Reasonable people are saying the US appears to be teetering on the edge of a constitutional crisis, as the system of checks and balances that has kept democracy humming in America for more than 240 years could be on the verge of breaking down.
“We’re in absolutely uncharted waters,” Heather Richardson, a professor of American history at Boston College and the author of a history of the Republican party, told Quartz, adding “I’m beside myself.”
The framers of the constitution “did not construct a system that was designed to withstand failing all at once,” she said. But the US is now in the throes of a “rogue presidency, a rogue Congress, and packed courts.”
“I think this is the most profound crisis the country has ever been in,” she said, “and we’re all acting as if this is normal.”
The White House has authorized the release of a controversial memo on the FBI’s Russia investigation, marking the latest attempt by Donald Trump, his advisors, and a core group of Republican lawmakers to discredit the probe—despite the fact that US intelligence-agency heads, including those hand-picked by Trump, have confirmed Russia’s involvement meddling in the 2016 US presidential election.
The FBI, Democrats in Congress, and some Republicans have warned that releasing the memo—composed by House Intelligence Committee chairman Devin Nunes, a former Trump transition team official—could be misleading and compromise intelligence services’ relationships worldwide for years.
“The threat from Russia to our democracy is now far less than the threat from within,” California’s Adam Schiff, the leading Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, said today (Feb. 1). “There is nothing Russia can do to us that rivals what we are doing to ourselves right now.”
Depending on who you ask, the US is on the brink of, or has already fallen into, a constitutional crisis—a political problem brought on by the failure of government institutions to protect democracy in the way they’re supposed to. Here’s why Schiff and others are concerned:
The White House is refusing to upholding a law passed by Congress, for Russia’s benefit
The idea of a US constitutional crisis started in earnest on Jan. 29, when the White House said it would not impose new sanctions on Russia, ignoring recent legislation that passed with strong support from both Republicans and Democrats.
The president has forced out officials involved in the Russia investigation
The lead-up to the White House’s expected release of the FBI memo has been a “Saturday Night Massacre in slow motion,” Norm Eisen, the former White House ethics lawyer wrote in Politico, referring to Richard Nixon’s firing of Department of Justice officials including special prosecutor Archibald Cox, who was leading the investigation of the Watergate scandal that would end with Nixon’s resignation in 1974.
Trump fired former FBI head James Comey after demanding his loyalty last summer, and this week deputy director Andrew McCabe was abruptly forced out. In a May interview with NBC News, Trump hinted that the Russia probe is why he fired Comey. “When I decided to just do it I said to myself, I said, ‘You know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story, it’s an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election that they should’ve won.’”
Congressional checks on the executive branch have not been undertaken
Republicans control the committees that should be providing checks on the president’s power, but are opting not to use that power. The House Oversight Committee, for example, is not investigating McCabe’s unexpected departure, which would be normal procedure in any other presidency.
The government is lurching from emergency to emergency
Trump is scheduled to speak tonight (Feb. 1) at the winter conference of the Republican National Committee, at an event held at his Trump International hotel in Washington, DC—and one that will likely profit the president and his family.
On Feb. 8, the Congress again is to convene in its next attempt to pass a budget to keep the government open for the next few weeks or months, the fifth time it has been forced to pass a short-term budget since Trump took office, and a sign of how dysfunctional Washington is right now.