More and more Democrats have come out in favor of impeachment, but it’s worth remembering that some wanted to impeach President Donald Trump from Day One. Those voices are often associated with “the resistance.” In today’s episode, Kimberley Strassel of The Wall Street Journal argues that the resistance is the truly destructive force in American politics—not Trump. Strassel is author of the new book “Resistance (At All Costs): How Trump Haters Are Breaking America.”
We also cover the following stories:
- Trump lifts sanctions on Turkey after announcing a permanent cease-fire in Syria.
- House Republicans stage a sit-in outside the impeachment inquiry proceedings.
- Thirty-nine bodies are found in England amid human trafficking concerns.
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Daniel Davis: I’m joined now by Kimberley Strassel. She is a member of The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board, and author of the new book “Resistance (At All Costs): How Trump Haters Are Breaking America.” Kimberley, appreciate your time today.
Kimberley Strassel: It is so great to be here. Thank you for having me.
Davis: We hear so often in the media that President [Donald] Trump is degrading our norms and eroding our institutions, but your book is basically suggesting the opposite. You’re saying that not his critics and opponents, but Trump haters are actually the ones who are breaking America. I want to ask you, who fits that description exactly of a Trump hater, and what’s the damage they’re doing?
Strassel: Yeah, I go through this in the book, because there was great care taken with that subtitle. It’s a bit of an aggressive subtitle. However, when the publishers and I were first talking about this book and throwing around possible titles, the suggestion was made that it say, “Trump Critics Are Breaking America.” I rebelled against that, because I am a Trump critic at times.
I think that most thinking conservatives look at this administration much as they’ve looked at all prior administrations. There are things that they approve of, things that they don’t approve of. I think we have an obligation as citizens to look at a presidency that way.
The haters are something different. I argue that these are the folks who, from the moment Donald Trump was elected, actually, potentially even before he was elected, had decided that he was an illegitimate president, that he was incorrectly occupying the White House. Along with that, and this is an important part of the book, came the mentality that they were therefore justified in crossing any boundary or breaking any norm in order to remove him from that position.
Davis: Yeah. In the book, you go through a bunch of different segments of these groups. You talk about the media, you talk about judicial activism, judges legislating from the bench. But we’ve had judicial activism for a long time, we’ve had a liberal media for a long time. Even in the Bush days, we did have Democrats comparing him to the Nazis. How much of this is truly new?
Strassel: I totally agree with you that we have had plenty of ugly partisanship over the years, and fights over some of this over the years. The argument of the book is that what distinguishes this time is, again, the willingness of people to cross boundaries and take actions that we haven’t taken in the past.
I try really hard in the book to lay out what those are because I think a lot of Americans, they have a generalized sense that whatever is going on in Washington, certainly a lot of Trump voters, that it’s beyond the pale, beyond boundaries. I try to lay out what exactly people have done along the way that is so transgressive.
For instance, you mentioned judicial philosophy. We’ve always had conservative judges and liberal judges. That’s a question of ideology. What we have not witnessed before, at least not in any way to the extent we’re seeing now, is judges also willing to flout basic judicial norms as a way of roadblocking this presidency.
For instance, I have a statistic in there. Donald Trump has been subject to more nationwide injunctions of his policies than all of the six presidents before him combined, which is an astonishing thing. Look, the Supreme Court very much discourages judges from issuing national injunctions, except for in extreme circumstances, because of a couple of reasons. They think that executives are accorded a certain amount of deference in policy, and that you need to let litigation play out, but also because it stifles judicial debate.
We have a system in which we have different appellate circuits, we encourage them all to come to their different conclusions, fight this out until it gets up to the Supreme Court, but when you have a judge issuing a nationwide injunction, he is essentially imposing his view on the country. This has been so bad that recently, even [Justice] Clarence Thomas in an opinion said, “You folks need to knock it off.” These are the kind of new situations that I’m talking about in the book.
Davis: Yeah. Of course, one of the big claims that the resistance advocates make is that this is justified because this president is uniquely a threat to America, that he is flouting executive power in a way that is unprecedented or some kind of unique threat. I think a perfect example of this is actually a new book that’s coming out next month, written anonymously by The New York Times op-ed writer. This was just reported this week in CNN.
Strassel: This is crazy.
Davis: The anonymous resistance person within the Trump administration is now coming out with a book while staying anonymous. That’s just, I think, one example you could pick up [of] people saying an extraordinary measure is warranted because of the extraordinary threat of the president. To that claim, though, how does Trump’s use of his executive power compare to past presidents?
Strassel: Yeah. I have a whole chapter in this about this, because again, their claim over the years, ever since he was elected, is that he is destroying democracy, undermining our core constitutions. Again, I think he’s norm-breaking, certainly. OK? Donald Trump in terms of his speech, his rhetoric, his tweets, sometimes his demeanor in office, we’ve never had a president like this before. His critics would say it’s highly unpresidential. His supporters would say, “Actually, we elected him for that reason.”
My argument in the chapter in the book, if you step back and you actually look at institutions, this is in fact been an extraordinarily rule-bound administration, in terms of department and agency actions and executive power, in part because a lot of the people that flooded into work for the Trump administration were people that had been very disturbed by the prior administration’s abuse of executive powers, and all of these agencies going around Congress coming up with vast new regulations and regulatory programs, whether it be the climate change agenda at the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] or other things.
Then, you had folks like Don McGahn, the former general counsel, who came in and had spent years of his life fighting against this kind of administrative state, and made sure that there were general counsels appointed into every one of these departments to rein all of this back in.
Donald Trump, people talk about the fact that he’s issued a lot of executive orders, but if you look at the nature of those executive orders, the vast majority of them are telling government to stand down, or [to] get out of the way of business, which is absolutely, fundamentally 180 degrees opposite of how [former President Barack] Obama used his power.
Davis: Right. There’s also a lot of talk about the deep state, even though Trump has taken over the executive agencies, that there are these bureaucrats within those agencies that are undermining his agenda. What do you think about that? Are these anti-Trump bureaucrats having a significant impact?
Strassel: They are. I’d like to hasten to say that obviously there are many federal employees who do their job dutifully every day, but there is a significant minority that have openly said they’re a part of the resistance.
There’s been some different tapes of them saying, “We belong to the resistance, we exist to undermine what he’s doing here and throw sand in the works of his agenda,” but there’s also just more compelling evidence of the problems that this causes.
I cite, for instance, Sen. Ron Johnson, who runs a government committee in the Senate. His staff did an analysis of the first 125 days of the Trump administration. In that time period, there were 126 leaks, more than one a day, and many of them dealt with really sensitive national security information. These were not coming from Trump’s own appointees or people he brought in. These were coming from the bureaucracy at some point, or [from] former Obama officials, as well.
This has not only harmed national security—and again, a lot of the book is trying to point out the destruction of this, the problems that come with this—but the American public, if you look out at the polls, they’ve lost enormous faith in federal government and in the bureaucracy and in their belief that the federal bureaucracy exists to do the right thing.
Davis: Well, one of those federal bureaucracies that, at least until recently, had retained a lot of trust was the FBI. You have a couple of chapters where you discuss the FBI, and in particular James Comey during his time as FBI director. Would you say that Comey damaged the FBI as an institution?
Strassel: Oh, he absolutely harmed it from top to bottom. Look, I’ve got polls in there talking about, again, the lack of faith Americans now have in the FBI and the Department of Justice, many of these the kind of Americans that you would expect, older Americans in particular, to have more faith that the FBI would do the right thing.
It isn’t just that lack of faith, but look at the hollowing out of that agency. I mean, nearly all of its leadership is now gone. They were either fired or reassigned or they resigned because of these extraordinary actions that they took.
It still astonishes me that we even can say the following statement, that the FBI opened a counterintelligence investigation into an active presidential campaign. I mean, that’s Hoover-type stuff, right? It’s an extraordinary thing.
Those chapters go into detail about some of the other actions that Jim Comey took, which really have given Americans honest and legitimate cause to worry that our FBI engaged in politics, meddled in our election in 2016.
Davis: Then of course, there was Robert Mueller, the special counsel who went on a two-year investigation, which many saw as shoring up our democracy in investigating foreign threats to our elections. Now that we have the Mueller report, we’ve seen him testify before Congress. What’s your assessment of it, and was that a net positive or a net negative on the FBI as an institution for America?
Strassel: Look, it’s good that a team of people took a hard look at Russia’s involvement in our election. We needed answers on that, and we can’t have countries doing things like this. We needed the facts of all of that. That being said, I think on the whole, this was a net negative for the country.
One of the problems, too, by the way, I would just say, when Rod Rosenstein first appointed Bob Mueller, nobody at that point yet knew, for instance, that the FBI had used a dossier that had been paid for by the rival campaign. This was very much a story about Trump-Russia collusion.
My concern and my issue with Bob Mueller was that, when we got later in the fall of 2017 and that information did came out, it became evidently clear that this story was just as much about the FBI and its behavior and its actions and the origin of these Trump-Russia claims as it was about the claims themselves.
Bob Mueller, having served as 11 years, the longest-standing FBI director after [J. Edgar] Hoover, he was just never in a position to dispassionately investigate the FBI’s behavior. In fact, he’d pulled in an entire team of people at the beginning who’d been part of that entire FBI and Department of Justice investigation, so they had no incentive. In fact, they had every reason not to look at it.
As a result, in the end, not only did we get a lot of the prosecutions that you always see come with a special counsel—which is what makes them dangerous, prosecutions on process crimes, etc.—but we ended up getting a report that, A, didn’t give us the history of how this actually came about, and B, I think very troublesomely, evaded the normal special counsel guidelines and ended up dumping that entire second half of the obstruction of justice out on the nation, and led us into a whole ‘nother debate about obstruction of justice.
Davis: Yeah. Well, you mentioned previously judicial activism, but specifically the Supreme Court, and the Supreme Court nomination process. When you think of norms that have been degraded …
Davis: … in the last couple of years, I guess we thought that Robert Bork was the beginning of eroding that norm, but it’s gotten certainly worse. Now, you don’t expect many Democrats at all to side with a Republican nominee to the Supreme Court. Do you think there will ever be a return to normalcy on this after Trump, or do you think it’s just going to be party-line votes on nominees?
Strassel: Well, this is an excellent example of damage that has been caused. You’re right again. Have we had partisan confirmation battles? Absolutely. Bork, Clarence Thomas, you name it. But have we ever had one though in which we had the minority leader of the Judiciary Committee, [Sen.] Dianne Feinstein, withholding these allegations until after a nominee had made it through their confirmation hearings? Or Democratic senators?
And I’m talking about [Sen.] Cory Booker here having Spartacus moments and saying that they’re going to release committee-sensitive information in violation of committee rules. Or liberal Democrats demanding that the FBI pass judgment on nominees that are meant to be vetted and confirmed by the Senate itself? I mean, this was so much norm-breaking all around. Then, of course, the crowds and the activists, I mean, this was nuts.
The worry here, again, it’s not just as you said that, look, when Washington sets a bar low, it tends to just keep going lower. The worry here is, how many really capable, talented people are going to avoid public service and serving their government because they are so concerned that a repeat could happen to them? Again, this is kind of the damage that the book goes through.
Davis: So, right now in Washington, there’s constant talk about impeachment. I think this week I saw Sen. Marco Rubio said that Democrats are treating impeachment in a very casual way, in an unserious way.
I wanted to ask you if that itself does damage to impeachment, because impeachment is a very important constitutional duty that the Congress has. Are you concerned that the way it’s being engaged in right now could actually undermine impeachment as a future check on the presidency?
Strassel: Hugely. I have a whole chapter in the book about House Democrats, and just what they’ve managed to do in terms of norm-breaking since they took over a mere, what, nine months ago.
Look at the speed with which they held [Attorney General William] Barr in contempt of the Judiciary Committee. Contempt is also a very serious tool. It’s been used in the past as a threat, as a way to get people to negotiate and end up handing over documents or testimony. Usually, it doesn’t come to that, because people get to an agreement.
Before the Justice Department had even been able to negotiate with [Rep.] Jerry Nadler’s committee, they were already saying, “We’re going to hold you in contempt,” so we’re watering down that, but also impeachment, yes, one of the most serious powers in the Constitution.
Democrats are right. They have the ability to conduct an impeachment hearing any way they want, and they have the right to impeach Donald Trump on anything they want.
If they don’t like his tie, they can impeach him, but there’s a reason that the past two impeachment proceedings in the modern era were done fully and transparently in front of the public. There’s a reason why the House actually went to the floor and authorized such an impeachment inquiry, because it meant you were taking accountability, that there was a majority will within the House, and you proved it, to move forward on this. Because in the end, impeachment is a political tool.
The measure of success of impeachment is whether or not you can convince a sizable majority of the country that you have provided sound enough evidence that a president has engaged in a high crime or misdemeanor, and therefore deserves to be removed, and for the vote of the people to be overturned.
Look, right now, people keep talking about how the polls are showing more people, but in the end, you still don’t have 50% of the country who buy this. Who have you really convinced other than your base?
I keep warning my friends on the liberal side of the aisle, “Do you really want to set this precedent of using impeachment as a partisan political tool?” Because, guess what, one day there is going to be a Democratic president and there’s going to be a Republican House. If this is a standard, one of the first things they’re going to do is file articles of impeachment.
Davis: Yeah, that’s a great point. Well, what about the president’s dealings with Ukraine? I mean, this is really now driving the impeachment train, at least at this moment. Just this week, we’ve seen ambassadors speak out about what they say they saw, and of course all this got started with an anonymous whistleblower. Do you think the resistance is in action here, and if so, how?
Strassel: Look, we don’t know the details about the whistleblower, obviously, and we don’t even know a great deal about the testimony of any of these officials because Democrats have kept it all hidden.
We’ve had some leaked opening statements. There is no question that Bill Taylor, for instance, the former chargé d’affaires to the Ukraine, he seems to have expressed a very strong suspicion that the White House was withholding aid for partisan political purposes. But again, even if you read his opening statement, he says, “Here’s why I want to tell you, this is why I believe this,” because in essence, he doesn’t really have any evidence of it. It’s his own judgment.
I think the hard part for many Americans is not just that they haven’t been allowed to see the transcripts and what else came out. Did one side of the aisle manage to back up those claims? Did the other side manage to demolish those claims? We don’t know.
But there’s a problem that they haven’t seen it, and then there’s also the problem that this does come, as we were just talking, on the back of the fact that there’s a lot of evidence out there that there are lot of people in the State Department that simply don’t like this president. There’s a lot of people in the intelligence community that don’t like this president.
Who is the anonymous whistleblower? Are these ambassadors testifying? Are they really neutral on this subject, or is politics going on here?
Davis: Well, we’ve talked about the erosion of institutions at the hands of the resistance, and you’ve also mentioned that President Trump, you think, is eroding some norms, but do you think the president bears any blame at all for the erosion of institutions? I know some have criticized him for calling the press the enemy of the people. Would you say that that is just one of those breaking of norms, or do you think that hurts institutions in some way?
Strassel: Well, it is a huge breaking of norms, OK? Let’s just be out there. Again, while I think a lot of Americans voted for Donald Trump because he is a disruptor, I think that many of those people, and I talk to a lot of those people, who voted for him for that reason, still nonetheless wince at moments where it goes kind of above and beyond, obviously, and by the way, does harm to the president himself.
He puts a lot of people in a lot of awkward positions of having to try to defend the indefensible in his party, I’m talking about members of Congress in particular. There should be some limits on disruption. I think it is a harder case to make that he’s damaged core institutions.
People try to make the case, and I think they’ve done their own argument damage. When you come out and you call Donald Trump a tyrant, an autocrat, a dictator—obviously a guy who’s massively reduced the number of regulations in federal government and appointed very serious conservative judges to the courts is not a dictator. OK? I mean, you can’t hold those two ideas in your head at the same time, but the rhetoric has been so over the top that it’s been harder to tease out individual moments.
I think that there are moments, like for instance, I point out in the book, I wasn’t really a big fan of the president’s pardoning of this Sheriff [Joe] Arpaio. I think he absolutely had the authority to do it, the presidential pardon power is enormous, but he didn’t even wait for the court process to sort of proceed.
Those are the kind of things where you’re setting new norms, and then you risk that a president comes along later and builds on those, and we have even more breaking of norms, but then again, at the same time, every president does this to a certain degree, right? I mean, [former President] Bill Clinton and Marc Rich, right? You’ve got to go back and look at this.
Every president will push boundaries on some things, but again, Donald Trump’s rhetoric, his speech, his particular manner of being a president, we’re never going to have another president like him, and we’re going to have him with us for another year or five years at most. Then, that particular mannerism is going to leave.
You have to step back and ask yourself, “Was anything broken, fundamentally broken?” I think that’s a harder case to make.
Davis: … Of course the Founders expected and hoped that each branch of government was going to be zealous for its own power and push back against the others. I guess in one sense, you would hope and expect that, for this experiment to work, Congress has to be asserting itself against the president. But this breaking of norms and institutions that you’re talking about, it sounds to me like you’re saying that goes beyond what the Founders expected.
Strassel: Yeah, absolutely, let’s be assertive. OK? I’m a big fan of Congress reasserting its power. Just to get to your point about the branches and everything, this is an example I go through in the book, but when the president, for instance, issued his emergency declaration down at the border, I remember all of these people on the left instantly saying like, “This is unconstitutional, and another reason to impeach the president, and he’s an autocrat,” but I remember Ben Sasse, the senator from Nebraska, and it was great. Well, I mean, he was sensible. He’s been one of the more frequent critics of Donald Trump.
Davis: On the Republican side, yeah.
Strassel: On the Republican side. He’s been a very, very tough critic. When it came time for the Senate, they held a vote on whether or not to override the president on that executive authority. He was asked if he was going to do it, and he goes, “No, you know what? I’m not voting for it, and here’s why, because ever since I got here to Congress, I have been pushing my colleagues here for Congress to claw back its power of emergency declarations, because we have ceded too much of the power to the presidency. But guess what? This is what we get, and it is not clear to me that he [has] in fact violated anything in issuing this border emergency declaration, because we’ve let presidents do this over a period of decades.”
My point being is, even Ben Sasse recognized that this is just a legitimate area of dispute, a legal dispute. It’s gone to the courts, and at some point, we’re going to get an answer on whether or not it was appropriate or not. Just like so many things that Barack Obama did got sent to the courts, and we had the judiciary-rendered judgment. No one called him an autocrat.
Yeah, I’m a big fan of Congress reasserting its powers, but I would like to think that it would do so with some deliberation about the powers that they really need to claw back, rather than using its powers in brand new ways that lower the bar on some things and potentially damage our republic.
Davis: Yeah. The question is, is Congress willing to take on the responsibility of reclaiming those powers that they’ve outsourced to the executive branch? Are they really, in the long term, willing to do what’s required to take back those powers from the president’s own branch? That’s really what it comes down to, right?
Strassel: No, yeah. Ben Sasse, by the way, is just brilliant on this subject. He has delivered some of the best “Schoolyard Rock” speeches down on the Senate floor, saying, “What are we even doing here as an institution anymore? We sit around and gripe about stuff that the agencies do, but we don’t pass laws re-clarifying what in fact the limits of their power are. We don’t pass legislation anymore. We basically have big fights over Senate nominees, and then … “
Davis: Then do an omnibus bill at the end of the year.
Strassel: … We don’t do our spending bills. We have certain obligations and Congress is ceding its powers right and left.
Yeah, by the way, bring on congressional emancipation, but how about we do it instead of just some of your basic core responsibilities, instead of whipping out impeachment … We’ve been doing this now for so long.
Davis: Well, the book is called “Resistance (At All Costs): How Trump Haters Are Breaking America.” Kimberley Strassel, it’s been a pleasure. Thanks for your time today.
Strassel: Yeah, thank you for having me in.