Q & A with an Accountability Expert

Anne Tindall, Counsel, Protect Democracydiscusses the various forms of accountability and why the abuses under Trump’s were a “symptom, not a cause.”

Tell us about Protect Democracy and your work with the organization.

I work as counsel at Protect Democracy, an organization that has been around for about four years now. We launched the organization shortly after the 2016 election recognizing that the strain of populist authoritarianism around the world seemed to be rearing its head in the U.S. as well.  While there were a lot of groups out there dedicated to protecting civil rights or enforcing governance and ethics work – a lot of the issues we anticipated would come to the fore during the Trump administration – there wasn’t a lot of work being done around the guardrails in checks and balances within our constitutional system and how they might be used to prevent abuses of power from a hungry executive. In the past four years, we have been focused on rearguard action, trying to prevent the worst abuses to sort of hold up the house during a tornado so it doesn’t fall. There’s certainly a lot of that work left to be done. If anyone thought that an authoritarian threat was over, January 6 certainly told us it’s not. So, we’ll continue to do that kind of work, but then Trump was a symptom, not a cause. There have been strains of authoritarianism in U.S. politics and even baked right into the constitution from the beginning. We are also starting to do some work moving forward to identify how we might rebuild the house in a way that it’s more resistant to abuse and does a better job of animating the goals of the Declaration of Independence. I think of that as working to perfect our union. A lot of the work we’ve talked with [Open The Government] about and through the reforms we proposed in Accountability 2021 initiative, the Protect Democracy Act, will get our attention in the coming years.

When did you begin your career with Protect Democracy and what motivated you to join the organization?

I was employee number five at Protect Democracy and we are now 75. We have grown a lot in four years and it’s been a ride. Prior to coming here, I was at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in 2016 and after Trump’s election, my two kids, aged 10 and 12-years-old were scared. We live in a community that has a large number of immigrants, and they have close friends of different races and religions. Because they are growing up in Washington, D.C. they hear the news, and they were worried that this wouldn’t be a country where people are treated equally and laws are enforced fairly. And honestly I just really wanted to have an answer for them about what I did to try to make things right in that scary moment for our country.  I am privileged enough to have a law degree and to have tools to do something about it and I wanted to be able to tell them that I did.

In what ways does your experience with the Consumer Financial Bureau carry over to your role with Protect Democracy? Is there any overlap in your responsibilities?

I worked in the General Counsel’s office at the Consumer Financial Bureau and my portfolio included both defending the agency in litigation but also responding to oversight from the inspector general, from the Government Accountability Office, and from Congress. I saw in that role how making those oversight systems work is not just a matter of having laws and rules down on paper. It is very much a matter of norms and culture. I was responding to requests for information, for explanations about why things went wrong, probing and challenging questions about whether we at the Bureau were doing our jobs as well as we could, and we had the answers and were responsible for deciding how to share them. Fortunately, I worked for a director who believed deeply in doing things the right way and who saw oversight as a way to make us better at our jobs. And so he sort of initiated a culture of compliance with oversight, and more than that, an embrace of it. He didn’t have to do that. We could have approached it much differently and so it made me acutely aware of how tenuous good government really is. How much it depends on who is responsible for following the law and the rules, and the norms. They can just be paper if the people responsible for doing the work don’t believe in them or don’t care to consider them.

What are some of your organization’s recent accomplishments and which are you most proud of?

We put out a report in December called Towards Non-recurrence: Accountability Options for Trump-Era Transgressions about accountability. We often think of accountability as someone going to jail, and often it is, and often that’s appropriate. But it takes lots of forms and not everything that happened under the Trump administration or in our society, sort of leading up to it and all through it, is even remotely appropriate for criminal prosecution. But that doesn’t mean we don’t hold people accountable for their actions. And I think the report does a really job of putting out a framework for how to think about accountability, and why it is absolutely necessary that we achieve accountability across all its forms. It lays out all of the research on why the bottom-line is the one thing you can be 100 percent certain on is if you don’t hold people accountable, they or someone else will do it again. The report lays out some ways that we still have options before us for Trump and people who facilitated a lot of the abuses that he undertook.

What are other goals Protect Democracy hopes to accomplish as 2021 progresses?

There’s no want of important work to be done in this space. I think with accountability being a huge piece, pushing for reform both within the executive branch and then through H.R. 1 and the Protecting Our Democracy Act will be big. I also think, on the one hand, we had despite protestations from the former president to the contrary, a very secure election, but what we didn’t have was a fully fair election. And intentional efforts to prevent people from voting or just the simple mechanics of allowing people to vote is still something that deserves a lot of attention. No one should have to wait eight hours in line to cast their ballot. No one should be scared that if they are participating in advocacy for a candidate that the Proud Boys are going to drive them off the highway on their way to an event. There’s a lot of work to be done to shore up the franchise. 

The laws are in the books to hold people accountable for voter intimidation, for insurrection, and domestic terrorism. We just need an administration that believes it has an imperative to enforce them. I look forward to seeing them use the laws in the books to protect civil rights and protect a fair electoral process.

As of now, how do you feel about the state and future of American democracy in general?

I have heard people describe Protect Democracy as like a worst case scenario organization. That’s probably a little bit strong. I do think that our charge is to identify what might go wrong and be prepared to stop it. So that requires me to live in a somewhat pessimistic state but I think we have seen glimmers of reasons to be hopeful and what gives me the most hope is the way civil society has stood up over the last four years. I’ll go back to my kids here, they are learning that democracy is not a spectator sport, and we all got used to thinking we didn’t really need to worry about it. That politics and government were something for other people to be concerned with. I think we have learned that it’s on all of us to make it work. That gives me hope.

What is the most beneficial part of being an Open The Government coalition partner?

OTG has done a great job of playing the role of convener. There are lot of groups doing a good work, but when you bring people together the way you did with Accountability 2021, you can make two plus two equals five. And often if groups working in the same space don’t coordinate then two plus two ends up making three. Getting to learn from experts in the room, and then working together to make all of our efforts more impactful is really great.