[BenIndy contributor Roger Straw: I’m not an easy adopter of conspiracy theories. But Stuart Stevens describes an alarming historical pattern that is rearing its head here in the U.S. – both quietly behind the scenes, and increasingly and alarmingly more plainly in public. Yes, I am alarmed. Stevens outlines the historic factors that have led to absolute and catastrophic authoritarian rule, and outlines ways in which we can and must be alert to such factors today, and active in opposing them. This analysis has risen to the very top of my activist concerns for our times. This important PBS interview is only 6 minutes – take a listen!]
Former Republican strategist raises alarms about GOP in ‘The Conspiracy to End America’
AMNA NAWAZ: Stuart Stevens has spent the majority of his decades-long career getting Republicans elected to political office. But his latest book is a warning to the country about the current state of the GOP and its threat to America’s democracy.
Amna Nawas spoke with Stuart Stevens about the book titled, “The Conspiracy to End America: Five Ways My Old Party Is Driving Our Democracy to Autocracy.”
ATLANTA — Former president Donald Trump and 18 others were criminally charged in Georgia on Monday in connection with efforts to overturn Joe Biden’s 2020 victory in the state, according to an indictment made public late Monday night.
Trump was charged with 13 counts, including violating the state’s racketeering act, soliciting a public officer to violate their oath, conspiring to impersonate a public officer, conspiring to commit forgery in the first degree and conspiring to file false documents.
The historic indictment, the latest to implicate the former president, follows a 2½-year investigation by Fulton County District Attorney Fani T. Willis (D). The probe was launched after audio leaked from a January 2021 phone call during which Trump urged Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger (R) to question the validity of thousands of ballots, especially in the heavily Democratic Atlanta area, and said he wanted to “find” the votes to erase his 2020 loss in the state.
Among those named in the 98-page indictment, charged under Georgia’s anti-racketeering law, are Rudy Giuliani, the former New York mayor who served as Trump’s personal attorney after the election; Trump’s former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows; and several Trump advisers, including attorneys John Eastman and Kenneth Chesebro, architects of a scheme to create slates of alternate Trump electors.
Also indicted were two Georgia-based lawyers advocating on Trump’s behalf, Ray S. Smith II, and Robert Cheeley; a senior campaign adviser, Mike Roman, who helped plan the elector meeting; and two prominent Georgia Republicans who served as electors: former GOP chairman David Shafer and former GOP finance chairman Shawn Still.
Several lesser known players who participated in efforts to reverse Trump’s defeat in Georgia were also indicted, including three people accused of harassing Fulton County election worker Ruby Freeman. They are Stephen Cliffgard Lee, Harrison Floyd and Trevian Kutti. The latter is a former publicist for R. Kelly and associate of Kanye West.
A final group of individuals charged in the indictment allegedly participated in an effort to steal election-equipment data in rural Coffee County, Ga. They are former Coffee County elections supervisor Misty Hampton, former Coffee County GOP chair Cathy Latham and Georgia businessman Scott Hall.
Trump was indicted in Washington, D.C., earlier this month in a separate Justice Department probe into his various attempts to keep his grip on power during the chaotic aftermath of his 2020 defeat. Some aspects of that four-count federal case, led by special counsel Jack Smith, overlaps with Willis’s sprawling probe, which accuses Trump and his associates of a broad, criminal enterprise to reverse Joe Biden’s election victory in Georgia.
But the Fulton County indictment, issued by a grand jury and made public Monday night, is far more encompassing and detailed than Smith’s ongoing federal investigation.
Prosecutors brought charges around five separate subject areas, including false statements by Trump allies, including Giuliani, to the Georgia legislature; the breach of voting data in Coffee County, Ga.; calls Trump made to state officials including Raffensperger seeking to overturn Biden’s victory; the harassment of election workers and the creation of a slate of alternate electors to undermine the legitimate vote. Those charged in the case were implicated in certain parts of what prosecutors presented as a larger conspiracy to undermine the election
Willis had signaled for months that she planned to use Georgia’s expansive anti-racketeering statutes that allow prosecutors not only to charge in-state wrongdoing but to use activities in other states to prove criminal intent in Georgia. Georgia’s Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) statute is one of the most expansive in the country and is broader than federal law in how prosecutors can define a criminal enterprise or conspiracy.
In January 2022, Willis requested an unusual special purpose grand jury be convened to continue the probe, citing the reluctance of witnesses who would not speak to prosecutors without a subpoena. The investigative body of 23 jurors and three alternates picked from a pool of residents from Atlanta and its suburbs was given full subpoena power for documents and the ability to call witnesses — though it could not issue indictments, only recommendations in the case.
Over roughly eight months, the panel heard from 75 witnesses — including key Trump advisers including Giuliani, Meadows and U.S. Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), who waged a failed legal battle all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court to block his subpoena before ultimately testifying.
The panel also heard from several key witnesses in the investigation, including Raffensperger and Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R), who were on the other end of aggressive lobbying efforts by Trump and his associates to overturn Trump’s loss in the state.
In January, the special grand jury concluded its work and issued a final report on its investigation, which was largely kept under seal by the judge who oversaw the panel.
Fulton County Superior Court Judge Robert McBurney cited “due process” concerns for “potential future defendants” as Willis considered charges in the case. But in February, McBurney released a five-page excerpt of the report — including a section in which the panel concluded that some witnesses may have lied under oath during their testimony and recommended that charges be filed.
The panel’s forewoman later confirmed that the special grand jury had recommended multiple indictments — though she declined to say of who.
Trump’s attorneys later sought to disqualify Willis and her office from the case — citing Willis’s public comments about the investigation — and quash the final report and any evidence gathered by the special purpose grand jury. The motions were rejected by McBurney and the Georgia Supreme Court, which ruled that Trump had no legal standing to stop an investigation before charges were filed.
In the spring, amid security concerns, Willis took the unusual step of telling law enforcement that she planned to announce her charging decision in August. Because the special grand jury could not issue indictments, prosecutors presented their case to a regular grand jury sworn in last month, which began hearing the case Monday.
Trump’s attorneys are likely to immediately seek to have the case thrown out, reviving their complaints about Willis and the use of a special grand jury in the case.
Trump has intensified his attacks on Willis and other prosecutors examining his activities, describing them as “vicious, horrible people” and “mentally sick.” Trump has referred to Willis, who is Black, as the “racist DA from Atlanta.” His 2024 campaign included her in a recent video attacking prosecutors investigating Trump. Willis has generally declined to respond directly to Trump’s attacks, but in a rare exception, she said in an email last week sent to the entire district attorney’s office that Trump’s ad contained “derogatory and false information about me” and ordered her employees to ignore it.
“You may not comment in any way on the ad or any of the negativity that may be expressed against me, your colleagues, this office in coming days, weeks or months,” Willis wrote in the email, obtained by The Washington Post. “We have no personal feelings against those we investigate or prosecute and we should not express any. This is business, it will never be personal.”
Still, Willis has repeatedly raised concerns about security as her investigation has progressed, citing Trump’s “alarming” rhetoric and the racist threats she and her staff have received. Willis is often accompanied by armed guards at public appearances, and security at her office and her residence was increased even more in recent days ahead of the expected charging announcement, according to a law enforcement official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe sensitive security matters.
[Note from BenIndy Contributor Nathalie Christian: Public Citizen and other allies are organizing rallies around the country for this Thursday, August 3 — the day of Trump’s arraignment — to demand accountability and support the rule of law. I looked and the closest rally (that I can find, so far) is in Petaluma, at 5:30pm. If anyone local catches wind of a more local rally, or wants to initiate one, please email me and I’d be happy to promote it. From Public Citizen: Find a rally near you.]
Jack Smith is doing his job. The rest is up to us.
By Stephen Golub, July 3, 2023
Yesterday, a grand jury indicted Donald Trump for, in essence, trying to gut American democracy. In securing that indictment, Special Counsel Jack Smith launched a case of unprecedented importance to our country.
I’d thought that I might greet the news with relief that the inevitable has come to pass, or despair over what Trump’s abuses signify, or trepidation over the societal ruptures that await us.
But I feel something far more stirring. Not quite elation.
I’ve spent my career working to promote democracy and the rule of law across the globe. As I’ve written, the effort has largely flopped, though there have been powerful exceptions to that unfortunate rule.
One of the heartbreaking aspects of this endeavor has been how blind America has been to our own failures here at home. Even as the United States has sought to teach, train and tut-tut other societies about their democratic and legal shortcomings, we’ve ignored our own glass house.
But at this one historic moment, this country has lived up to its promise.
On this one day, we’re seeing the rule of law in action in its most vital sense: No one is above the law.
The indictment, practically free of legalese and packed with persuasive detail, makes for compelling reading. It portrays how Trump and six so-far unindicted and unidentified co-conspirators undertook a multi-stage drive to undo the election results. It superbly illuminates how they sought to pressure state and federal officials, line up fake electoral college electors, bulldoze then-Vice President Pence and ultimately ignite a mob, all in order to block Joe Biden from being certified as president-elect on January 6.
By citing abundant incriminating evidence from Trump’s own top aids and allies, including contemporaneous notes by Pence, it also shows how Trump knew that his allegations of electoral theft were lies.
In an irony that perhaps will not go unnoticed by Trump’s nativist and white nationalist fans, both the federal magistrate to whom the indictment was presented and the federal judge who will oversee the case are immigrants, respectively from India and Jamaica.
Now, none of this is to say that any of this will play out well, even if Trump is convicted. Things will get ugly, vicious, maybe even violent.
Nor does it compensate for what got us here, from Trump’s depravity to his followers’ tribal loyalty to Republican leaders’ craven acquiescence to Attorney General Merrick Garland’s ill-advised delay in approving the Trump insurrection investigation.
Furthermore, as I’ve previously suggested, the ultimate forum that will decide Trump’s legal fate will be the court of public opinion. That is, whether he will be held legally accountable for his alleged crimes against this country will probably hinge on whether he wins next year’s election.
But this first step had to happen. At this pivotal point in our history, we had to move from a hypocritical glass house to a literal, crucial courthouse. Smith and his team will do their best to hold Trump accountable for his crimes.
Now, the rest of us must do our part to ensure that Trump loses in the court of public opinion as well.
[Note from BenIndy Contributor Nathalie Christian: While I think all of Steve’s posts are well worth the time it takes to read them, I really encourage everyone to sit down with this one, especially because we’re still very close to Independence Day. The seeding, care and feeding of democracy abroad is a complicated undertaking at the best of times. Keeping it alive and thriving in our own garden has become a surprisingly fraught enterprise, too. Steve’s thoughtful analysis of what has and hasn’t worked provides a reasonable framework for the cultivated endurance of democracy and, perhaps more importantly, it provides at least me with very welcome hope.]This post was produced by Benicia resident Stephen Golub and originally appeared in the Washington Post‘s ‘Made by History’ section. Steve blogs about domestic and international politics and policy, including lessons that the United States can learn from other nations, at A Promised Land: America as a Developing Country. If interested, you may sign up for future posts by subscribing to the blog.
For 40 years, the U.S. government has ignored what sorts of democracy promotion work — and which ones don’t
By Stephen Golub, July 4, 2023
As America celebrates Independence Day, we find our democracy not nearly as strong as we’d once thought. Authoritarian challenges threaten our institutions, our rights and the rule of law.
Ironically, this sobering reality confronts us after the United States, along with affluent allies, has devoted decades and massive resources to trying to build democracy in the world’s poorer and post-communist societies, including via rule of law, good governance, human rights and anti-corruption programs. With some exceptions — mostly centered on providing electoral assistance and fortifying civil society and media — these efforts have largely fallen flat. Data from Freedom House, the World Bank and the World Justice Project confirm the decline in democracy and associated fields across the globe.
Why the widespread failure? First, we hubristically bit off more than we could chew. The United States mistakenly assumed that foreign aid for training and equipping recipient nations’ government institutions could overcome the deep-seated political, historical, economic and cultural forces permeating them and could thus build democracies in our image.
Second, in focusing most democracy aid on such government institution-building, the United States put a relative paucity of resources into nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and other civil society forces that modestly but more effectively strengthen specific policies, processes and populations.
In some ways, the roots of this failure reach back to our experience in the Philippines at the outset of the 20th century. At that time, America’s imperialist endeavor drove the Spanish from the archipelago and brutally crushed an indigenous independence movement. During the next half-century, we built corrupt, elite-controlled government institutions instead of strengthening grass- roots participation in representative government. This became an unintentional template for our subsequent democracy-building abroad decades later.
That template became salient when, in the 1980s, a host of actors and factors combined to make democracy a U.S. foreign policy priority.
Providing political cover for its wars in Central America and right-wing allies throughout Latin America, the Reagan administration funded government-focused, ostensibly democracy-promoting programs in the region. The unfortunate upshot was, for example, partnering with human rights-violating governments on major and, ultimately, unsuccessful administration of justice initiatives to which officials in our partner nations were actually resistant or indifferent. Similarly flawed and government-focused U.S. democracy programs arose alongside backing for authoritarian Cold War allies elsewhere.
In a more promising development, the 1980s also saw bipartisan support for the new National Endowment for Democracy, new U.S. Agency for International Development projects and other U.S. initiatives that provided small grants to civil society and media initiatives around the world. But such funding was (and is) dwarfed by major USAID programs and related support for government institutions.
This funding disparity meant that, as the United States started pouring money into top-down programs geared toward building American-style government institutions abroad, it tended to downplay support for civil society programs that could directly benefit and strengthen populations poorly served by those institutions.
By contrast, various private funding sources prioritized civil society. The Ford Foundation, the Carnegie Corp. and other donors made grants to South African NGOs pursuing anti-apartheid legal activism. Financier George Soros began providing funds for innovators, budding democracy activists, journalists and international exchanges as Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union slowly started to liberalize. The partly U.S.-funded but private Asia Foundation supported Bangladeshi NGOs’ innovative local dispute resolution work. (I worked for the foundation elsewhere, and later evaluated and researched that work.)
These privately supported efforts exhibited promising results as they expanded their operations and impact in the 1990s. They contributed to significant health, housing and other victories in South Africa after the racist regime stepped down. Bangladeshi NGOs’ local dispute resolution models gathered steam — and support from additional donors and the Bangladeshi government itself — by ameliorating gender inequities and providing the poor with alternatives to a distant, corrupt and incomprehensible judicial system.
Around the world, both foundations and donor nations alike funded a growing array of NGOs featuring paralegals who, unlike those working in U.S. law offices, were typically community-based volunteers whom NGO attorneys trained and collaborated with. They advocated for and with their communities and fellow citizens to address health, housing, land, gender and other issues.
These programs thrived at the same moment that the United States and other affluent nations began pouring greatly expanded sums into seeding democracy worldwide in the wake of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of Eastern European communist regimes and the Soviet Union. Books on “exporting democracy” — even presenting it as America’s destiny — assumed it was the wave of the future.
Yet, the United States ignored the success of the projects funded by foundations and clung to the notion that foreign aid to governments could secure dramatic democratic transformations. This partly stemmed from foreign policy priorities, including the post-Cold War perspective that fortifying U.S.-friendly capitalist democracies was in our own economic and political interest. But it also flowed from a bureaucratic reality: It was easier to secure funding in Washington for ambitious programs that promised to build up national ministries, legislatures and judiciaries than for local programs that worked with farmers, women or other disadvantaged groups.
Maintaining this unfortunate focus, George W. Bush linked his post-9/11 military and political programs to both defeating terrorism and installing democracy, stoking cynicism in many circles about that latter effort. Even if viewed in the most charitable light, U.S. democracy-building efforts in Afghanistan proved no match for the dominance of warlords and — as with some other aid recipient nations — entrenched corruption networks that permeated the government.
The past two decades have seen U.S. democracy aid flow and ebb, in response to such events as the Arab Spring and its demise. This aid has continued to feature a blend of foreign policy priorities, immense bureaucracy, hubris, cynicism and idealism. Its misplaced priorities have endured: Despite the documented success of paralegal programs, for example, many have suffered funding cutbacks from American and other sources.
All of this helps explain the mediocre record for U.S. democracy promotion: The United States has focused too much on working with change-resistant institutions and too little on supporting the civil society and media change agents that might gradually affect such institutions over the long haul. Even in the short term, these shortchanged programs have a record of helping citizens bring about concrete results — improving farmers’ land tenure, combating corruption, reducing violence against women, enhancing communities’ health or strengthening inputs into local governance, among other goals. They may not be as sexy as transforming a country’s government, but history indicates such programs actually work.
All told, the United States has poured about $100 billion into democracy aid over the past 40 years, mostly for large-scale, government-focused programs, often designed and implemented by international consulting firms.
However, despite far less funding, homegrown projects that draw on local knowledge — which foreign consultants and aid officials lack — and that help partner populations pursue economic, health, political or human rights priorities have proved far more successful.
In a related vein, U.S. support for free and fair elections — programs often carried out by American NGOs that provide election-oriented monitoring, advice and training — has yielded notable achievements. Such programs have protected electoral integrity in some instances and fueled successful drives to challenge corrupt results in others, including Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution.
With the exception of such dramatic electoral results, civil society support may not produce the seismic shifts that American officials seek. But neither has the top-down, institution-building approach that has fruitlessly gobbled up vast resources.
Authoritarians are strong until they’re not. History is littered with the downfalls of repressive regimes that once appeared firmly entrenched. Just recently, the world saw Vladimir Putin’s seemingly iron hold on power shaken by the corrupt forces he himself enabled.
Thus, the global pendulum may yet swing back toward democracy. Helping to make that happen, in however modest a manner, demands supporting the kinds of efforts that have worked in the past and rethinking those that have not.
These lessons apply at home as well. Even as we honor Independence Day, the health of our government institutions seems in question. But a vibrant civil society, a thriving free press and safeguarding elections can protect those institutions’ integrity, keeping the flames of political accountability burning and ensuring that our democracy endures.