Well before the House select committee’s January 6th investigation began, trust in the classic American system of checks and balances as reliable protection against executive (or, more recently, Supreme Court) abuses of power had already fallen into a state of disgrace. A domestically shackled Biden presidency, a Congress unable to act, and a Supreme Court that seems ever more like an autocratic governing body has left American “democracy” looking grim indeed.
Now, those hearings are offering the country (and the Justice Department) what could be a last chance to begin restoring the kind of governance that once underlay a functioning democracy. There is, however, a deeply worrisome trend lurking just under this moment’s attempt to garner accountability — namely, the way loyalty to institutional Washington (even outside the law) perpetuates a flight from accountability that’s become a crucial part of American political life.
So far, the January 6th hearings have inspired a cascade of takeaways. With each televised session, new evidence about the acts of Donald Trump and crew have come to light, among them that the former president was all too tight with the far right and that he knew the crowd approaching the Capitol on January 6, 2021, was armed and dangerous. So, too, those watching have learned about witness tampering and also the lengths White House lawyers and others went to in trying to restrain the former president’s engagement with the January 6th rioters. Overall, many Americans (though not so many Republicans) have learned that January 6th was part of a far larger Trumpian effort to negate the results of the 2020 presidential election, no matter the facts or the law.
Beyond chronicling what happened and assigning blame, something else in those hearings is worth noting: namely, they are exposing the ever-growing contradiction between Washington institutionalists, whose first loyalty is to the agencies and departments they served or are serving, and the supposed purpose or mission of those very institutions. And all of this will take the U.S. even further from the democracy it still claims to be, if those who have served in them and in the White House can’t be held accountable for their abuses of power and violations of law.
Over the cliff of false institutionalism
For a long time now, the mechanisms of our democratic system of government meant to ensure accountability have been at the edge of collapse, if not obliteration. Who could forget how — something I’ve written about over the years at TomDispatch — the government officials who, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, led us into the Global War on Terror found myriad ways to evade or defang the checks and balances of the courts and Congress? In the process, they managed to escape all accountability for their crimes. To offer a striking example: the top officials in the administration of President George W. Bush lied about Iraqi autocrat Saddam Hussein having weapons of mass destruction, which was their main excuse for their assault on his country in 2003.
According to the invaluable Costs of War Project, a year and a half after invading Afghanistan in 2001, the top officials of the Bush administration took this country into a war in Iraq that would cost the lives of more than 4,500 American service members and nearly as many U.S. military contractors. Almost 200 journalists and aid workers would also die in that conflict, not to mention hundreds of thousands of Iraqis.
The Costs of War Project estimates that the overall war on terror those officials launched will, in the end, have a price tag of nearly eight trillion dollars. Add to that the impossible-to-calculate costs of their acts to the rule of law, since they dismantled individual liberties and made a mockery of human rights. After all, the top officials of that administration oversaw the secret rewriting of the law to make torture at CIA “black sites” legal, while imprisoning individuals, including Americans, without access to lawyers, due process, or the courts at a prison they built in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, a system distinctly offshore of what until then had been known as American justice.
When Barack Obama took over the White House in 2009, his administration failed either to mount a course correction or punish any of the torturers or jailers and those who gave them the green light to do so. As the president put it then, he chose to “look forward as opposed to looking backwards.” He refused even to hold an investigation into the misdeeds of Bush administration policymakers and lawyers who had rendered us a nation of torture, while secretly implementing warrantless surveillance policies on a mass scale, keeping Guantánamo open, and failing to bring the disastrous American presences in Afghanistan and Iraq to an end.
Ironically, in explaining his reasons for not shining a light into those CIA black sites or so much else that preceded him, Obama pointed to the importance of honoring institutionalism. It was crucial, he argued, for the Agency to be able to continue to function in ways that an investigation might impede. “And part of my job,” the president explained, “is to make sure that, for example at the CIA, you’ve got extraordinarily talented people who are working very hard to keep Americans safe. I don’t want them to suddenly feel like they’ve got to spend all their time looking over their shoulders and lawyering.”
Consider that an early sign of a toxic default to the version of institutionalism that threatens us today.
In the Trump years, Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report on the 2016 presidential elections stopped short of indicting the former president. Mueller’s task was to investigate potential Russian interference with that election and possible coordination with Trump in that endeavor. Mueller ultimately backed away from indicting the president for obstruction of justice, despite the evidence he had, citing an obscure 1973 Department of Justice memo from the Watergate era (reaffirmed in 2000). The memo argued that such an act would distract the president from the pressing affairs of his office. “The spectacle of an indicted president still trying to serve as Chief Executive boggles the imagination,” the memo said, and Mueller’s mind was evidently still boggled when it came to Donald Trump and the coming 2020 election.
And then there was the failure to investigate the institutional problems that accompanied the country’s initial handling of the Covid pandemic. There has never been the slightest accountability for the denialism that greeted its initial stages, nor any attempt to document what went wrong then. In June 2021, Senators Bob Menendez (D-NJ) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) called for the creation of “an independent 9/11-style commission” to understand how the public had been left so unprotected by the Trump administration in those early pandemic months and to discuss what lessons should be drawn from it for a future pandemic. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) sponsored such an approach in the Senate, but nothing ever happened.
Such a narrative of accountability and blame might have exposed “the vulnerabilities of our public health system and issue[d] guidance for how we as a nation can better protect the American people.” But no such luck. The institutionalists prevailed and the bills are still lying dormant in Congress.
In these years, a continual distaste for self-examination and institutional reform has eviscerated notions of accountability, while leaving the nation unprepared and unprotected not only from future pandemics, but from abuses of power aimed directly at our democracy. So far, Donald Trump, in particular, has paid no price for his attacks on democracy, as the January 6th committee has made all too clear.
Institutionalists vs. accountability
The January 6th hearings have only underscored the reticence of Attorney General Merrick Garland when it came to mounting a case against Donald Trump or any of his top officials. As former Acting Solicitor General Neal Katyal has written, “[W]e’ve seen no signs of such an investigation. Ordinarily, 17 months after a crime, one would expect to see some signs of an inquiry.” And yet Department of Justice (DOJ) veterans continue to attest to their faith that the institution and Attorney General Garland will rise to the occasion.
Harvard law professor and former DOJ official Jack Goldsmith recently asked readers to sympathize with the difficult decisions the attorney general has to deal with. Garland “arguably faces a conflict of interest,” Goldsmith wrote. He then added that Garland would not only have to be convinced that he had enough evidence to get a conviction in federal court, but would have to ask himself “whether the national interest would be served by prosecuting Mr. Trump.” Goldsmith does recognize that a failure to indict could send a message that the president, even Donald Trump, “is literally above the law.” Yet he still ends his piece with a plea for trust in the AG’s decision-making.
And Goldsmith is anything but alone in putting his faith in the institution above the dire necessity of holding top officials accountable. Eric Holder, Obama’s attorney general, a 10-year DOJ veteran, has, in the end, weighed in similarly. “I’m an institutionalist,” he told Margaret Brennan on Face the Nation, signaling his credentials as a trusting servant of that department. “My initial thought was not to indict the former president out of concern [for] how divisive it would be. But given what we have learned, I think that he probably has to be held accountable.” A mere two weeks later he, too, had backtracked, saying “we should have faith” in Garland and the prospect of future indictments of Trump and top members of his administration.
In reality, this embrace of institutionalism, far from being a badge of honor, has become a millstone around the neck of the Department of Justice and the nation as a whole. Throughout the tenure of William Barr as Trump’s attorney general, veterans of that department and career officials there assuaged the fears of those worried that he would contribute to its further politicization. As department veteran Harry Litman reassured Americans on NPR, “That would never be Bill Barr. He’s a[n] institutionalist. He understands the important values of the Department of Justice. He has integrity. He has stature. He’s nobody’s toady.”
As it turned out, until the very end of Trump’s presidency, Barr proved to be an institutionalist bent on twisting the definition to fit his needs. His numerous stints in the White House, going back to the early 1990s, turned his form of institutionalism into an embrace of loyalty to the president over any form of accountability. Before the report of Special Counsel Mueller was even released, Barr provided his own spin, contrary to its findings. As he told NPR:
“After carefully reviewing the facts and legal theories outlined in the report… the deputy attorney general and I concluded that the evidence developed by the special counsel is not sufficient to establish that the president committed an obstruction of justice offense.”
This, despite the fact that, as Mueller testified, he had concluded otherwise.
Such shout-outs to institutionalism have become an essential part of the post-Trump political scene as well, extending to the very nature of America’s governing principles. For example, institutionalists who oppose expansion of the Supreme Court argue that such a move would constitute “serious violations of norms” and ultimately “undermin[e] the democratic system” and “diminish [the court’s] independence and legitimacy,” or so a report on potential Supreme Court reform, commissioned by Biden in 2021, concluded. And even after the disastrous Supreme Court decisions repealing abortion rights and expanding gun rights, President Biden, the consummate self-declared institutionalist, indicated that expanding the court “is not something that he wants to do,” as if the traditions of our institutions are more important than fairness, the representation of the majority, or even justice itself.
Biden has similarly shown an impassioned reluctance to challenge Congress, refusing, for instance, to lead the way when it comes to ending the filibuster in the Senate. Earlier this year he did finally (and unsucessfully) support a carve-out from the filibuster in order to try to get a voting rights bill passed and more recently in support of passing abortion-rights legislation. But his belated and tepid words were at best mere gestures and utterly without effect.
Could the January 6th hearings be a game-changer?
The House select committee investigating January 6th has been making its case directly to a remarkably substantial audience (mainly of Democrats and independents) — 20 million viewers for its opening evening session and 13 million for the daytime testimony of former White House aide to chief of staff Mark Meadows, Cassidy Hutchinson, who attracted the largest daytime audience yet for the hearings, far exceeding even the most watched cable news shows at that hour. And keep in mind that those viewers are, of course, potential voters this November.
In addition to the public, the Department of Justice has been a target audience for those hearings. As Congresswoman and Vice Chairperson of the committee Liz Cheney has said, “The Justice Department doesn’t have to wait for the committee to make a criminal referral. There could be more than one criminal referral.”
There’s another target audience, too: American history and the possibility that the integrity of our institutions can someday be restored. The hearings themselves project the hope that, despite the disastrous failures of American democracy and institutional Washington in this century, there are still guardrails capable of protecting us and fortifying the mechanisms of accountability.
“[F]or four years, the Justice Department took the position that you can’t indict a sitting president. If the Department were now to take the position that you can’t investigate or indict a former president, then, a president becomes above the law. That’s a very dangerous idea that the founders would have never subscribed to.”
Given Washington’s reliance in these years on loyalty to institutions rather than to democracy, it’s little wonder that polls of Americans show a waning trust in those very institutions. A recent Gallup poll typically “marks new lows in confidence for all three branches of the federal government — the Supreme Court (25%), the presidency (23%) and Congress” which ranked at a truly dismal 7%.
The question is: Can a revival of accountability as a cherished element of governance help to rebuild those institutions and trust in them or are we headed for a far grimmer America in the near future?
The January 6th hearings offer a certain hope that accountability might put institutionalism in its place. Restoring it (and so the faith of the American people in our democracy) should be the sine qua non for a post-Trumpist future. Whatever virtues our institutions may have, their true value can only persist if they are accountable to the principles of democracy they were created to uphold.