To Understand Trump’s Catastrophic Ideas on the Judiciary, Look to Romania
Among the many surprising and controversial declarations made by U.S. President-elect Donald J. Trump during this past campaign, his public threat to jail his opponent, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, stands out as one of the most remarkable
Speaking during the second debate in early October, President-elect Trump was emphatic: “If I win, I am going to instruct my attorney general to get a special prosecutor to look into your situation,” and then, more directly, “you would be in jail.”
The latest news is that he has possibly reversed course, telling the New York Times on Nov. 22 that he would not pursue a new investigation into Clinton. However it’s hardly comforting considering that the President-elect appears to believe it’s at the president’s discretion who and who isn’t investigated.
But the Clinton issue is not an outlier. Trump also promised that Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos “would have such problems” when he became president, while also promising to expand libel laws in order to sue other journalists. As expressed by one of Trump’s great admirers in the Russian state media Dmitry Kiselyov, “human rights are not in his vocabulary.”
Whether or not Trump realizes the authoritarian implications of these kinds of statements by a head of state, he is playing with fire. And for those of us who take comfort in the fact of America’s established institutions and system of checks and balances should prevent this from happening, we need to think again.
The potential emergence of a politicized judiciary in the United States where prosecutions are manufactured on arbitrary grounds according to instructions from the president represent a grave threat not only to the rule of law and civil liberties but to the stability and security of the nation.
Unfortunately it is not just countries like Zimbabwe and Venezuela where this happens. Increasingly we are seeing politicization of judiciaries in seemingly more advanced countries with supposedly free and fair elections and who are members of exclusive membership clubs such NATO or the EU.
Romania provides a very good example of what happens when Trump’s vision of law is already in place. The pattern of prosecutions over the last twelve years seems to bear a clear relationship to the fortunes of the various political actors. Politicians coming to power regularly try to jail their opponents. This is true of Traian Basescu during his Presidency between 2005-15 and of former Prime Minister Victor Ponta when he was Prime Minister between 2012-14. Both have been known to accuse and pronounce guilt against their opponents during televised remarks. Normally, that would just be defamation, but in Romania, such statements are taken by the prosecutors as executive orders.
This is exactly what happened with Dan Adamescu, a German citizen who happened to finance the publication of a government-critical newspaper. Ponta attacked him during a speech in May 2014, accusing him of vague “criminal activity,” and within two weeks he was arrested. The only evidence was testimony from two confessed criminals who escaped sentencing in exchange for turning witness. The key third witness against Adamescu committed suicide in suspicious circumstances, and the record of his interrogation by the National Anticorruption Directorate (DNA) has allegedly been “lost.”
The thing that happens when you allow an arbitrary, lawless prosecutorial power to develop, it is not long before the anti-corruption crusade becomes a tool empowered for corruption itself. Up until recently, Romania was the poster child for reform, having proudly achieved the feat of launching cases against more than 1,250 in the past year. Undoubtedly some of those cases were legitimate, but what should raise eyebrows is the 49% increase in property confiscations and state-led expropriations from 2014 to 2015, surpassing $590 million.
The reason for this is that private parties – usually those closely connected to the ultra-powerful Romanian Intelligence Service (SRI) – have been able to use the anti-corruption campaign as a tool to grab up seized assets at knockdown prices. In the case of Adamescu’s insurance company, Astra, as soon as arbitration proceedings were launched against the state, the DNA ordered a European Arrest Warrant for his London-based son, Alexander Adamescu, who has never even lived in Romania and had no involvement in the case.
To be fair, it is still unclear what President-elect Trump really intends to do, what he believes, and how much a gap exists between his campaign promises and his intentions to intervene in the judiciary. But when such threats exist, there is going to be both pressure and temptation to fulfill some dangerous promises. And for those of us who have seen this process take form and become reality in Romania, we urge all Americans, both supporters and critics of Donald Trump, to resist slipping into the vacuum of a lawless, prosecutorial state.