Former New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, a vocal critic of Donald Trump and his administration, is doing more than just speaking out against him. She is co-chairing a national task force whose mission is to fix American democracy.
The National Task Force on Rule of Law and Democracy, spearheaded by the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, launched on Monday with the goal of developing “implementable solutions to restore trust in government,” according to its website. The nonpartisan task force is being headed by Whitman and Preet Bharara, the former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York who was controversially fired from his post when he refused Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ request to resign.
Whitman, who served as the state’s only female governor between 1994 and 2001, when she became administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency under President George W. Bush, said she was eager to help lead the effort that she hopes will return the public’s confidence in democracy and government.
“We have taken a lot for granted,” said Whitman, 71. “We assumed there were certain norms for the behavior of elected officials. That’s all turned upside down now. Citizens are losing faith in our institutions.”
In an email announcing the creation of the task force on Monday, Michael Waldman, president of the Brennan Center, said the task force is going to “look for ways to strengthen ethics and prevent conflicts of interest; protect the independence of law enforcement and courts; and ensure a free and independent press.” According to its website, the task force is also going to recommend ways to make sure government research and data are transparent and used appropriately and to boost the appointment of people who are qualified for the public office to which they are named.
Problems to be tackled
In an opinion piece Whitman and Bharara co-authored Monday in USA Today, they summed up the problems they are tackling: “One year into the Trump presidency, it’s clear that the norms and boundaries traditionally guiding American political behavior have deeply eroded. That matters greatly. A workable democracy can thrive only when there are basic rules, often unwritten, that curb abuse and guide policymakers. Though the two of us are from different political parties, we both believe that now is the time to ensure the president and all our public officials adhere to basic rules of the road.
It’s time to turn soft norms into hard law. So far, President Trump has refused to divorce himself from his business interests, despite decades of tradition. He has repeatedly tried to influence federal criminal investigations. Policymaking processes have become haphazard. And we now see worrisome attacks on the independent press. All this shows just how easily a chief executive can ignore the unwritten rules that typically constrain presidents.”
Whitman said the task force’s recommendations, for which she has set an “ambitious” deadline of this summer, are to include proposals meant to be codified and will include ethics rules and, more generally, “what’s expected of elected officials.”
Although she is a Republican whose parents were involved in GOP politics, Whitman has been highly critical of Trump. She backed former Ohio Gov. John Kasich for the GOP presidential nomination and, when Trump won, supported Democrat Hillary Clinton in the general election. She has written several opinion pieces challenging Trump and Scott Pruitt’s handing of the EPA and has called out Trump’s statements on his preferred medium of communications, Twitter.
For instance, last month, when news outlets reported Trump had said he did not want more immigrants from Africa and Haiti, referring to them as “shithole countries,” Whitman tweeted three times to express her disgust at his remarks:
“#Trump’s comments about Haiti and African nations are beneath the office of the #President. His language is not only appalling – it’s dangerous…
“There is now no denying that @realDonaldTrump is a racist. He denigrates anyone who doesn’t look like him. #Republicans have to stop making excuses for him and call him out for what he is – an embarrassment to the office.
“…We have to stop the damage #Trump is doing to the US. Congress must take the reins in a bi-partisan way until this nightmare can be brought to a close.”
Politicizing the courts
She said she is most concerned about Trump’s “politicizing justice and the courts,” including his recent attacks on the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Trump called the FBI’s reputation “in Tatters – worst in History!” last December and for the past two months he has tweeted numerous times with complaints about former FBI Director James Comey and Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, who resigned suddenly from his post on Monday.
She also weighed in against the release of the so-called Nunez memo that is reportedly about FBI surveillance related to the ongoing investigation of ties between the Trump campaign and Russia. Republican members of the House Intelligence Committee voted to release the memo, FBI director Christopher Wray opposes the release because it says the document omits important information, and Trump reportedly will approve the release of the document.
“It’s so partisan and political,” Whitman complained.
Whitman’s tenure in Trenton began just before what she and others have termed as the start of the current hyperpartisan atmosphere – Newt Gingrich’s rise to Speaker of the House in 1995. She is a moderate who has long been concerned about the movement of the GOP to the right and the political polarization of the country. In 2005, her book, “It’s My Party, Too: The Battle for the Heart of the GOP and the Future of America,” argued for the Republican party’s return to centrist policies, was published.
“Our democracy is under enormous pressure; the norms have really been eroded,” she said. “It’s scary, I think. It’s unrelenting.”
An independent press
Equally important as recommendations specific to government and officials will be those meant to strengthen the independence of the press, Whitman said. Trump often terms stories that include negative information about him “fake news,” and suggested he might challenge the broadcast license of at least one network over its coverage and has said he wants to change libel laws to make it easier to sue the press.
“It is critical as an underpinning of our democracy,” Whitman said. “This bullying and attack on the press when they do not write what he wants is upsetting and has to stop.”
Passage of reforms that may call for checks on the president’s power and seek to make the holder of the office of president conform to stronger ethical norms might seem hard to fathom during the current political climate in which all but a handful of Republicans support Trump, at least in public, regardless of what he says or does. But Whitman says it’s possible because the public, including many Republicans, are unhappy, even frightened, by the current state of federal affairs now.
“People are hungry for it,” she said. “I speak at a lot of colleges and universities, and whether I am in Georgia or Massachusetts, I hear the same thing … There is hope. There are people who recognize the problem.”
Whitman said there are even Republican members of Congress, who “don’t dare say it out loud,” but would support reform. “So many people are starting to recognize that this is all starting to spiral out of control,” she added.
The task force, whose membership is still forming, includes several other notable figures: former Republican U.S. Sen and Secretary of Defense under President Barack Obama Chuck Hagel; Amy Comstock Rick, a former director of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics and former associate counsel to the U.S. President in the White House counsel’s office; and Christopher Edley Jr., who served under two U.S. Presidents and was a member of the 2001 Election Reform Commission co-chaired by former Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter.