By Zach Mossburg
A perfect coincidence happened as Sen. Ben Cardin was speaking on campus this past week. Ostensibly coming to discuss President Trump’s State of the Union Address, Sen. Cardin, like so many of us, got distracted by all of the news that happened between Tuesday, Jan. 30 and Friday, Feb. 2. There were rumblings that President Trump was going to fire Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, the gate-keeper of the Robert Mueller investigation. President Trump refused to enact sanctions against Russia for its election hacking, which were almost unanimously passed by both the U.S. House and Senate. Most notably, as Senator Cardin was the ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee at the time of this talk, President Trump was talking about declassifying the Nunes memo, a document that the FBI had “grave concerns” about and that Democrats alleged inappropriately attacked the FBI, Department of Justice (DOJ) and the special counsel investigation. Commentators and intelligence officials alike worried that releasing this memo would endanger U.S. intelligence secrets, on top of adding more confusion to an already turbulent news cycle. Sen. Cardin himself said that he had yet to see the memo, but made clear that from what he knew, the memo was specifically intended to discredit Robert Mueller and Rod Rosenstein. He told all of us that he did not think the memo should be released. Then, as he was answering one of his last questions, many people who were in attendance noticed their phone light up with a Washington Post notification: President Trump had just officially declassified the Nunes memo. An hour later the memo was public.
At times, Sen. Cardin sounded exasperated discussing certain mishaps by the Trump administration. He opened by discussing the elephant in the room: the Russians and their hacking of the 2016 presidential elections. “Our democratic institutions are being attacked from global players and from within,” he warned. The mastermind behind these Russian influencing efforts, Russian President Vladimir Putin, has created a “design on infiltrating democratic countries,” according to Sen. Cardin and sees democratic regimes in general as antithetical to his foreign policy goals. Despite this, Donald Trump lavishes the Russian regime with praise, carefully making sure not to say anything distasteful while still flinging insults wildly at nearly everyone else, such as ridiculing a morning talk show host for “bleeding from the face,” or calling democratic representatives who didn’t clap for him at the State of the Union “treasonous.”
Putin befriending the U.S., a country that sees itself as the global protector of democracy, makes no sense from a rational decision-making standpoint (realpolitik), unless you consider the possibility that Putin believes he can bring an end to U.S. democracy. Once you think about Russia’s actions from a viewpoint that prioritizes Russia’s foreign policy goals, much of the Trump administration’s actions make sense. Despite imminent warnings from the CIA director that Russia will “of course” be engaged in influencing the 2018 elections, President Trump could not seem less interested, even going as far as refusing to enact sanctions on the country. When it comes to protecting these upcoming elections, the White House has done nothing to either warn Russia against attacking us or to strengthen our defense systems against another attack. To further drive this point home, in a Senate Intelligence Committee testimony on February 14th, FBI Director Christopher Wray made it clear that the President has never directed him to look into stopping any further attacks.
While the Russian threat is no doubt flashy and intriguing, almost spy novel worthy in some instances, the Trump administration is also taking less flashy actions to undermine American democracy. Sen. Cardin made it clear that the American public needs to be able to sort through the distractions (see Devin Nunes in general) and focus on what the Trump administration is doing on a day-to-day basis. One of the things that Sen. Cardin is most worried about is the administration’s stance towards DREAMers and other immigrants. Since Trump took office, Immigration and Customs Enforcement has been working with police state-esque authority to deport immigrants. A quick Google search will show multiple stories of immigrants with hardly any wrongdoing in their past, who have been in this country for decades, being deported back to extremely hostile environments. Sen. Cardin wanted it known that Donald Trump’s actions towards the DREAMers had “put a date on their back” and gave other countries fuel to attack American values. How, as a nation, are we supposed to stand up for the idea that everyone is equal and that human rights for all is a noble cause when we are deporting non-violent Americans who may not have been born here but have been here for longer than most of us at this school have been alive?
While some of the talk had an exasperated tone, other parts had a more desperate or pleading tone. Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona had “essentially given up” due to actions taken by the Trump administration and, especially, the non-action by Congress against him. “We need the President’s leadership,” Sen. Cardin demanded, to protect our ever closer approaching elections, and yet he is nowhere to be found on the issue. Congress should have acted by now to pass a statute protecting the independence of the DOJ and FBI, but once again, nothing. President Trump claims that his policies are putting “America first” but Sen. Cardin sees his foreign policy more as “America alone.” The quick and automatic response for many would be to just tune out politics, focus on things that are more easy to control. But Sen. Cardin pleaded for us to stay focused. In one of his closing remarks, he said that the best part about the Trump Presidency is that it has created a whole new generation of political activists. As long as there is anger and backlash against the hateful actions by this administration, Sen. Cardin is confident we will survive as a democracy. Although it may not always feel like it, “the power is with the people,” he declared, and we will get a chance to prove this in a little more than eight months time.