Protect Democracy Executive Director Ian Bassin was interviewed by host Alexander Heffner on this week’s episode of “The Open Mind.” It was a wide-ranging discussion on the threats our democracy faces, and how Protect Democracy works to sustain it.
BASSIN: Well I think the first thing we need to recognize is that the Constitution along and the laws alone, are not a sufficient backstop. Some of the things that the President has done recently, for example, simply the decision to fire the FBI director, taken irrespective of the reasons behind it, is something that a president is lawfully allowed to do. When we were in the White House, we had a set of rules governing contacts between the White House and the Department of Justice, and the FBI. Those rules have been in place for more than 40 years since Watergate. They’ve been abided by both Democratic and Republican administrations. One of the first things we did at Protect Democracy was issue a memo to the media and to the Hill, to help educate people on those rules. But those rules are not legally enforceable. So we do need to recognize that it is not the Constitution itself and not the laws itself that will protect us, which I think is why President Obama in his farewell address pointed out that our Constitution and our democracy, are not self-executing. They depend on the active fertilization of each subsequent generation of Americans, to reinvest these laws, these norms with meaning, and support. What we have been doing as an organization, is trying to help that process. And there’s four steps that we go through to do that.
The first is public education, putting out memos like the one we did on the rules governing contacts between the White House and the DOJ, which we did in early March, which turned out to be prescient, cause those are the very rules now that are at issue with whether or not the President has been trying to obstruct investigations in the Department of Justice. It’s important to educate people on those rules, because then they become the subject of congressional hearings, media reports, and ultimately citizen response, citizen voting. The second step is monitoring and exposing misbehavior. We do have tool as citizens that can hold the government accountable. We have filed more than 150 Freedom of Information Act requests, which allow us to get access to government records and documents that will show whether misbehavior is taking place. The third step is then inducing oversight, taking the material we received, presenting it to the relevant oversight bodies, and asking them to do the oversight job that is one of the checks that’s built into our system. Now, some of those oversight bodies are being reluctant to act, right now in particular, congress and the Republican majority is not doing the oversight job that they should be doing. So we’ve set a 501c4 advocacy organization, to build public pressure on those oversight bodies to make sure they act. And then finally, the fourth step is litigating, making sure that we’re going to court, and where there acre judicial remedies that we can seek in court, making sure that judges hold the line on core principles that are central to our democracy, if the other checks and the other branches of government fail.