Washington DC has been shaken by an astounding series of seismic events in recent weeks, from the unexpected firing of FBI director James Comey to bombshell reports that Trump had shared sensitive intelligence with Russian officials in the Oval Office, to the appointment of a seasoned FBI veteran as special counsel to investigate Russia’s interference in the US election.
The events in the US capital have been described as a circus (paywall), or signs of a nation on the verge of a nervous breakdown. But the past two weeks have also provided a whirlwind tour through the checks and balances that make American democracy work. It’s been tumultuous and ugly, yes, but, there are also irrefutable signs that the process is working.
Independent officials in the Department of Justice
The Department of Justice, headed by the attorney general, is a part of the executive branch, but its top officials swear to uphold the US Constitution, not protect the Oval Office. While attorney general Jeff Sessions’ role in the firing of Comey raised questions about his independence, especially because he recused himself from the department’s investigation into Russian interference in the US election, the actions of two DOJ employees in the past two weeks have bolstered confidence in this system.
Former acting attorney general Sally Yates’s testified on May 8 to the Senate about concerns she shared with the White House that Michael Flynn, who served as the national security advisor, could be blackmailed by the Russians, showing that the Trump administration had specific knowledge weeks before Flynn was fired. Yates also defended her decision not to enforce the Trump administration’s first travel ban, calling it a “constitutional” concern, and “fundamental issue of religious freedom.” Trump fired Yates, but her testimony will be part of the official record in the Senate now.
On May 17, deputy attorney-general Rod Rosenstein appointed former FBI director Robert Mueller to head the investigation into Russian tampering in the US election, without tipping off the White House, or Sessions, beforehand (which is how an independent special prosecutor should be named), earning praise from Republicans and Democrats both.
Congressional oversight of the executive branch
The Republican-led Congress has mostly dragged its feet in the pursuing investigations into the Trump team’s ties to Russia.
But Comey’s firing, and the subsequent reports that he has written notes of the president urging him to soft-pedal the investigation, have galvanized them into action. While the Senate Intelligence Committee was already doggedly pursuing its own investigation, it has gained new momentum, and the stalled investigation in the House was restarted. And some Republicans are speaking out about the investigation, signaling it is important, breaking with the president who says it is dividing the country. South Carolina senator Lindsey Graham, for example, noted it was likely a “criminal investigation” on May 18.
Some of the push on members of Congress to act is coming from US citizens, who have been organizing, demonstrating, and contacting their local representatives. Voters turned up in record numbers at town halls over the recent “spring recess,” when Congress members go home to their constituency, sometimes chanting “Do your job” to their elected representatives.
The first few months of the Trump presidency have seen an groundswell of civic action against the administration, from protests and demonstrations to letter-writing campaigns and phone trees. There are new candidates running for office who have never before considered politics, like a group of scientists. Trump’s fiery campaign rhetoric and promises to working-class Americans brought voters to the polls who had checked out of the political process in the past, and some of these supporters are flocking to town halls as well.
The fourth estate
The phrase the “fourth estate” was coined by Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle, who equivocated printing to democracy itself. He said, “whoever can speak, speaking now to the whole nation, becomes a power, a branch of government, with inalienable weight in law-making, in all acts of authority.”
Mainstream media and conservative outlets alike helped Trump win the US presidency, giving him an oversized share of free advertising with their non-stop coverage of his outrageous statements and rallies, and saw their profits soar in return. Now, many of them are taking a hard look at the Trump administration, devoting more resources to what’s happening in the White House than in presidencies past.
No one media outlet in America can claim to be “speaking now to the whole nation,” but investigations into Trump are still having a sizable impact.
Michael Flynn would likely still be national security advisor had the Washington Post not reported that he had discussed (paywall) sanctions with Russia’s ambassador to the US, refuting public statements by vice president Mike Pence. He was fired five days later. A New York Times report (paywall) that Comey had written memos documenting Trump pressuring him to shut down the Flynn investigation nudged the House investigating committee back into action.
Conservative media outlets that aren’t covering the questions hanging over Comey’s firing, or the ongoing probes into the Trump team’s ties with Russia have seen ratings drop—a potential sign that some American viewers are looking for fact-based reporting rather than partisan coverage.
Government employees committed to the rule of law
None of the media’s breaking news reports would be possible without a slew of anonymous sources from inside the White House and the federal government. Trump and his supporters have decried these leaks as part of a “deep state” trying to undermine the election. Reporters on the receiving end, though, say they’re often long-time government employees concerned about what they see as the dangerous actions of some players in the Trump administration.
Rather than seeing these leaks as dangerous to democracy, whistle blower advocates say they are an important part of it.
“The public has a right to know, and that is who federal employees ultimately work for,” said attorney Michael D. Kohn, co-founder of the National Whistleblowers Center. Most don’t want to vilify their superiors, they want to problem fixed, and leaking is a last resort. “Almost all whistleblowers have raised their concerns internally first,” he said. “It’s clear that going to the media can sometimes produce the best result in addressing a problem,” he said, citing the Flint, Michigan water contamination scandal.
“Whistleblowers are the public’s eyes, ears and conscious. Freedom of the press depends on whistleblowers and our democratic institutions will fail without them.”