Internationally, the President’s interference erodes a long-standing national reputation for sound governance based on the rule of law. That reputation makes it easier for the United States to rally foreign allies behind shared objectives.
Adherence to the rule of law had never before faced serious testing here since America emerged in the 20th century as the world’s leading power. Now it does.
One jurist first appointed by President Ronald Reagan has likened the administration’s stance toward former FBI official Andrew McCabe — a longtime Trump target — to that of “a banana republic.” A former deputy attorney general under President George H.W. Bush invoked the same phrase in blasting when he calls Barr’s “root-and-branch attack on the core principles that have guided our justice system.”
Such assessments reverberate around the world. Other countries have nurtured related concerns over legally dubious Trump initiatives including his travel ban, application of tariffs on national security grounds and demand that Ukraine investigate potential Democratic rival Joe Biden.
“In all these ways, the administration is communicating to allies and adversaries alike that the US is no different and no better than any other country,” said Kori Schake, a National Security Council aide under President George W. Bush. Schake now directs foreign policy studies at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.
Array of power moves
As a 2016 candidate, Trump declared that opponent Hillary Clinton should “go to jail.” As leader of the executive branch, he continues to act with abandon.
Most notoriously, Trump attacked US national security officials sounding alarms about Russian help for his 2016 campaign and fired the FBI director probing the matter. After the conclusion of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, Trump leaned directly on Ukraine’s President in the phone call that led to his impeachment.
“It’s not on autopilot — it takes people in these institutions to make the rule of law real,” said Richard Haass, a national security adviser to Republican presidents who now heads the Council on Foreign Relations. “The Senate chose not to make the rule of law real. I take that as a warning.”
Doubts about American governance could even hasten the end of the dollar’s status as the world’s reserve currency. That distinction, marking the US as the safest haven for global investors, helps Washington finance budget deficits through inexpensive borrowing.
Whether or not that happens, Haass said, “the fact that we’re having this conversation tells you something’s different.”
Nicholas Burns, a former US ambassador to NATO who now teaches at Harvard University, does not see irreversible damage to American leadership yet. But neither diplomats nor corporate executives can be sure how long familiar advantages will persist.
“The costs of losing institutions and the rule of law can be gradual and corrosive,” said Diane Swonk, an economist at the business consultancy Grant Thornton. “We often don’t realize the foundation of a functional economy is rotten until it actually collapses.”
For reasons of political self-interest, at least, powerful Republicans fear a Trump-inspired legitimacy crisis. The man who shepherded the President’s acquittal, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, has cautioned him to restrain his judicial commentary as Barr requested.
That can’t stop Republican candidates who see votes in cheering Trump’s disdain for legal boundaries. Seeking an Alabama US Senate nomination, Rep. Bradley Byrne has ripped opponent Jeff Sessions for refusing Trump’s demand to maintain control of the Russia investigation as attorney general.
“He let the President down and got fired,” declared an actor in a recent Byrne ad.
“And Hillary still ain’t in jail,” another actor added.