More than anything else—with the possible exception of endless profiteering—President Trump’s legacy will be the destruction of the democratic norms meant to hold any president accountable.
Trump’s dismantling of accountability began when he became a candidate for president; but since his impeachment, his war on checks on his power has become a defining characteristic of his administration. Make no mistake: his actions are part of a pattern. Trump has always been hostile towards oversight and accountability, but the only lesson he seemed to learn from his acquittal in the Senate’s impeachment trial is that he can get away with escalating his assaults on efforts to hold him to account.
Trump has taken decisive steps to eliminate any accountability or transparency for his administration, privileging his own power over preserving a government for the people. We have created an incomplete list of the steps he has taken to annihilate the checks and balances on his power.
2016- Donald J. Trump broke decades of precedent by becoming the first president elected since Richard Nixon to refuse to release his tax returns. This meant that the American people had no understanding of his debts, his conflicts of interest, or payments from foreign countries. Five years later, Trump has still not released his tax returns, even after subpoenas. The fight is going all the way to the Supreme Court.
January 2017- Trump made White House senior staff sign unprecedented private nondisclosure agreements, akin to those Trump employed as a businessman, that are intended to last beyond the Trump presidency, preventing former staff from relaying what happened in the White House beyond national security requirements.
March 2017- Then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused from the Russia investigations, fueling Trump’s fury about facing accountability for election interference. Sessions recused because he had undisclosed meetings with Russian officials during the campaign, posing an obvious conflict. Trump later wanted him to take back control and end the investigation. When he didn’t, Trump tweeted “The Russian Witch Hunt Hoax continues, all because Jeff Sessions didn’t tell me he was going to recuse himself.” Eventually, in 2018 he fired Sessions and replaced him with Matthew Whitaker.
April 2017- Trump broke with President Obama’s precedent and announced that his administration would no longer release White House visitor logs to the public. Visitors to Trump properties were not disclosed either, even though Trump frequently held official meetings at his businesses, like Mar-a-Lago, which he dubbed the “Winter White House.”
May 2017- Trump fired FBI Director James Comey for not demonstrating sufficient loyalty and his refusal to shut down investigations into Michael Flynn and Russian interference in the presidential election.
June 2017- Reports came out saying that Trump’s White House told federal agencies to not comply with Democratic lawmakers’ oversight requests, fearing the information would be “weaponized” against Trump.
October 2017- Former Trump campaign officials Paul Manafort and Rick Gates were indicted by a grand jury for charges including conspiracy against the United States. Trump tweeted that Hillary Clinton’s campaign should be investigated instead, saying “Sorry, but this is years ago, before Paul Manafort was part of the Trump campaign. But why aren’t Crooked Hillary & the Dems the focus????? Also, there is NO COLLUSION!”
June 2018- Reporting revealed that Trump tore up official documents, including his own notes, and multiple staffers tasked with physically putting them back together were ultimately removed from the White House.
December 2018- The Trump administration failed to create records that could link families that were separated at the border as a result of the “zero tolerance” immigration policy. In December 2018, CREW sued over the failures. The real number of families who were separated is unknown as a result of poor record keeping, making it harder to hold the administration to account for the disastrous policy.
January 2019- Trump told reporters that he preferred acting officials to permanent nominations, who would have to undergo Senate confirmation. “I am in no hurry, I like acting,” Trump said. “It gives me more flexibility. Do you understand that? I like acting. So we have a few that are acting. We have a great, great cabinet.” At the time, a quarter of his cabinet served in an acting capacity.
January 2019- News broke that Trump went to extreme measures to keep his conversations with Russian President Vladimir Putin secret, including taking his own interpreters notes and asking the interpreter not to discuss the conversation with other administration officials.
February 2019- Michael Cohen testified before Congress about his work on Trump’s behalf to make hush money payments to Stormy Daniels. This testimony confirmed Trump’s direction to Cohen to cover up his affair with Daniels, and the fact that Trump made an undisclosed loan to Cohen to pay for it. This violated up to eight campaign finance laws and kept information from voters about then-candidate Trump.
February 2019- Trump installed William Barr as Attorney General. Barr had already declared in a 19 page letter that the obstruction of justice investigation into Trump was misguided.
March 2019- Barr released a 4 page summary of the Mueller report, which Trump used to claim “total exoneration.” Later that week, the 448 page report was released after public outcry, showing that Trump only avoided indictment because Mueller complied with a DOJ Office of Legal Counsel opinion that a president cannot be indicted.
March 2019- The White House unofficially stopped holding daily press briefings.
June 2019- Trump ignored the Office of Special Counsel recommendation that he fire Kellyanne Conway for her “numerous” Hatch Act violations. As OSC warned in its letter, his failure to discipline Conway signalled that his allies in the White House were effectively above the law. Violations of the Hatch Act have become a common occurrence in the Trump administration.
September 2019- The House of Representatives began an impeachment inquiry into President Trump for his apparent abuse of power by withholding military assistance in an attempt to get Ukrainian President Zelensky to investigate Joe Biden. Congress sent records requests and several subpoenas. Most were ignored, and White House lawyer Pat Cipollone sent a letter saying the White House would not cooperate with the inquiry.
September 2019- News broke that the White House was keeping certain records of Trump’s conversations with Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Saudi Royal family on a classified server in order to keep them from the public.
November 2019- During the House impeachment trial, Trump attacked the whistleblower who had brought his misconduct to light, and disparaged former ambassador Marie Yovanovich as she testified to his wrongdoing before Congress.
January 2020- During the Senate trial, Trump told Republicans “the Democrats already had 17 witnesses, we were given NONE! Witnesses are up to the House, not up to the Senate. Don’t let the Dems play you!” Ultimately, the Senate trial was held with no witnesses, breaking with more than 200 years of precedent. That allowed John Bolton, Lev Parnas and others not to come forward with information about the president’s impeachable conduct. Trump was aquitted.
January 2020- Trump failed to preemptively notify Congress about his strike on Qasem Soleimani. He did notify some cabinet officials and Congressman Lindsey Graham at his Mar-a-Lago resort. He also hinted at his plan to various Mar-a-Lago customers.
February 2020- Trump rehired John McEntee, who had previously been fired over security clearance issues, and placed him in charge of hiring White House personnel, viewing him as an “ultimate loyalist.” McEntee has since led a “loyalty purge,” firing people solely on the basis of perceived disloyalty or pressuring out longtime staffers, and replacing them with inexperienced loyalists. Impeachment witnesses Gordon Sondland and Lt. Col. Vindman were also fired for their testimony against Trump.
February 2020- Trump tweeted that the proposed sentencing for his long-time associate and political confidant Roger Stone was a “miscarriage of justice.” Then DOJ prosecutors reduced the years recommended for his sentencing, resulting in the resignations of all the original prosecutors on the case.
April 2020- Trump removed, disempowered and criticized multiple inspector generals in the same week. Trump fired Michael Atkinson, who had served as the Inspector General of the Intelligence Community since 2018. Atkinson delivered the Ukrainewhistleblower complaint to Congress that ultimately resulted in Trump’s impeachment. Additionally, Trump ousted Glenn Fine, who had served as the Acting Inspector General of DOD, and was selected by his peers in the IG community to oversee the execution of a $2 trillion pandemic relief package. Trump also attacked the acting Inspector General of Health and Human Services, who published a report on hospital supply shortages.