Here's everything you need to know about democracy this week:
1. Democracy Stress Tested
- DOJ Prosecutor Resignation Sparks Concerns over Durham Investigation
- Recordings Expose President Trump’s Contradictory Statements on COVID-19
2. Democracy at Work
- Hope for Montenegro’s Future as Ruling Party Falls After 30 Years in Power
3. Join Our Mission
Democracy Stress Tested
Assistant U.S. Attorney Nora Dannehy stands behind U.S. Attorney John Durham outside a U.S. District Court in New Haven, CT, in 2005.
Credit: Bob MacDonnell / The Hartford Courant
DOJ Prosecutor Resignation Sparks Concerns over Durham Investigation
On Thursday, Sept. 10, Assistant U.S. Attorney Nora Dannehy resigned from her position in the Durham Investigation, the Department of Justice’s inquiry into potential misconduct in the launch of the FBI’s Trump-Russia probe. Dannehy hasn't spoken publicly about why she left, but colleagues contend that she is resigning partly out of concern over political influence in the inquiry.
The Durham Investigation, which began in May 2019, has led to one arrest but has yet to release final results. Insiders say there are still months of work left to do.
Dannehy’s co-workers allege she became concerned after suspecting that Attorney General William Barr was pressuring for a release of the investigation's report before the 2020 election. Barr has long been a critic of the Mueller investigation and sent President Trump an unsolicited 20-page memo calling it “fatally misconceived” in June 2018. Trump, who has made unsubstantiated claims that President Obama should be arrested for illegally wiretapping his campaign, later nominated Barr as AG.
If these allegations prove accurate, Barr’s actions would have violated longstanding DOJ norms surrounding political impartiality, and could even have run afoul of federal criminal law.
1. Has the Durham investigation been politicized in other respects?
Barr’s appointment of John Durham, a non-partisan 30-year DOJ veteran, to lead the investigation initially assuaged concerns over political influence. He recruited Dannehy, a career prosecutor who worked closely with Durham for decades, to join his team.
However, worries began to resurface when Inspector General Michael Horowitz announced that his independent investigation concluded that the Russia investigation began lawfully. Barr and Durham publicly disputed Horowitz’s results, violating DOJ rules about commenting on investigations.
Barr has also signaled that he will not follow the long-respected 60-day rule with regard to the Durham Investigation. The rule states that the Justice Department will not make significant announcements on political investigations within 60 days of an election to ensure that it does not influence politics. Barr, who has previously argued that the rule should apply extensively, now claims that the Durham Investigation is not political in nature and is thus exempt. Barr had ominously stated that he expects “developments” from Durham “before the end of the summer.”
2. What does Dannehy’s resignation say about the Barr DOJ?
The prosecutor’s resignation is only the latest event raising grave concerns about the Barr DOJ’s political neutrality. A federal judge called Barr’s summary of the Mueller report “distorted” and “misleading,” a characterization which Mueller echoed. Barr lied to the public about the resignation of U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman, allegedly personally intervened to ensure that Roger Stone and Michael Flynn received favorable treatment (which has prompted an investigation), and probed four major automakers the day after President Trump criticized them on Twitter.
What’s more, DOJ prosecutors resigning in protest is normally “exceedingly rare.” Dannehy is at least the fifth to in recent memory.
The rule of law is a foundational democratic principle, helping ensure that leaders cannot abuse their power. Political prosecution to help entrench an incumbent’s power is out of the autocrat’s playbook. For this reason, a once well-respected legal official said that “nothing could be more destructive of our system of government… than any toleration of political interference with the enforcement of the law.” That official was William Barr, at his confirmation hearings. It’s time he acts the part.
Credit: Greg Kahn / GRAIN
Recordings Expose President Trump’s Contradictory Statements on COVID-19
Last Wednesday, in order to promote his upcoming book, Rage, journalist Bob Woodward revealed audio recordings from interviews with President Trump in which the President admitted that he had always known COVID-19 was “deadly stuff,” despite his public statements. In a February 7 interview, President Trump privately warned that COVID-19 was “more deadly than even your strenuous flus.”
Meanwhile, on February 27th, President Trump publicly stated, “It’s going to disappear. One day it’s like a miracle—it will disappear.” Even on Tuesday night, at an ABC town hall, President Trump said COVID-19 “is going away… It would go away without the vaccine,” ignoring moderator George Stephanopoulos’s response that herd immunity would only develop after “many deaths.”
After misleading the American people about the dangers of COVID-19, President Trump told Woodward on March 17th, “I wanted to always play it down. I still like playing it down because I don’t want to create a panic.”
To date, nearly 200,000 Americans have died from COVID-19, at least 6.5 million have been infected, and more than 40 million Americans have filed for unemployment. By May, a Harvard study estimated that over 100,000 small businesses had already permanently shut down and Main Street America estimates that 7.5 million small businesses are in danger of being next.
On March 13th, when asked about his administration’s fatally slow response to the COVID-19 outbreak, President Trump replied, “I don’t take responsibility at all.”
How do President Trump’s lies about COVID-19 fit into his overall approach to the pandemic?
From his refusal to wear a mask, to planning mass rallies during a global pandemic, to pushing unverified treatments for COVID-19, to even politicizing attempts to find a vaccine, President Trump has joined an unsavory cast of world leaders who have downplayed COVID-19 instead of fighting it.
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro repeatedly broke the law by refusing to wear a mask, even after a court order required him specifically to do so. He fired his health minister, and, after testing positive for COVID-19 for the third time, stopped self-isolating to take a bike ride and talk to workers without wearing a mask. Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, who suggested COVID-19 could be cured by drinking vodka, later tested positive.
Russian and Chinese officials both suppressed information about the virus, to deadly effect, in much the same way that President Trump has repeatedly demanded the US test fewer people and tried to block funds for testing.
The Woodward audio shows that, at least in some ways, President Trump has followed the lead of authoritarians throughout the world. The results have been catastrophic.
Why didn’t Woodward come forward with the audio sooner?
Journalists have criticized Woodward for withholding crucial information that might have saved American lives. Woodward defended his process in a Washington Post interview, responding that he waited to publish the February recordings until he could verify whether the President was telling the truth about how deadly COVID-19 was, and how big a problem it would be: “The biggest problem I had, which is always a problem with Trump, is I didn’t know if it was true.” He also claims to have waited on reporting the information until he could properly contextualize it, with the ultimate goal to publish sometime before the election.
Even if Woodward didn’t know how deadly COVID-19 was in February, everyone did by March. That Woodward waited 6 months to publish his book instead of releasing the tapes immediately is part of a troubling trend of notable individuals withholding vital information from the American people until they can profit.
Whether you’re a journalist or a former public official, your duty should be to the Republic, not your own narrow self-interest.
Democracy at Work
President Milo Djukanovic, whose Democratic Party of Socialists has lost its stranglehold on power. Credit AFP
Hope for Montenegro’s Future as Ruling Party Falls After 30 Years in Power
After hotly contested elections in the small-Balkan nation of Montenegro, the three main opposition blocs narrowly won enough seats to oust President Milo Djukanovic’s Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) after nearly 30 years in power. Much of the opposition’s support was driven by a controversial law on regulating church property. Critics claimed the law would allow the government to seize much of the Serbian Orthodox Church’s holdings.
The fact that DPS lost, despite what the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe called an “undue advantage” from the misuse of state resources, speaks volumes about the public’s desire for change. Djukanovic, who will remain President, has been in power since the breakup of Yugoslavia. While he has overseen Montenegro’s admission to NATO, and the beginning of the country’s EU candidacy, his regime has been plagued by corruption, organized crime, and enough democratic backsliding that Freedom House branded Montenegro a “Hybrid Regime.”
Are there potential concerns with the new government?
The new governing coalition may, indeed, be an improvement, but we must not be overly optimistic. Djukanovic and his allies have done their best to paint the new governing coalition as pro-Serbia and pro-Russia, not entirely without merit. Two politicians associated with For the Future of Montenegro, the largest bloc of the new governing coalition, were convicted for their roles in an attempted 2016 coup d’etat, and the bloc itself has Serbian nationalist tendencies. Peace is Our Nation, the second largest bloc in the coalition, also has pro-Serb tendencies, but they did not campaign on identity politics. Since the election, both DPS supporters and Serbian nationalists have been out in the streets, flouting COVID-19 restrictions.
Black on White, the coalition’s smallest member and liberal bloc, will have to moderate the government’s more extreme voices if they want to keep DPS out of power and get anything substantial done. Made up of civilians, they campaigned on the promise of a government of experts, not politicians, and their main goal was to deprive Djukanovic of power. In a parliamentary system, they have the ability to be kingmakers.
What does this mean for NATO and for the EU?
The short answer is that it’s too early to tell. However, the incoming government is saying the right things. Their agreement charts a pro-European, pro-Western path forward, which includes a commitment to NATO and progress toward EU-integration. Dritan Abazovic, leader of Black on White, announced that the government would be headed by a non-political expert, saying, “We are facing great economic and social challenges, accumulated problems, an empty budget and problems with corruption and organized crime. The new government will pay the most attention to these issues.” That expert is 61 year old engineering professor Zdravko Krivokapic, who entered politics in 2019, and has pledged, “The pro-West, pro-EU orientation of the new government will be very clearly defined. There will be no doubt about it. Our pro-Western orientation is unquestionable.”