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Mistrust of Trump Threatens Political Corrosion and Rule of Law

A Commentary by Michael Barone

Friday, April 07, 2017

Donald Trump's unorthodox campaign and unexpected victory have produced a culture of mistrust permeating our politics and threatening to undermine the rule of law. That's not healthy, whatever you think of Trump or his political opponents.

The partisan mistrust is evident in Senate Democrats' filibuster of the Supreme Court nomination of Judge Neil Gorsuch, which, at this writing, seems sure to result in an end to such filibusters, to at least the short-term detriment of the Democratic Party. Apparently, pressure from the party's base has pushed reluctant senators into this self-defeating course.

Mistrust is also apparent in the decisions of federal judges overturning Trump's travel ban executive orders. In two cases, judges made clear that they would uphold similar orders issued by any other president -- but they wouldn't uphold one made by someone who called for a "Muslim ban" at one point in his campaign, even though he withdrew that proposal in favor of "extreme vetting" months before his election. This, despite the fact that neither the Constitution nor legislation passed by Congress confers rights on foreigners not in the United States against religious discrimination.

Policy arguments can be made against a Muslim ban and against Trump's much more limited executive orders. The first probably would be impossible to enforce, and both might increase resentment of the United States among the world's billion-plus Muslims. But ordinarily, judges treat litigants impartially and don't determine policy. It's called the rule of law.

Then there's the belief of many Democrats, persistent despite the lack of any hard evidence, that Trump and his campaign colluded with Vladimir Putin's Russia and "hacked the campaign." The implication is that a Trump-Putin conspiracy stole the election and that Trump is not a legitimate president. Some leftist bloggers and Democratic voters believe that this will soon lead to Trump's impeachment and removal and, somehow, the installation of Hillary Clinton.

Trump's praise of Putin and bizarre refusal to criticize him during the campaign provided a basis for suspicion. So did the client lists of some of Trump's temporary campaign aides. This was no secret to voters; Clinton raised these issues in the second and third presidential debates last fall.

This may amount to political malpractice, but it doesn't amount to collusion. Neither do the communications of Michael Flynn with the Russian ambassador, the ones that got him fired as national security adviser because he lied about them to Mike Pence.

Flynn's communications were apparently picked up by legal surveillance of the Russian ambassador, and his name was "incidentally collected" and then "unmasked" -- i.e., revealed -- by intelligence personnel on their own initiative or in response to a request from an Obama national security official. "Unmasking" is unusual and done ordinarily only for an intelligence reason.

Bloomberg's Eli Lake reported April 3 that Obama's last national security adviser, Susan Rice, requested the unmasking of numerous Americans "on dozens of occasions." On MSNBC, she admitted that, but she denied doing so for any "political purposes" and denied leaking any information. But an Obama administration order entered in January making such information available to 16 intelligence agencies enabled many others to do so.

Was the Obama administration using intelligence surveillance information for political reasons? It certainly looks like it. Rice's credibility is less than sterling. She went on five Sunday shows in September 2012 to claim that the attacks in Benghazi, Libya, were sparked by an anti-Islam video, and in June 2014, she said deserter Bowe Bergdahl served "with honor and distinction." Obama's desire to name her secretary of state was scuttled in December 2012 by objections from multiple quarters.

Neither the FBI nor the congressional intelligence committees' investigations have produced evidence of Trump team collusion with Russia. But there's strong evidence the Obama administration did what Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden has warned against: use intelligence surveillance to discredit political opponents.

In office, Trump has not pursued Russia-friendly policies as Clinton warned he might and Obama officials may have feared. His relevant appointees -- Rex Tillerson, James Mattis, H.R. McMaster and Fiona Hill -- have taken a tough line on Russia and Putin. Democrats' mistrust has, at least so far, proved unjustified. He has behaved more like a conventional Republican than he has some reincarnation of Hitler or Mussolini.

Mistrust that leads to abandonment of the rule of law and misuse of intelligence information is corrosive and invites retaliation in kind. Maybe it's time to focus on what the legitimately elected president is doing rather than his more outlandish campaign rhetoric.

Michael Barone is a senior political analyst for the Washington Examiner, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and longtime co-author of The Almanac of American Politics.

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