President Donald Trump still struggles to be perceived as overseeing a stable and competent government after 20 months in office, and his supporters have suggested that the problems arise from a “Deep State” within the bureaucracy working against him. Yet a recent anonymous op-ed by a senior official inside the Trump administration shows that resistance to his authority is found right within his closest advisers’ ranks. Additionally, the new book by Bob Woodward details specific actions taken by Trump’s own White House staff to undercut his policies.
With brazen disobedient acts entering in the public sphere it is useful to have an analytical framework as we navigate through uncharted and tumultuous waters with this president. Where do we focus our gaze to best grasp what is happening? My view is that this is an erosion of legitimacy that threatens to reach a breaking point.
Important portions of the genesis for this instability can be found in the Russian operation in the 2016 election—an action that I have previously analyzed here at Just Security to be an illegal act under international law. I referenced the fact that the influential Tallinn Manual 2.0 covering the international law governing cyberspace speaks to this issue in Rule 66 where a minority view found that “context and consequences” are required to properly interpret whether an act of interference is an illegal intervention.
What we are witnessing today sharply illuminates the gravity of the “context and consequences” when legitimacy is targeted by a foreign power via cyber-interference. Legitimacy is a sine qua non for the state, and the fact that Trump suffers from a legitimacy deficit—with the threat of it widening into a crisis—can be partly traced to the Russian intervention in U.S. democracy.
As a starting point, the concept of legitimacy is an essential dimension of all political struggles and notably lies at the heart of the military doctrine promoted by General David Petraeus. Though it is elusive, there are useful ways to talk about and analyze this complex subject.
The Italian historian Guglielmo Ferrero’s work on the Principles of Powerfrom 1942 is most instructive. He succinctly explained that a government is “legitimate if the power is conferred and exercised according to principles and rules accepted without discussion by those who must obey.” In other words, legitimacy can be examined through three key questions:
1) How is power granted?
2) How is it employed?
3) Does obedience flow naturally?
In a democracy, free and fair elections play the essential role of conferring legitimacy on an authority. So to begin we should look at irregularity in Trump’s election. Regardless of the impact on the outcome, the Russian cyber operation disrupted the customary confidence in the establishment of legitimate authority.
Former President Obama specified before he stepped down that, on top of trying to influence the election, the Russian activities were also meant to “erode faith in U.S. democratic institutions, sow doubt about the integrity of our electoral process, and undermine confidence in the institutions of the U.S. government.” Each of these goals directly targets the legitimacy of how we confer power.
Since that time we have learned an enormous amount about the breadth, depth, and precision of the cross-border operation, along with evidence that the original hack can be attributed to Russia. In other words, the investigation by Special Counsel Robert Mueller has not only indicted Russians involved in the extensive online influence campaign (“now revealed to have essentially been among the largest Super PACs operating in the 2016 election”), but it has also brought charges against Russian agents for hacking into and stealing files from the party opposing Trump.
Such facts regarding the wrongdoing have convinced one former intelligence chief. James Clapper wrote in his book, “Of course the Russian effort affected the outcome. Surprising even themselves, they swung the election to a Trump win. To conclude otherwise stretches logic, common sense, and credulity to the breaking point.”
Additionally, when it comes to the anomaly of Trump elevation to the nation’s highest office, we now need to take into consideration the building evidence of the Trump campaign conspiring with Russians to defraud the United States. It would make little sense to think that everything is already publicly known as the Mueller investigation steadily advances with enormously few leaks.
Simply put, a dark cloud hangs over the process that granted Trump his authority and it only seems to be getting gloomier.
This is by no means the place to extrapolate on the manner in which Trump has exercised power thus far. Indeed, libraries will likely be filled with such analysis in the future. Trump is a self-described disrupter, breaks norms on a regular basis, thumbs his nose at bipartisan traditions, and has upset longtime global alliances. Nevertheless, it will be important to investigate whether he has employed the power of his office legally, morally and effectively—what I propose are the pillars of legitimate political action.
Yet, at the core of the strain Trump has leveled on the American constitutional system are his sustained efforts to impede the investigation into Russian election interference and the continuously building case that he has committed criminal obstruction of justice. The firing of FBI Director James Comey would seem to sit atop of Mueller’s investigation in this regard, but one cannot ignore the reported efforts to stop Attorney General Jeff Sessions from recusing himself, the dangling of a pardon to former campaign manager Paul Manafort, or Trump’s public attacks on Justice Department lawyer Bruce Ohr.
Even an exercise of lawful authority cannot be done with corrupt intent; doing so fits the very definition of an abuse of power. So as evidence continues to mount the salient point here is the fact that this obstruction would seem to primarily arise from the original intervention. If the president is indeed exercising his power to cover-up a crime, it would be inextricably tangled with the Russian operation.
At bottom, contemporary geopolitical conflict has been shifting towards exploiting legitimacy as a target. When an authority is considered legitimate, this person is able to command an uncoerced obedience. So if it is possible to create the circumstances in which a pull towards compliance is jeopardized within the society of an adversary, great damage has been done.
To gauge if such a pull is dwindling or scarce we can watch for unauthorized acts that flout the will of the leader. Journalists have been covering a relentless torrent of leaks since the start of this administration, but recent reporting has brought the issues of disobedience, soft coups, and defiance in the White House to the fore. As it was described in the notorious op-ed from inside the executive, “officials in his own administration are working diligently from within to frustrate parts of his agenda and his worst inclinations.” What we are beholding is an erosion of legitimacy that threatens democratic stability. Even without a dramatic collapse, such a persistentdeficit upsets the functioning of government and endangers its ability to act quickly and decisively. In normal times, this is frustrating. But at moments of crisis, an inert government can become a severe hamstring.
Even if there are a host of reasons that Trump is having great difficult garnering confidence in his command (e.g. the Electoral College, Michael Cohen’s guilty plea, James Comey’s letter, broken and incoherent policy process, high turnover rate, toxic work environment, etc.), it is difficult to argue that the Russian operation has not been a part of it. I would suggest it is an important part. Foreign operations aimed at the legitimacy of a state authority can be a deeply destabilizing blow to a society—i.e. “context and consequences”—and I regrettably put forward that this is what we are witnessing today.
The more we learn about how Trump gained his position, and what more he might do to hamper the investigation into it, appear likely to further compromise the pull to his command. Nevertheless, there are indeed constitutional remedies, and free and fair elections in November are a key part of that antidote.
Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images.