Institutional Reform to Protect Democracy

Experts discuss the urgency, nuances, and practical challenges of reforms intended restore checks and balances and strengthen accountability in the post-Trump era

In late 2020, the Protecting Our Democracy Act was introduced in the House of Representatives with 92 cosponsors. It is a landmark reform package to prevent future presidential abuses, restore our system of checks and balances, strengthen accountability and transparency, and protect our elections. That bill would patch some of the institutional weaknesses revealed during the Trump administration and before. While there has been some piecemeal action on those issues, Congress has not acted holistically. This webinar discussion will focus on needed reforms and why action is needed urgently


Bob Bauer

Former White House Counsel and co-author of “After Trump: Reconstructing the Presidency”

Preet Bharara

Former United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York and Co-Chair of the National Task Force on Rule of Law & Democracy

Christine Todd Whitman

Former Governor of New Jersey, former Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, and Co-Chair of the National Task Force on Rule of Law & Democracy


Hayes Brown

Hayes Brown is a writer and editor for MSNBC Daily. Former world news editor and podcast host for BuzzFeed News.

Key Quotes from the event

Below are some notable quotes from our panlists, former NJ Governor, Christine Todd Whitman, former US Attorney for the Southern District of NY, Preet Bharara, and former White House Counsel, Bob Bauer. 

“It can’t be the case that you liked the prior administration and thought well every time Donald Trump picked up the phone or somebody in his White House picked up the phone and called up, you know, the Director of the FBI or someone else, and put pressure on them to use the Justice Department in a way to punish adversaries and to protect allies — you wouldn’t want the Biden Administration to do that. You wouldn’t want a future Democratic Administration to do that, or a future Republican Administration to do that. And so some of the things – You can’t fix everything but some of the things we are talking about here protect everybody and you want people to understand that it’s in their self interest in the long term — not in the very short term when a particular party has power — but in the long term it’s better for all your interests and protecting your policy choices in the long term as well.” Preet Bharara

“The worst that can happen is we lose our democracy. . . . If we have another administration that just refuses to acknowledge the constitution as an inconvenient document and kind of listen to it when you can use it to your advantage and not otherwise. If we see the rule of law being totally overturned . . . you will have rule by the street and not rule of law. . . . If you get someone on either side repubican or democrat that moves in that direction….I think our democracy as we know it is in real jeopardy.” Gov. Christine Todd Whitman.

“It would be I think truly unfortunate I use the word tragic I don’t know if it is properly used in this circumstance but certainly extremely unfortunate and would redound to the discredit of the country for many years to come if two years passed and there was no progress in this direction.” Bob Bauer on the urgent need for reform.

“The first question which should always be . . . not whether it’s good for your political standing not whether it’s good for your party’s popularity but whether it’s right for the democracy and for the country.” Preet Bharara

“We clearly need to modernize things like the ethics law, codify the emoluments clause, there’s so much that needs to be done, and there are several bills pending the point here though is that those bills, particularly the Protecting Our Democracy Act when it was introduced was introduced with all Democrat … Democratic backing. This is a bipartisan issue. Our democracy is about Republicans and Democrats and we need everybody at the table. And I’m happy to say there are a number of Republicans who support various parts of these proposals whether its the For the People Act or the Protecting Our Democracy [Act]. And so that’s where we need to build, that’s where we need to go. We need to ensure that we keep this going this momentum going and bring in as many Republicans and Independents as possible.” Gov. Christine Todd Whitman 

“White House counsels, generally speaking, understand that among their many responsibilities is to advise the president essentially on his or her constitutional legacy. In what kind of presidency is that president establishing and will that President set as a standard or precedent that will set for presidents to come. … I think that President Biden has made it very very clear he cares about this institution and he cares about his responsibility uh for that institution for as long as he is its leader so i think that’s one clear cut reason.” Bob Bauer, on why the President should support reforms. 

“Curbing executive power, having a strong but nonetheless constitutionally accountable president is a democracy enhancing reform. So any reform that goes to the appropriate constitutional allocation of power within our system is a democracy reform.” Bob Bauer

“This President has shown a strong commitment to ethics, he has made that a critical part of his directive to his cabinet members and all members of the Administration, but that’s not going to be enough in the long run. What we have to be looking at is how do we ensure that these kins of ethical behaviors are codified to the extent that they can and should be, whether it is the emoluments clause, strengthening the emoluments clause, whether it’s the scientific integrity act. … All those things are important but they require congressional action. . .” Gov. Christine Todd Whitman

“There should also be a revisitation of the contacts policy. Some people may know that the day before I got fired, President Trump called me, which I thought was an inappropriate contact to make, and I didn’t return the call and 22 hours later I was let go. We know now from the record that there had been all sorts of bad contacts and inappropriate contacts between Donald Trump and others up to and including the final days of the Administration when pressure was being brought to bear on the Acting Attorney General to do something, to bring actions, you know, criminal actions or civil actions to try to turn the election. And so I think stronger advocacy against those kinds of things, maybe a stronger policy there, some consideration of whether or not, and this is one of the things the Governor and I have proposed with the Brennan Center: greater protections for special counsels, greater protections for inspectors general.” Preet Bharara

“Keeping in mind both what the Governor and Preet have said about the importance of bipartisanship and having each party consider whether, how they would view a reform if the White House was theirs or the White House was not theirs: the question of whether or not the president of the United States should be subject to obstruction of justice criminal liability, that’s not clear under current law, it should be made clear. How does that have any particular partisan valence? Political abuses of the pardon power, why does that have particular partisan political valence? There ought to be some way that the two parties can agree, and Congress can agree, that there need to be limits on political abuses of the pardon power. And the same thing with war powers, which I mentioned a few minutes ago, and the president’s exercise of emergency powers.” Bob Bauer

“Witness the fact that even though Donald Trump is gone and has been gone for a while, he may return, people in his image may return, and there’s no law of nature or ideology or politics that says that some of those norms that were trampled by Donald Trump will not be trampled by a counterpart of his in the Democratic party or an Independent person, either at the state, local, or federal level. And so the kinds of things that we’re talking about, the violation of the separation between politics and law enforcement, the degradation of science and expertise, the interference with elections, all those things do not have an ideological flavor necessarily, and it is not only people in the former President’s party who, I think, are learning some of the lessons of ways to get electoral success by engaging in some of these norm-busting behaviors.” Preet Bharara on the urgent need for reform to protect our democratic institutions against future leaders

“These doors absolutely swing in both directions and the cost over time is going to be eroded democratic governance.” Bob Bauer on the need for reform to democratic institutions

“If we go down this path of allowing power to dictate results and policy rather than principle, and if we are comfortable letting go of trust, then I think all of these particular policy things people care about go out the window.” Preet Bharara

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