Top lawyers who helped the Obama White House craft and hold to rules of conduct believe President Donald Trump and his staff will break ethics norms meant to guard against politicization of the government — and they’ve formed a new group to prepare, and fight.
United to Protect Democracy, which draws its name from a line in President Barack Obama’s farewell address that urged his supporters to pick up where he was leaving off, has already raised a $1.5 million operating budget, hired five staffers and has plans to double that in the coming months. They’ve incorporated as both a 501(c)(3) and 501(c)(4), allowing them to operate as a nonprofit but participate in some forms of political advocacy as well.
While other Trump opponents focus on taking the president to court over the travel ban and deportations, the new group plans to drill into issues that aren’t already hitting the headlines, like potential intervention in and intimidation of regulatory agencies by West Wing staff.
“When people hear concerns about democracies declining into authoritarianism, they expect that moment to come in a singular thunderclap where everyone can see that this is the time,” said Ian Bassin, who’s leading the new group. “In reality, often times, democracies decline over a period of years that happen through a series of much smaller steps.”hey started by submitting 50 Freedom of Information Act requests this week that they believe will confirm their suspicions. The plan is to bring what they find to reporters, build it into pressure for congressional oversight with the help of a campaign director they’ll hire, and, as necessary, to file lawsuits.
They’re also hoping to establish themselves as a base for government employees worried about ethics violations — up to and including becoming whistleblowers — and are hoping that their website, https://unitedtoprotectdemocracy.org/,can become a resource.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer, responding to the group’s formation, said, “This administration has raised the level of ethics training and oversight to a new level compared to the practices of the previous administration.”
Bassin was an associate White House counsel during the first three years of the Obama administration, spending much of his time working on ethics questions such as what’s known as the agency contact rule, meant to prevent politics and favoritism from influencing independent agencies. He’s hiring other lawyers with similar White House counsel and Justice Department experience who have the insider knowledge of where problems tend to arise, and the kind of questions that can pin down answers: They were the ones who not so long ago were responding to the FOIA requests and guiding government employees away from conflicts.
“As people who had the privilege of serving at the highest level of our government, we understand those guardrails, where people might come up against them and what the tools are that we have as private citizens to hold our government accountable,” Bassin said.
“You need folks who have been in the government to understand how they operate to make sure that those protections continue to serve their function,” said Tom Perrelli, an associate attorney general during Obama’s first term now in private practice who’s spoken with Bassin about the new group.
Jesse Lee, who was Obama’s White House director of rapid response, is also on board as communications director,and Caroline McKay, a former legal assistant in the White House Counsel’s office, is managing operations. But they’re also coming with a huge network of support from other Obama lawyers, as well as partner organizations like the Brennan Center.
“President Obama has said repeatedly that his lawyers deserve a lot of credit for helping his Administration go eight years without a major scandal,” said Danielle Gray, one of Obama’s former secretaries of the Cabinet. “The leaders of this effort will bring that experience to protecting and preserving accountable and democratic government.”
Bassin “has managed to gain the support of a lot of very serious people,” said Karen Dunn, another former associate White House counsel best known for helping run debate prep for Obama and Hillary Clinton, and called her former colleague the “perfect person for this particular organization at this particular moment.”
“It’s really important for a bunch of people to shine the light on this question, to make very clear when autocrats are starting in any way to detract from democratic institutions,” said Yascha Mounk, a Harvard Law lecturer who specializes in the rise of authoritarianism and has been having high level strategic advisory conversations with the group.
But it’s more than just the smaller encroachments that are on Bassin’s mind. Trump’s attack on the judge who halted his immigration ban already has him building a plan for what might happen if the White House directly defies a judicial ruling, and what they’d need to do in the potential constitutional crisis that would follow. Existing nonprofits, he said, have not been structured to deal with the kind of unprecedented, norm-breaking threats that he believes are coming from Trump and his aides.
“We need an organization that is specifically and holistically focused on that worst-case scenario,” Bassin said.