The dan­gers — and shame — of Trump’s ba­nana re­pub­lic

Times-Herald (Vallejo) - - OPINION - Eu­gene Robin­son — eu­gen­er­obin­son@wash­post. com.

I cov­ered South Amer­ica for The Wash­ing­ton Post from 1988 to 1992, a time when na­tions such as Ar­gentina, Brazil and Peru were strug­gling to reestab­lish demo­cratic norms af­ter the long, dark night of mil­i­tary dic­ta­tor­ship. One of the big­gest chal­lenges was im­plant­ing some­thing we take for granted in this coun­try: Pub­lic con­fi­dence that jus­tice, for the most part, is blind and en­gages in an hon­est search for truth.

I never thought I’d be liv­ing in a coun­try like that again. But thanks to Pres­i­dent Trump and the in­ex­cus­able dam­age he is do­ing to our jus­tice sys­tem, South Amer­ica’s past has be­come Amer­ica’s present.

There has been con­sid­er­able hy­per­ven­ti­la­tion, some per­haps by me, about the grave harm Trump is do­ing to our demo­cratic in­sti­tu­tions. I am not hy­per­ven­ti­lat­ing now. Pub­lic faith in jus­tice is a del­i­cate, pre­cious thing. Once squan­dered, it is in­cred­i­bly hard to re­gain.

That’s the kind of dam­age Trump is threat­en­ing with his out­ra­geous and un-Amer­i­can at­tacks on the Jus­tice De­part­ment and the fed­eral ju­di­ciary for find­ing his cronies — in­clud­ing long­time po­lit­i­cal ad­viser Roger Stone, for­mer na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser Michael Flynn and cam­paign man­ager Paul Manafort — guilty of crimes and de­serv­ing of pun­ish­ment. I know what the im­pact of this be­hav­ior is, be­cause I’ve seen how it plays out be­fore.

I lived in Ar­gentina, where the pres­i­dent for much of my time there, Car­los Menem, was a pop­ulist norm-breaker who nepo­tis­ti­cally in­volved his fam­ily in run­ning the gov­ern­ment and was widely viewed as cor­rupt. In 1991, Menem’s sis­terin-law and ap­point­ments sec­re­tary, Amira Yoma, was in­dicted on money-laun­der­ing charges that in­volved suit­cases full of cash al­legedly be­ing smug­gled in and out of the coun­try. Yoma’s

ex-hus­band was head of the cus­toms ser­vice at Ezeiza in­ter­na­tional air­port out­side Buenos Aires, where he al­legedly fa­cil­i­tated the cash-smug­gling.

Menem was ac­cused of se­cretly meet­ing with the pros­e­cut­ing judge in charge of the Yoma case. The pres­i­dent ini­tially de­nied hav­ing had such a meet­ing but ul­ti­mately ad­mit­ted it, claim­ing it was about some un­re­lated mat­ter. The judge’s sec­re­tary al­leged that the judge went to the pres­i­den­tial res­i­dence, where she showed Menem se­cret pros­e­cu­tion doc­u­ments about the Yoma case.

That judge was sud­denly taken off the case, which was as­signed to a dif­fer­ent judge, and Yoma was even­tu­ally cleared of all charges. It is safe to say that few Ar­gen­tines were sur­prised.

There sim­ply was very lit­tle con­fi­dence in the abil­ity of the jus­tice sys­tem to dis­cern truth from false­hood or to pun­ish the pow­er­ful and well-con­nected. There was an un­der­stand­ing, more­over, that pros­e­cu­tors and the court sys­tem could and

Thanks to Trump and the in­ex­cus­able dam­age he is do­ing to our jus­tice sys­tem, South Amer­ica’s past has be­come Amer­ica’s present.

some­times would be used as po­lit­i­cal tools.

This is not the sort of path I ever thought the United States could pos­si­bly take. Our jus­tice sys­tem ob­vi­ously has flaws, start­ing with the way it dis­pro­por­tion­ately pun­ishes peo­ple of color. But it has not been naïve, at least in my life­time, to be­lieve that fed­eral pros­e­cu­tors and judges tried their very best not to let pol­i­tics in­flu­ence their de­ci­sions — and that they gen­er­ally suc­ceeded be­cause they took their re­spon­si­bil­i­ties se­ri­ously.

When four as­sis­tant U.S. at­tor­neys asked to be taken off the Stone case, they were sound­ing an alarm. We must all pay at­ten­tion.

Their rec­om­men­da­tion that Stone serve seven to nine years in prison for his crimes was tough, but fed­eral pros­e­cu­tors tend to be tough. Stone was duly con­victed in a court of law, and U.S. Dis­trict Judge Amy Ber­man Jack­son will de­cide his pun­ish­ment. But when higher-ups in At­tor­ney Gen­eral Wil­liam Barr’s Jus­tice De­part­ment over­rule the pros­e­cu­tors who han­dled the case on Stone’s rec­om­mended sen­tence; when Trump tries to dele­git­imize those pros­e­cu­tors as “An­gry Democrats” be­cause they worked for for­mer spe­cial coun­sel Robert Mueller III; and when Trump goes so far as to try to in­tim­i­date Jack­son, a highly re­spected vet­eran fed­eral judge — when such things hap­pen, I have to won­der whether I’m back in Car­los Menem’s Ar­gentina.

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