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Our nation's stress test continues

The national discussion we’re having — perhaps enduring is a better word — is not just about impeachment but also about the resilience of our democracy. I’m reminded of the anecdote where Ben Franklin walked out of the constitutional convention in 1787, and he was asked by a Mrs. Powell of Philadelphia, “Well, Doctor, have you given us a monarchy or a republic?” Franklin answered, “A republic, madam, if you can keep it.”

Keep it indeed. What we are witnessing, day after day, is not just sustained chaos but a stress test for our form of constitutional government, this remarkable experiment in uniting a diverse people, immigrants all, living together, dedicated to the principle that no person is above the law, even an aspirational autocrat.

I’ve come to believe that if we keep our democracy and its institutions it will be, in great part, due to the efforts of the Fourth Estate, meaning the free press.

We are living through a time when, as NYT columnist Charles M. Blow wrote, “The media is not the enemy of the people. The enemy of the people is ignorance — obliviousness to truth, ignoring it or having incredulity about it.” He went on to say, “There is no way to have a functioning democracy without a thriving press. One of the great missions of the press is to hold power accountable by revealing what those in power would rather hide. Corruption depends on concealment. Accountability hinges on disclosure. The founders of this country knew that. I also think Donald Trump knows that ... A free and fearless press is the greatest ally to a free and prosperous people, from a big-city daily to a blog, from cable news to YouTube.”

I would agree. When the history of this period is written, it is the press that will have demonstrated, day after day, its profound tenacity and courage and its willingness to speak truth to power.

Consider what recently took place in the White House when a reporter, during an impromptu press conference, asked Donald Trump the following:

“Sir, the Constitution says treason is punishable by death.”

Trump nodded.

“You’ve accused your adversaries of treason. Who specifically are you accusing of treason?”

“Well,” Trump replied, “I think a number of people. And I think what you look (sic) is that they have unsuccessfully tried to take down the wrong person. If you look at (former FBI Director James) Comey, if you look at (former FBI Deputy Director Andrew) McCabe, if you look at people probably higher than that ...

“If you look at (former FBI agent Peter) Strzok, if you look at his lover, (former FBI attorney) Lisa Page, his wonderful lover, the two lovers ... they wanted an insurance policy if she (Hillary) loses ... That’s treason. That’s treason. They couldn’t win the election and that’s what happened.”

That’s not what happened. To trade in conspiratorial constructs is to believe in surreal scenarios that defy common sense and seek to undermine our institutions, while using words such as “treason,” “rigged,” “hoax,” “witch hunt,” and “deep-state.” This chilling constellation of fabulist beliefs also results in an attempt to convince the public that the media are purveyors of fake news and fraudulent stories and therefore not to be trusted. It is a strategy used by autocrats and dictators.

What happened was that a counterintelligence investigation was launched (completely dissociated from Page/Strzok) into the systematic attempt by Russia to attack the 2016 presidential election to include 251 contacts between the Trump campaign and Russian operatives. That is fact. And that is the geography inhabited by the press.

Reported news is information and an informed electorate is essential to our democracy. The search for truth when confronted with outright dissembling is no small thing.

A tangential question: If the Mueller Report represents total exoneration for Trump, then why not let the sun shine in all corners? Why obstruct then and now?

Chris Honoré is an Ashland Tidings columnist.

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