people like Alexander Vindman, who supply facts and dispassionate analysis. They are the technocrats, so maligned around the Western world these days. They tabulate the data about economic growth so that an administration can’t concoct self-serving statistics about employment and production. They process foreign intelligence so that sycophantic aides don’t simply manipulate briefings to confirm the policy biases of the commander in chief. And they exist as checks on the machinations of political appointees, sensitive to any attempts to corruptly distort the government for personal benefit.
Conservatives have long waged war on this neutral state. George W. Bush’s administration bulldozed the CIA when its bureaucracy objected to his Iraq policy; it trashed the EPA when officials there sought to provide assessments of the environmental impact of proposals. The problem with Trump is that he is even less sensitive to the idea of neutrality than were his predecessors. He’s incapable of self-control and incapable of distinguishing his self-interest from the common good. So with the ejection of Vindman and other events of this past week, it’s possible to see Trump finally making his move against the neutral state. By punishing whistle-blowers so ostentatiously, he’s disciplining the bureaucracy to accept his corruption. He’s instigating the Ukrainification of American government.