Investigating the Trump Scandal: Implications for Democracy and Political Risk

Journal of Political Risk, Vol. 5, No. 5, May 2017

Gergana Dimova, Ph.D. [1]
Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation in Ukraine/Institute and the Centre of Democracy in Bulgaria

The single most common question posed since the media allegations of Trump’s campaign alleged connections with Russia broke out is whether American democracy is failing and how political risk is affected. I use a database of more than 1,890 critical articles leveled at the governments in the established democracy of Germany, and the managed democracy of Russia, to place the Trump’s investigations in a comparative perspective. The analysis explains how the appointment of a special prosecutor affects the democratic nature of accountability arrangements and offers predictive statistics of political risk in the aftermath of this media scandal. It considers factors related to regime type, institutional and electoral constraints, reputational effects, policy proposals, sanctions and verbal explanations in the media.

Is Trump Getting a “Fair Treatment”? Four Possible Approaches

Recently, Trump complained on Twitter that he being is treated unfairly. Beyond partisan instinctive reactions, how can anyone evaluate the accountability arrangements that he faces? The appointment of a special prosecutor Mueller made many breathe a sign of relief but it would be premature to equate a potential impeachment with the triumph of democracy. Impeachment indicates a healthy democratic process only if Trump’s offence is well established. Currently, assessing accountability arrangements on the delivery of sanctions is misplaced.

In addition to this “results-driven” approach, there are three alternative routes to gauging the connection between media scandals, accountability and democracy. The first “electoral” approach is to reduce accountability arrangements to elections and argue that democracy is strong as long as prospective and retrospective electoral mechanisms are at work (Hellwig & Samuels 2007). The Russian scandal, however, cast doubt on the very fairness of the 2016 elections and 2018 Senate and Congressional races are still a year away.

The second option is to adopt a “learning perspective” and conjecture that the independent counsel investigation or a potential Trump impeachment trial are democratic because they allow people to watch, learn and debate about issues related to accountability and democracy (Bovens 2007).

Yet, a third option is to adopt a “process-driven” approach and judge the democratic credentials of the accountability process following the Russian allegations on the basis of the pattern of investigations, the sanctions and the verbal responses of the incumbents (Brandsma & Schillemans 2013). Many pundits and democratic scholars shy away from forming an opinion on this basis, just because the myriad aspects of monitory mechanisms seem to “offer no coherent basis to assign judgement” (Dunn 2010). Nevertheless, it is worth looking at my original database of media allegations levelled at the governments of Russia and Germany, along with the ensuing investigations and sanctions, to put the Trump scandal and its implications for democracy and uncertainty in context.

The Appointment of a Special Prosecutor: Triumph of Democratic Accountability and the Demise of Political Uncertainty?

More Democracy: The Investigation by the Prosecutor Diversifies the Accountability Instruments

One reason why the appointment of a special prosecutor is good news for democratic accountability is that it diversifies the available accountability instruments and thus obviates the possibility that any one instrument would dominate the others. Democratic regimes tend to branch out their monitory mechanisms to respond to the changing nature of the allegations and to the fragmented interests of the public, whereas non-democratic regimes have gone in the opposite direction of creating a monolithic pipeline for investigations and sanctions of the government.

My findings demonstrate that accountability is monopolised by the president in Russia, whereas in Germany it is diversified. These two diverging patterns of accountability are best visualised by a new methodological and conceptual device, which I call an accountability pyramid. An accountability pyramid shows the relative sanctioning capacity of various accountability forums. By regressing all investigations (of media allegations) on the sanctions, I produce coefficients which indicate the likelihood that the investigation of any given accountability body would produce sanctions.[2] The height of the pyramid shows the difference between the least and most effective accountability forum. The base of the pyramid shows how spread out the multiplicity of accountability forums is. The direction of the pyramid shows whether the competition between the accountability mechanisms happens amongst those that are most influential or least influential.



As figure one shows, the accountability pyramid in Russia is long and slim, whereas in Germany it is shorter, more spread out and has an inverted base. This means that the Russian president has a disproportionately big influence in determining sanctions for government officials, and that his influence is unchallenged. By contrast, in Germany, there are a number of competing mechanisms, all of which have the potential to be relatively impactful. The predicted shape of the accountability pyramid depicting the investigations into the Trump campaign comes closer to that of German rather than the Russian model. If Trump were to follow Russian model of accountability, he would have created a presidential committee to investigate Flynn, whereas Flynn’s fate now is in the hands of judges and elected representatives beyond Trump’s control.

Better Fit: The Multiplicity of Legislative and Counsel Investigations Could Target Aspects of Trump’s Alleged Wrongdoing Better.

The rationale that adding one more accountability mechanism has an intrinsic democratic value reflects the reasoning of the Founding Fathers, who wanted to build a system of checks and balances, which create a safety net, in case one of branches malfunctions. In the last two decades, however, this classic doctrine has been “updated” by the rise of the Accountability Revolution (Keohane 2003, Behn 2001), during which public administration scholars made three basic observations, which vastly complicated the way we view democratic accountability: (1) government wrongdoing can have many aspects; (2) accountability forums have various combinations of credibility and knowledge to review the allegations and (3) the public has been fragmented, which means that various societal segments would demand accountability for different government wrongdoings. Such a multiplicity of accountability forums is better suited to get to the heart of Trump’s wrongdoing, which can have aspects of moral, criminal, political, intelligence-gathering, international relations and policy character.


Less Friction: The Appointment of a Prosecutor Signals Unity among Accountability Forums

 The decision to appoint a special prosecutor signals reduces political uncertainty because it signals the willingness of various accountability forums to agree on a single channel of accountability. From the perspective of the scholarship on accountability, this means that there is a momentary solution to MAD, which stands for a multiple accountability disorder (Bovens & Schillemans 2011). The disorder is caused by the danger that various types of logics embodies by various accountability bodies engage in a “race to the bottom” by competing who would punish Trump most severely. The appointment of the prosecutor means that instead of competing, for now, the political logic of Congressional and Senate Committees, the intelligence logic of the FBI, the market logic of Wall Street, the legal logic of the Court, the representative but fickle logic of public opinion, protests and committees coalesce. This synergy between the accountability forums decreases political uncertainty. However, one of the biggest political risks associated with Mueller’s appointment is that the inherent tensions between these mechanisms would flare up. One way in which MAD could infect the system is for the prosecutor Mueller and legislative committees to fight over immunity, testimony, witnesses and evidence.


Clear Indicator of Political Danger: The Scandal Depletes the Political Capital Needed for Reform

The restored confidence created by the appointment of a prosecutor is badly needed as political instability is running rampant on the heels of the political scandal. Trust in the system is heavily impaired. Congress suffers from a dismal 13% approval rating. Trump is the least liked president at the early days of his presidency. Based on these statistics, the Economist Intelligence Unit recently downgraded US democracy from full to flawed. Despite the two digit stock exchange profits, Wall Street’s patience is wearing thin as it becomes increasing clear that the scandal may deplete Trump’s political capital to deliver on tax reform, infrastructure projects and deregulation. The intelligence community feels vengeful and demoralised after the dismissal of director Comey.


Less Political Risk: The Appointment of an Independent Counsel Offers the Promise of Finality

The appointment of the independent counsel reduces political risk because it offers the opportunity for some finality. The political crisis could not be conclusively resolved by the existing legislative investigations, which are notorious for being frequent but impotent (Mulgan 2014). This inverse relationship between the investigative and sanctioning power of legislatures is less troubling to some scholars who see a lot of democratic value added just in conducting legislative hearings in public, even if they do not produce sanctions. These public hearings work informally by impacting public opinion. My findings reveal that parliamentary questions are the single most powerful legislative mechanism for government control in Germany. However, this sort of impact is less certain and less direct.

It is no coincidence that former FBI director Comey wants to testify in an open hearing. The publicity obviates the possibility that testimony is hidden, and automatically embeds the testimony in a large media and public discourse. Such communicative situations, during which the public and the pundits pontificate about Comey’s statements no doubt add a democratic dimension to accountability but do little for assuaging political risk.


US Presidential Regime Type: Uniquely Positioned to Improve Legislative Motivation to Seek Accountability

Legislative inquiries are often ineffective because majority parties lack the motivation to remove their representatives in the executive branch (Strøm 2003). The US presidential regime type is uniquely suited to change these adverse incentives by holding Senate and Congressional elections mid-way through the tenure of the president. A Democratic win in 2018 would create a divided government, which would realign the party motivation for holding Trump to account. From this point of view, presidential regimes are more flexible than is generally considered (Linz 1994). This flexibility is not present in parliamentary countries like Germany, where prime ministers are selected by the majority party or in managed democracies like Russia, where no real political opposition exists.


Potential Vulnerability: Power is Concentrated in an Unelected Prosecutor with a Perishable Reputation

Despite the positive prospects for political risk and democracy, Mueller’s appointment might backfire heavily and with grave consequences. It is possible, though unlikely, that the prosecutor would compartmentalise and bury the investigation. The political vulnerability here is that the whole legitimacy of the democratic accountability process is currently based on the professional reputation of prosecutor Mueller’s role as a FBI director. In a democracy, reputation of is a single and unelected official is perishable goods (Vibert 2007). Some media reports already suggest that Mueller must have made compromises to survive across administrations (Wittes 2017). Mueller is appointed by Rod Rosenstein, who publicly supported Trump’s dismissal of Comey. Trump can order Rosenstein to fire Mueller.

 The independence of a prosecutor who can investigate elected officials is a serious potential vulnerability for democratic systems. Some countries have addressed this problem by electing the prosecutors by a mix of parliamentary and judicial representatives. Still, it is unclear how such a method of election reduces the reputational vulnerability of the prosecutor (Wright 2011).


A Precarious Balance: The Dismissals of High-Ranking Officials Might Reach a Saturation Point

It might come as a surprise, but in terms of sanctions, the accountability process seems to be working sufficiently effectively so far. The common assumption is that the dismissals of National Security Advisor Mike Flynn and his former Trump’s senior advisor Kushner are simply a means to the ultimate goal of impeachment. This perspective echoes a widespread assumption that sanctions are inherently dichotomous and extreme, in that they either produce impeachment or not. From an accountability perspective, however, the volume of dismissal of high-ranking officials signifies a very high degree of accountability, if there is an assumption of guilt.

Table 1: [3]

For comparison, the data for Russia shows that the most common way to deal with media allegations is to demote low-ranking officials, which are relatively unimportant as their removal implies little policy change. Even if dismissals of high-ranking incumbents do take place, the Russian president does not dispense entirely with his cronies but reappoints them to other influential positions. By contrast, the German government is more likely to react to media allegations by amending policies or not reacting at all.

In view of the comparative patterns of sanctions, the Trump scandal seems to have prompted the dismissal of an unusual number of highly placed officials. The risk here is twofold: if Trump continues to dismiss his inferiors, he might come across as disloyal or as admitting guilt. If he does not dismiss them, he may appear irresponsible and non-cooperative. The other possibility is that the public may become saturated with this scandal and the implication of one more official would eventually make little difference for public opinion and for sanctions (Dowding & Dewan 2012).


Oncoming Threat to Democratic Accountability: The Investigation Might Sever the Inflow of Verbal Explanations and Trump May Use it to Highjack the Public Narrative

In terms of verbal responses, the accountability process so far also comes up as relatively democratic. Trump and his staff continuously and consistently engage in responding to allegations via Twitter, press conferences and interviews. This engagement is a sign that the incumbents are forced to supply explanations to the public, which is an inherent part of investigative accountability (Aucoin and Heintzman 2000).

The explanatory part of accountability process is failing, however, insofar as Trump does not respond to the actual accusation but instead reformulates the accusation as a counter-accusation that targets the accuser or the existence of leaks. Accusing the accuser is a book case strategy for blame avoidance and deflection (Coombs 1998, Hood 2014) and comprises the biggest category of verbal responses in Russia. By contrast, the German incumbents are more likely to accept blame but, at the same time, they are less likely to respond to as many allegations. Ideally, the incumbents would be very responsive and will be inclined to accept responsibility. As the findings reveals, the reality is that the best possible scenario is to have one or the other, as is Trump’s case.


The risks, again, are twofold. On the one hand, the administration may use the prosecutorial investigation as a pretext to cancel press briefings and sever the inflow of verbal explanations. It is also possible that Trump, the ultimate PR manipulator, highjacks the public narrative by presenting himself as the victim of a “witch-hunt” (Ginsberg and Shefter 2002, Boin et al 2010). Trump’s strategy is to garner public sympathy by creating enemies and this investigation might be his golden opportunity to shine.


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[1] Gergana Dimova is a non-resident research fellow of the Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation in Ukraine and the Institute and the Centre of Democracy in Bulgaria. She holds a PhD in political science from Harvard University and was the Jeremy Haworth Research Fellow at the University of Cambridge and a research fellow at the POLIS, University of Cambridge.

[2] I use a first differences model, which calculates how the presence of single investigation changes the likelihood of a sanction of a government official in the aftermath of a scandal. Thus the presence of the absence of an investigation is a dichotomous variable of 0 or 1. The presence or absence of sanctions is also a dichotomous variable.

[3] The category of no sanctions is omitted. It is 49% for Russia, 76% for Germany and an estmated 53% for the USA.

JPR Status: Working Paper