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Cokie and Steven V. Roberts: Critics of the world, unite!

By Cokie Roberts and Steven V. Roberts

James R. Clapper Jr., the former director of National Intelligence, told CNN that “our institutions are under assault internally.”

“Internally, from the president?” asked host Jake Tapper.

Clapper answered, “Exactly.”

“I think the Founding Fathers, in their genius, created a system of three co-equal branches of government and a built-in system of checks and balances,” Clapper continued. “And I feel as though it’s under assault and eroding.”

Clapper was speaking after President Donald Trump fired FBI Director James Comey, but before it was reported that Trump had shared secret intelligence reports with visiting Russian envoys. The latter action was described by The Wall Street Journal as “potentially jeopardizing critical intelligence-sharing agreements in the fight against Islamic State.” Clapper’s remarks also came before Comey leaked word that Trump had asked him to back off investigating former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn.

Flynn’s successor, H.R. McMaster, insisted that Trump’s actions with the Russians were “entirely appropriate,” but national security experts from both parties strongly disagree. “It’s so mind-boggling, I don’t even know what to say,” said Eric Edelman, undersecretary of defense under Bush 43, to the Journal. “It’s jeopardizing a human source. It’s the one thing you’re trained never to do.”

The three incidents are part of a much larger pattern of impulsiveness and intemperance that has marked the early months of the Trump regime. Does this president really understand the nature of American democracy? Does he appreciate the “built-in system of checks and balances” that was specifically designed to restrain dangerously unhinged leaders just like him?

Even the president’s Republican allies on Capitol Hill are increasingly fearful that Clapper is right — that basic principles of democratic government are “under assault and eroding.”

“The White House has got to do something soon to bring itself under control and in order. It’s got to happen,” Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told the Journal. “Obviously they’re in a downward spiral right now, and they’ve got to figure out a way to come to grips with all that’s happening.”

The public shares this growing sense of alarm. Trump’s favorability rating in the latest Wall Street Journal/NBC poll dropped to 39 percent, and only 29 percent approved his decision to fire Comey.

Hard-core anti-Trumpists are already muttering the “I” word, impeachment, but that’s premature. As far as we know, Trump has broken no laws. Yes, FBI directors are given 10-year terms to insulate them from political pressures, but Trump still had the authority to fire Comey. While releasing highly classified information would constitute a crime for other government officials, the president is the ultimate authority, and he was correct in tweeting that he had the “absolute right” to do so. Trump’s comments to Comey about Flynn — which the White House denies — don’t seem to constitute obstruction of justice.

Still, having the right to do something doesn’t make it the right thing to do. Trump is persistently violating some of the most fundamental norms of behavior that should govern every occupant of the Oval Office. His base supporters might well love him for defying those traditions, but a lot of other folks are increasingly terrified.

The New York Times interviewed political scientists who study the decline of democracies and the rise of autocrats. They agreed that “norms about political behavior and power serve as the ‘soft guardrails for democracy,'” in the words of professor Steven Levitsky of Harvard.

“A key to making democracy work in the long run is that the parties recognize that institutions shouldn’t be weaponized,” said Levitsky. “You don’t use your control over institutions to the max.”

But Trump has used his “control over institutions” to break many norms. One good example: refusing to follow the precedent set by other presidents and release his tax returns. Another: viciously attacking federal judges who have repeatedly barred his attempts to limit immigration from Muslim-majority countries.

And, of course, his war on the media continues — trying to undermine the credibility of reporters who courageously reveal disquieting information like his reckless release of privileged intelligence. In a speech at Liberty University, Trump ranted that, “Nothing is easier — or more pathetic — than being a critic, because they’re people that can’t get the job done.”

Mr. President, here’s our response: “Critics of the world, unite!” Those critics — judges and journalists, lawyers and lawmakers, intelligence officers and criminal investigators — have a vitally important job: making democracy work. They are the guardians of the guardrails, the ones who protect us from the assaults and erosions that Clapper is so urgently warning about.

Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by email at stevecokie@gmail.com.

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