Robin Steinberg

In 2017-18, NYU Law's Brennan Center for Justice hosted a steady stream of high-profile visitors for hard-hitting conversations on the most potent issues of the day, many of which involved the impact of Donald Trump's presidency.

Last October, the center held a discussion with two key figures involved in President Richard Nixon’s downfall. John Dean, Nixon’s White House counsel, was deeply enmeshed in the Watergate cover-up before ultimately cooperating with investigators. Invoking the classification system of presidents’ worldviews created by political scientist James David Barber, Dean argued that both Nixon and President Donald Trump would be classified as “active-negatives,” presidents who, while aggressive in their powerful role, “don’t like and don’t have any self-satisfaction in the job they’re doing.”

John Dean

Elizabeth Holtzman, who served on the US House Judiciary Committee during the Nixon impeachment proceedings, drew an implicit parallel between the 1970s and now in describing how—despite a series of revelations about the Nixon administration’s bad acts—impeachment was not a serious option for Congress before the Saturday Night Massacre, when Nixon’s attempts to have Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox fired resulted in the resignations of both the attorney general and the deputy attorney general.

On the first anniversary of the 2016 US presidential election, a panel convened to discuss the challenges Trump’s presidency has posed to the rule of law and standard norms of presidential behavior. George Stephanopoulos of ABC News indicated that he perceived many rules being broken: “The volume and the velocity of the kind of disruption he’s unleashed…makes it very, very difficult to give every single disruption the amount of attention it deserves so people understand what’s happening.”

At another November event, NBC News reporter Katy Tur recounted her experience covering Trump’s presidential campaign, including how she felt about being publicly singled out by Trump and some of his supporters. “I think it’s important for people to understand what it’s like for an American journalist to follow an American politician and to need armed security while doing that,” she said. “That’s not something we should normalize.”

David FrumIn February, David Frum, a former special assistant and speechwriter for President George W. Bush, discussed the themes of his new book, Trumpocracy: The Corruption of the American Republic, with Dean Trevor Morrison. Trumpocracy argues that the Trump administration has undermined important public institutions and analyzes ways to protect American democracy. Frum explained that he wrote the book to help mobilize citizens to defend endangered institutions and the structure of American world leadership that has promoted world peace since the end of World War II. “The analogy I keep using is that Trump isn’t the heart attack of democracy; he is the gum disease of democracy,” said Frum. “You can die from gum disease if it’s left untreated, but you have some time.”

Not all Brennan Center events involved the presidency. A discussion in March focused on the new book Decarcerating America: From Mass Punishment to Public Health, which compiles ideas for reforming America’s prison system. Among the book’s contributors was Robin Steinberg ’82, founder of the Bail Project, an organization that pays bail for low-income Americans at risk of pretrial detention, and the former executive director of the Bronx Defenders, a public defense nonprofit. During the panel, she explained, “When I say an arrest is never [just] an arrest, what I mean is it’s just the very beginning of the devastating wave of consequences that can happen to somebody, most of which were developed in our ‘get tough on crime years,’ where we weren’t satisfied by just incarcerating people and destroying their families and undermining communities—we had to attach other things, we had to do more, [such as] add immigration consequences.”

Posted September 4, 2018