WASHINGTON ― President Donald Trump threatens to crack down on the news media ― just as the Venezuelan strongman has done. He urges his top prosecutor to arrest his political enemies ― just as the autocratic ruler of Russia does. He tells his citizens that he is the only source of truth ― just as the dictator of North Korea does.
And most recently Trump berated his Justice Department for prosecuting two Republican members of Congress who are “very popular” and thus risking his party’s hold on those seats in the next elections.
“It’s the kind of thing we see where a leader is trying to have an authoritarian state,” said Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a New York University professor who studies authoritarianism. “What’s incredible about it is that the accusation of incompetency is because the DOJ is following the law.”
Trump on Monday ridiculed his attorney general, Jeff Sessions, for permitting California’s Duncan Hunter and New York state’s Chris Collins to be indicted in federal corruption investigations, putting their otherwise safe House seats in peril. “Two long running, Obama era, investigations of two very popular Republican Congressmen were brought to a well publicized charge, just ahead of the Mid-Terms, by the Jeff Sessions Justice Department,” the president wrote on Twitter. “Two easy wins now in doubt because there is not enough time. Good job Jeff......”
Trump’s White House did not respond to multiple queries over two days for an explanation of that statement. But the lawyer defending Trump in a criminal investigation into the help that Russia gave his candidacy said the president was merely upset about the timing, with the indictments coming too late to replace either congressman with a different Republican on the November ballot.
“These things are usually put off until after the election,” said Rudy Giuliani, himself a former U.S. attorney in New York and then a senior Justice Department official.
He said he personally postponed an investigation into the husband of the late Rep. Geraldine Ferraro in 1984. A complaint about her spouse’s business dealings had come to Giuliani’s office as Ferraro was being added to the Democratic ticket with presidential nominee Walter Mondale. Giuliani said he did not act on it until after that November’s election. (He also said that particular complaint wound up being unsubstantiated, although John Zaccaro would later plead guilty to another charge.)
“Maybe the president put it in stark political terms,” Giuliani acknowledged, but added that he would have either wrapped up the current congressmen’s investigations by late spring or waited until after the election. “I don’t know how three more months would have hurt.”
The complaint about Zaccaro, however, came only as his wife was about to become the very first female vice presidential nominee for a major party. In the cases of Hunter and Collins, the investigations began long ago, although the insider trading inquiry against Collins started last year after Trump became president ― not during the Obama years, as Trump falsely claimed.
To Ben-Ghiat, the president’s repeated attempts to humiliate Sessions into either quitting or changing his behavior is typical for an authoritarian-minded leader who is stuck in a political system where he is not all powerful. Where Russian President Vladimir Putin can simply have political opponent Alexei Navalny arrested on invented charges, Trump is left complaining that no one has arrested his 2016 opponent, Hillary Clinton, or any of those working on special counsel Robert Mueller’s team.
“Trump engages in a lot more bluster because he’s operating in a democracy,” Ben-Ghiat said.
On Tuesday, Trump complained about reporting from NBC News, ending with this idea: “Look at their license?” In fact, it’s unclear what, if anything, the president could do to yank broadcast licenses from all of NBC’s individual stations and affiliates.
Six weeks earlier, in a speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Kansas City, Missouri, Trump told his audience that nothing being reported by the news media could be trusted. “Just stick with us. Don’t believe the crap you see from these people, the fake news,” he said. “Just remember, what you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening.”
That idea, Ben-Ghiat said, is common among autocrats, who all have some version of that claim. “Mussolini’s was ‘Mussolini is always right,’” she said of the Italian dictator who allied that country with Adolf Hitler’s Germany during World War II. “We can expect more of this as the midterms approach. Trump’s very sensitive to optics.”
Longtime Trump aide Sam Nunberg, who now works for a political group run by former White House senior staffer Steve Bannon, said the idea of Trump as an authoritarian is silly, given how ineffective his complaints have been.
“How can you be an authoritarian when you’re allowing Mueller to spend vast amounts of money and all kinds of time investigating him?” Nunberg said, adding that Trump is simply lashing out ― perhaps not in the most articulate way ― against Session’s leadership at the Justice Department. “Sessions has basically lost all credibility.”
But Ben-Ghiat said that just because Trump has not successfully imposed authoritarian rule on this country does not mean there is no cause for concern. “Hate crimes are up. The press is being maligned,” she said. “Propaganda works.”