DC Deciphered has written several posts here about a pattern we’ve seen from certain Republicans where they make a show of standing up to Trump in order to avoid having to actually stand up to him or hold him accountable in any way. This is part of a larger pattern in which Republicans have demonstrated a complete dereliction of their duty to provide checks & balances on Trump, and in fact can often be found affirmatively making excuses for his behavior.
They – as a Party – are responsible for giving Trump an environment in which he’s able to operate with impunity. It’s only because of this choice by Republicans to abandon their constitutional duties that Trump has been able to get away with displaying such incompetence in office, flagrantly violating so many ethical norms and breaching so many boundaries of acceptable presidential behavior.
The cascade of revelations over the last few weeks (re Comey’s firing, Flynn, Kushner, etc.) has shown us just how badly this presidency has gone off the rails. And along with that, it’s become increasingly clear just how desperately the GOP is avoiding any calls to hold Trump accountable. At the same time we’ve also been getting a clearer picture of the questionable tactics these members will use to avoid addressing their own accountability with their constituents. We learned about one such disturbing new tactic a couple weeks ago . . .
An Unsettling Approach to Avoiding Accountability
WNYC, a public radio station in New York City, reported in mid-May about an extraordinary action taken by Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, a Republican Congressman from New Jersey. Frelinghuysen sent a fundraising letter to a board member at a local bank and used the letter as an opportunity to complain that an employee of the bank was a member of an activist group that opposed him. The activist group is called 11th for Change, and it formed after Trump’s election with the purpose of pushing their representatives to oppose Trump’s agenda. The employee who was targeted by Frelinghuysen’s letter, Saily Avelenda, said that she was confronted by her boss about the letter and had to write a statement about it to the bank’s CEO. She said that the pressure she received as a result of the letter was one of several things that caused her to resign from the bank.
The letter Frelinghuysen sent was a form letter asking for donations for his next campaign. It said in part, “But let’s be clear that there are organized forces — both national and local — who are already hard at work to put a stop to an agenda of limited government, economic growth, stronger national security.” Then there was a handwritten asterisk added in above the word “local” which linked to a handwritten note at the bottom of the page that said “P.S. One of the ringleaders works in your bank!” The letter also attached a news article which quoted Avelenda by name.
Setting aside her employer’s behavior for purposes of this post, the behavior of Rep. Frelinghuysen in this tale is quite shocking. This is a pretty clear case of intimidation. Avelenda was exercising her first amendment right to free expression and free assembly – doing what our leaders should hope that more Americans would do, which is to engage in the political process – and because he didn’t like the content of her expression or the group she was choosing to gather with, he found out where she worked and interfered with her employment.
Even worse, the fact that he called Avelenda a “ringleader” went beyond simply conveying her involvement in the group and instead insinuated some sort of illegal or nefarious behavior on her part. (The Merriam-Webster definition of “ringleader” is: a leader of a ring of individuals engaged especially in improper or unlawful activities). Legal experts say that Frelinghuysen most likely didn’t break any laws, but ethics experts all seem to agree that he clearly crossed ethical boundaries by engaging in this behavior. And I don’t think we even need ethics experts to tell us that this is not appropriate behavior for the people who are supposed to be our voice in government.
Rep. Frelinghuysen’s Actions Didn’t Come Out of the Blue
What makes this tactic even more disturbing is that it seems to be a logical extension of the GOP’s pattern of trying to discredit or demonize those who organize against them. This is not an entirely new tactic for politicians to use, but it’s been a particularly popular tactic for Republicans in the age of Trump, when activism against their Party has been frequent & energetic, and Republicans have employed this tactic particularly venomously.
The most visible, obvious form of activism comes in the form of protest, so it’s protestors who’ve generally been the focus of these GOP efforts. We’ve seen over & over again in the months since Trump’s inauguration, claims by members of the GOP that people protesting against them are “paid professionals” or some variation on that theme. The implication being that the protestors are not authentic, but just people hired by some corporate elites (George Soros is a favorite elite boogeyman) to do their bidding. Another claim that often goes hand-in-hand with that one is that the protestors are “bussed in” from out of town, or that they don’t represent “real America” or “middle America” but that they just come from New York and California, where apparently no real Americans live. At times they will even portray the protesters as violent, calling them mobs or thugs simply because the crowds are loud and energetic.
GOP Attempts to Delegitimize Protestors
For example, Trump said that “Tax Day” protestors calling for him to release his tax returns were all paid and that someone should look into who was paying them. Sean Spicer said that the people protesting the first version of the Muslim ban were paid “astroturf,” despite the fact that those protestors wouldn’t even have had any advance time to plan, since no one knew ahead of time that the Muslim ban was coming.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz claimed protestors at town halls were “a paid attempt to bully and intimidate” and that they were “not representative of the average person, certainly not in Utah. It might be in San Francisco or Seattle but not here. Not in middle America.” And Rep. Dave Brat dismissed town hall protestors as a “Soros-funded movement.” In fact, Trump’s very first tweet after winning the Presidential election was a complaint about “professional protestors”
Sen. Cory Gardner complained that people calling his office and sending him emails were “paid protesters” from California and New York. And Sen. Pat Toomey blamed “people from outside our state” for clogging up his office.
The Utah GOP delayed town hall meetings in February, claiming in a press release that is was due to “acts of intimidation and violence” by protestors. This came shortly after Rep. Dana Rohrabacher in California accused a “mob” of “violently attacking” one of his staffers. Police however described that same incident as an accident, which occurred when the staffer was trying to pull Rohrabacher’s office door closed while an activist was trying to hold it open to speak with the staffer.
GOP Attempts to Intimidate Protestors
Then having sufficiently made the case that the protestors, as a class are thugs and/or criminals, or at the very least cons just out to make some easy money and waste time at your (legitimate constituent’s) town hall, the GOP then proceeded to introduce a whole raft of legislation aimed at stifling the ability of people to exercise their right to protest. Thankfully though, because it’s difficult to make legislation in this vein without violating citizens’ First Amendment (and other) rights, most of this legislation was never actually passed. But the fact that it was contemplated in state after state by Republican legislatures gives a pretty good indication of how they would have liked to handle these protests.
In February, the Arizona Senate passed a bill that would allow criminal racketeering charges against anyone who participated in or helped organize a protest that turned violent. So the charges wouldn’t just be against those who participated in the violence, but against anyone who took part in the protest in any way, even if they had no connection at all to the violence or its perpetrators
This would obviously intimidate many people away from taking part in a protest out of fear that there’d be even the slight chance a violent incident could break out that they’d have no control over, yet would still be held responsible for. And it’s hard not to think that was the intent of the bill – to stifle protest through intimidation. As the Arizona Republic explained at the time:
The measure adds rioting to the organized crime statutes and says an overt act isn’t needed to prove conspiracy to riot, meaning someone could be charged who wasn’t involved in the actual riot.
All 17 Senate Republicans supported the measure and all 13 Democrats voted no. It now heads to the House.
Senate Bill 1142 would allow prosecutors to seize a person’s assets in addition to enhanced criminal charges.
After this bill passed the Senate, it gained attention nationally, and there was a lot of pushback from the public. Reportedly the Republican Speaker of the House, J.D. Mesnard, received a ton of phone calls and messages about the bill, and eventually he was convinced to kill the bill. Mesnard said the intent was never to stifle protest.
Oklahoma, on the other hand, has actually gone through with passing a pair of laws aimed at protestors. Earlier this month, Oklahoma passed a law that was apparently meant to prevent pipeline protests similar to the Dakota Access protests in North Dakota. The first law would impose “steep fines or prison time against people convicted of trespassing at a critical infrastructure facility” to disrupt operations. This would include pipelines. This first law probably doesn’t seem all that unreasonable.
But it’s a second law, signed the same day, where the real bite comes in. That law would make civilly liable anyone who “compensates, provides consideration or remunerates a person for trespassing.” Like, the proposed Arizona law above, this could ensnare people who haven’t engaged in any conduct we’d normally consider unlawful, but simply by associating with the guilty party, they become guilty as well.
For example, if a person allowed an out-of-town protestor to stay in their home, that could be considered compensation, and they then might be held liable if that person trespassed at a pipeline facility. Once again, it’s hard not to think this is aimed at stifling the ability of citizens to exercise their First Amendment rights to free speech and free assembly. It’s difficult to see any other purpose behind it. Unfortunately, unlike in Arizona, Governor Mary Fallon of Oklahoma went ahead and signed this into law.
Additionally, in late February, when the anti-Trump protests were at their height, the Washington Post put out a report on the numerous other states around the country that were considering anti-protest legislation:
Since the election of President Trump, Republican lawmakers in at least 18 states have introduced or voted on legislation to curb mass protests in what civil liberties experts are calling “an attack on protest rights throughout the states.”
From Virginia to Washington state, legislators have introduced bills that would increase punishments for blocking highways, ban the use of masks during protests, indemnify drivers who strike protesters with their cars and, in at least once case, seize the assets of people involved in protests that later turn violent. The proposals come after a string of mass protest movements in the past few years, covering everything from police shootings of unarmed black men to the Dakota Access Pipeline to the inauguration of Trump.
Some are introducing bills because they say they’re necessary to counter the actions of “paid” or “professional” protesters who set out to intimidate or disrupt, a common accusation that experts agree is largely overstated. “
As the anti-Trump protests have quieted down somewhat, these efforts have seemed to die down a bit as well.
But looked at in its totality, from the rhetorical efforts to delegitimize protestors & activists, to these many efforts at criminalizing or making protests unlawful, it is quite clear that Republicans have been going to great lengths during the Trump presidency to ignore – and even silence – the voices of their constituents. The obvious reason for this is that hearing those voices would require them to be accountable to what those voices are saying.
Does the GOP Even Believe it Should Be Accountable to “the People” Anymore?
I originally started writing this post a couple weeks ago, right after the story about Rep. Frelinghuysen broke. But I got sidetracked by other news that seemed more urgent to write about at the time. And it turns out that now is a good time to write this post, in the wake of the absolutely outlandish story out of Montana, in which GOP House candidate Greg Gianforte “bodyslammed” a reporter who asked him a question about the recent CBO report. He then went on the win the election the very next day. Gianforte’s violent reaction is obviously of an entirely different nature than the things I described in this post, and I don’t mean to suggest in any way that the Congress members mentioned here would ever resort to violence.
But all of these various behaviors do seem to stem from the same sentiment. That sentiment being:“I don’t owe you any answers.” And in the case of Frelinghuysen in particular, what he seems to have in common with Gianforte is this sense of “how dare you!” in response to a citizen simply exercising his or her constitutional rights. Both of their responses seem to come from this place of outrage that a constituent or a reporter (on behalf of constituents!) would seek accountability from them.
And the fact that in both cases this behavior seems to be going unpunished by their Party and by voters is a very dangerous development in our politics. But it’s unfortunately not all that surprising when we consider the broader picture I’ve painted here, and how easily boundaries of what’s acceptable keep shifting. I don’t look forward to seeing where this goes from here.
Note: This post is entirely focused on the national level GOP, but since a piece of news broke while I was in the middle of writing this post, I’d be remiss not to mention it, even though it involves a state level legislator: Texas recently passed a sanctuary cities law which basically imposes requirements on local law enforcement in order to ensure the state does not become a sanctuary city. On Monday, the last day of the session for the Texas legislature, hundreds of activists showed up at the state Capitol to protest the new law.
A Republican state Representative named Matt Rinaldi, apparently unhappy about the spectacle, called Immigration and Customs Enforcement on them. And to be clear, there was no indication that these were undocumented immigrants who were protesting. But the issue they were protesting over related to undocumented immigrants, so either Rinaldi made a very broad generalization or he just thought that would be a clever way to use the power of the state to intimidate the protestors.
“He came up to us and said, ‘I’m glad I just called ICE to have all these people deported,’” said state Rep. César Blanco, D-El Paso, whose account was echoed by state Reps. Armando Walle, D-Houston, and Ramon Romero, D-Fort Worth . . .
“Matt Rinaldi gave the perfect example of why there’s a problem with [this law],” said state Rep. Ramon Romero, D-Fort Worth. “Matt Rinaldi looked into the gallery and saw Hispanic people and automatically assumed they were undocumented. He racially profiled every single person that was in the gallery today. He created the scenario that so many of us fear.”