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New Brennan Center senior advisor warns of the threat that Trump poses to democracy


There was a time, if you were a reporter on the national security beat, that the name Barton Gellman would strike fear into your heart. This is because Gellman was almost certainly, on most days, in the process of scooping you. And yes, I do speak from firsthand experience.

Barton Gellman anchored The Washington Post team that broke stories about Edward Snowden and the National Security Agency - stories that went on to win a Pulitzer Prize in 2014. Before that, Gellman won a Pulitzer for a series on Dick Cheney. And before that, he was on the team that won a Pulitzer for coverage of the 9/11 attacks. Well, Gellman has since jumped from The Post to The Atlantic, and now he's making a little news himself because he is stepping away from journalism to join the Brennan Center in what they are calling the fight for American democracy. Barton Gellman, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

BARTON GELLMAN: Thank you for having me.

KELLY: Why make this leap now?

GELLMAN: I've been writing for the last several years about what seems to be an existential threat to democracy and the rule of law. And this is not a drill. It's the real thing. And I started asking myself, if I think this is the biggest deal happening right now, should I be staying on the sidelines? Should I just be sitting back and writing about it? And I decided that I wanted to jump in, that I wanted to do my part to try to predict and avert and mitigate the harm that could come to our democracy.

KELLY: I can hear the journalist in you struggling to articulate exactly how you want to talk about this.

GELLMAN: Yeah. Well, I'm not accustomed to being part of the news, and I'm not accustomed to being a player on the field. And that'll be an adjustment.

KELLY: Yeah. You said part of your process has been questioning whether you should just be - I think you said, sitting back and writing about it. Why do you think you will have more impact from this new perch than you would as a prominent journalist at a major media organization?

GELLMAN: Well, that remains to be seen. But I thought I ought to give it a try. I don't understate at all the power of journalism to shape our understanding, to shape events. It's what I've done for decades. But right now, in this moment, I feel like I want to be pitching in to protect our constitutional processes and to protect our democracy against the meaningful possibility that it could be ended.

KELLY: Can you articulate what exactly it is you see as the threat to our democracy?

GELLMAN: Well, I contributed to the cover package in the current Atlantic that talked about, you know, what if Trump wins? And my piece of that was the Justice Department. The first thing that Trump will do will be to drop all the cases against himself. But he has promised to use the power of government to go after his political enemies, and it's an ever-expanding group. We have never had that in this country - political prosecutions. And all the things he says about weaponizing the Justice Department against him is pure projection. It's what he wants to do. But you have the possibility of using the IRS to go after political opponents. You have the possibility of pushing through regulatory changes explicitly to help your allies. You have the possibility of invoking the Insurrection Act and using the U.S. military in America's streets against peaceful protesters. These are all things that Trump has either said outright or implied that he's going to do.

KELLY: So let me push you on the specifics of what someone at the Brennan Center, or anywhere else, can do.

GELLMAN: Preparation is a lot of it. People, last time around, were surprised when Trump started doing things that he said he would do on the campaign trail. There were lots of people who thought a Muslim ban was just something he bloviated about on the trail, but he tried to make it happen. And people being better prepared for that means that you can be ready with litigation strategies, and you can be ready with every other element of civil society that can resist a thing like that.

KELLY: Do you have any advice to those of us still toiling in the journalism trenches for how to cover this election and whatever follows?

GELLMAN: One piece of advice is becoming conventional wisdom among thinkers about journalism, but it is not yet fully sunk in to practitioners, which is that the stakes of this race are more important than the horse race, that there should be far more attention to what Trump and Biden's records show and what they say they will do and what you can expect from a Trump or a Biden presidency. There needs to be more attention to that, and less to who's up and who's down in which poll on any given day.

I mean, you can't normalize Trump and the leading figures in the Republican Party as they stand right now. And I'm not saying that as a partisan point. We - but we, right now, have one political party that accepts the basic tenets of democracy and our constitutional order. We have one political party that is willing to lose an election if they don't get the most voters. And if you have a party that is tending explicitly toward autocracy, in which the party leader says he could only lose the election if there's cheating, and if you have a party elite that is willing to go along with that, that needs to be a big theme of your coverage.

KELLY: Do you feel hopeful? I mean, I know that's a strange question to ask, and a big one. But we're sitting here in January of 2024 staring down an election year that, by your account, and I think many would agree, might be the most consequential of our lifetime.

GELLMAN: I am hopeful, which some people might be surprised to hear. I had a little bit of a reputation as the feel-bad correspondent for The Atlantic - that, you know, there was nothing uplifting about all my doom scenarios because I was writing about things that Trump was trying to do or might try to do that would undermine our basic political system. But I don't believe, in the end, the American people are going to stand for that. And I don't believe, in the end, that anyone is going to be able to turn this country into a dictatorship. But I think that everyone is going to have to pitch in, in whatever they can do as part of their, you know, personal or professional life to protect the fragile institutions that we have because what we found out in the last, you know, five or six years is that those institutions are not self-protecting. They're not self-executing - that they need support. They need everybody to stand behind them.

KELLY: That is a long-time journalist, Barton Gellman. As of this week, he is senior adviser at the Brennan Center for Justice. Thank you, Barton.

GELLMAN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALEX VAUGHN SONG, "SO BE IT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
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