Let me start by saying that I understand that many of Mr. Trump’s supporters give him their full-throated approval because they are angry. As the saying made famous in the movie Network goes, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!”
In recent years, perhaps even decades, “professional” politicians of both parties rarely, if ever delivered on their promises while average citizens fought in wars, including our nearly seventeen year conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, and to an older generation, in the rice paddies of Viet Nam; struggle financially especially during and after the Great Recession; and have the necessities of life fiddled with including such basics as health care.
There was a palpable desire for something new and different. Well, we got that, for sure. Some of you argue that Mr. Trump has not had enough time to really make his mark on the nation or to implement his key policy initiatives. Perhaps when it comes to policy, although I do not see any coherent or articulate policy concerning anything, except that if President Obama did it, it was bad and needs to be undone.
I would argue however that he has made his mark on the nation, and it isn’t for the better. Our social and community discourse has become demonstrably worse. When the president bullies people, calls them names and attacks the basic institutions of our nation, it has an impact. A negative one, but it does have an impact.
It does not have to be that way. It is possible to implement new, conservative (I would argue Mr. Trump is not a conservative, but that is a discussion for another day) policies without being vindictive and even vicious. To me, even if I agreed with his policy aims, which in large part I do not, the end does not justify the means. Civility is the currency of a functioning democracy and we are about to go bankrupt.
My biggest concern, one that I have expressed in this space before, is that Mr. Trump is working to undermine the basic checks and balances of our democracy to his benefit. While many modern presidents have stretched the bounds of Executive authority, Mr. Trump seems to think that there are no bounds. The only question is whether it is a deliberate action on his part, or done out of ignorance of the Constitution and the law, or whether he does it because it is all he knows — he wants to run the country like a family business. In the end, it doesn’t matter. The result is the same.
We are on a very slow, day-by-day, slide into autocracy unless all of us wake up and get the Congress to act as the co-equal branch of government that it is.
I see a very distinct pattern beginning to emerge. Mr. Trump is exploring the bounds of what he can do with an unfettered exercise of power. He is doing this in several ways.
The president’s Constitutional power to grant pardons for any reason is being used in ways that it has rarely, if ever, been used. He issues pardons, or promises to do so, to people that have been fully and fairly prosecuted under the law, whether or not they ask for them. The main point of issuing these pardons to off the wall supporters of his seems to be to send a message. He has picked pardons for crimes that reflect all of the things he or his aides have been accused of doing, thereby demonstrating that such crimes are meaningless because he says so.
My theory on why he does this lies partly in his life experience. Mr. Trump is a member of what my father used to call the “New York wise guys.” Mr. Trump’s view of life is that everyone — everyone! — lies, cheats and steals, but especially politicians. Those that don’t do so are losers and suckers. He believes it. So when someone is convicted of a crime along those lines, he deems it “unfair” because he believes it to be a subjective prosecution. They only prosecute people they don’t like or who don’t play the game the right way. In his view, everyone does it, many get away with it, so why can’t he? In his mind it is because they don’t like him. Now he has the power to “show them” who the real boss is in town.
Another way he is slipping Constitutional bounds is by vastly expanding the use of Executive powers in the name of “national security.” This is the reason given for imposing steel and aluminum tariffs on some countries (mostly our friends and allies) while not on others (China). He is now considering a 25% tariff on vehicles in the name of national security. Since this impacts primarily Mexico and Canada, and to some extent our NATO allies, they are rightly insulted. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau last week called off a meeting in Washington due to the unseemly way he felt he and his nation were being treated. It goes even further in that there are a wide variety of new regulations and Executive Orders that are due to be implemented using the rubric of “national security.” One such example is the mandate that power companies buy a given percentage of electricity produced by coal power plants.
“National security” is being used in ways not imagined when the laws were written. They are interpreted in a way that allows the president to expand his powers into every area of the economy. Invoking national security was meant to be a very narrow, national emergency type of contingency but he is expanding its use far past what seems to be realistic.
Now for the topper, which may be one of the most egregious attempts to assert the primacy of the Executive in our history.
Last week a twenty page letter from Mr. Trump’s lawyers to Special Counsel Robert Mueller revealed the true extent of his power play. The letter was sent earlier this year, but was only just obtained by the The New York Times. (Read it for yourself here.)
Among other stretches of Constitutional law, Mr. Trump through his lawyers asserts that because he is the chief law enforcement officer of the United States he cannot illegally obstruct any investigation, including into his own actions. According to their reasoning, the Constitution gives him the authority to do pretty much anything he pleases due to his special status. Thus, it is impossible for him to obstruct justice by shutting down a case or firing a subordinate, no matter his motivation, because by extension he is responsible for all such investigations and cannot, therefore, investigate himself.
What this means in practical terms is that if, as they assert, the president can shut down any investigation for any reason, corrupt or not, he is above the law. This also infers that he can direct the start of any investigation into anyone for any reason, even if it is for his own corrupt purposes. The argument continues to say that the only recourse is impeachment, which only means removal from office.
Oh by the way, he can pardon anyone for any crime, including himself.
Theoretically — or practically if you believe their argument — under this interpretation a president could come into office, conduct any series of illegalities for any purpose — to enrich himself or his family or even to commit murder — and could not be held accountable if he pardons himself. Under their argument in the letter to Mr. Mueller, a sitting president could come into office with the intent of doing harm, do it, pardon himself, be impeached (or resign before being impeached) and then go on his merry way. No accountability, no punishment, no nothing. Clearly that is not what the Founding Fathers intended.
Indeed, the last time this came up was in 1776. In the Declaration of Independence, among the other reasons given for the rebellion against the king, was that (emphasis is mine) “he has obstructed the administration of justice by refusing his assent to laws for establishing judiciary powers” including “repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct objective establishment of any absolute tyranny over these states.” I did not know King George III, but I do know that Mr. Trump is no King George. Or at least he should not be.
In case you have any doubts as to what I am saying, here was what Mr. Rudy Giuliani, an attorney for the president, told the Huffington Post this past Sunday.
“In no case can he be subpoenaed or indicted. I don’t know how you can indict while he’s in office. No matter what it is.” He went on to say that “if he shot James Comey, he’d be impeached the next day, Impeach him, and then you can do whatever you want to do to him.”
In other words, Mr Giuliani argued that impeachment was the punishment for presidential misbehavior, even if instead of firing the former FBI Director he shot him in order to bring the Russia investigation to an end.
Mr. Trump is on record as saying “I alone can fix it.” (at the Republican National Conference on 21 July 2016) He also said “I have the absolute power to pardon myself” (on Twitter on 4 June 2018.)
I have the absolute power. Wow.
Taking this picture, coupled with attacks on the rule of law (DOJ, FBI) and the intelligence communities, coupled with attacks on the free press, coupled with attacks on the judiciary coupled with the failure of Congress to call him to task on anything, we are on the downward slope.
He is testing the boundaries of what he can get away with and will continue to expand that effort and try to bend our form of government for his own purposes until he is stopped. Right now, I don’t see when that will happen.
It is basic to the autocratic play book. Layer on top of that the typical autocratic play of draping the leader in the flag and espousing faux patriotism by creating a wedge issue out of nothing and thereby weaponizing patriotism (see the NFL).
He also is trying to tell private companies who to fire and has on several occasions pushed the Post Master General to have the United States Postal Service charge Amazon more for delivering packages because he doesn’t like Mr. Jeff Bezos who also happens to own the Washington Post.
How do we stop this? Vote!
Put people into Congress during the mid-terms that will return to the normalcy of Congress being a co-equal branch of government to the executive. Republican or Democrat, vote for folks that are not afraid of being the brunt of Twitter bullying and who will actually do their job of checks and balances. It isn’t even a “conservative” or “liberal” thing — one can institute conservative policies without destroying the essence of our Constitution.
People who are mad as hell at the way they feel, as if they have been used for years, if not decades, are especially susceptible to autocrats that talk tough and claim to protect against the “others.” The total picture creates dangerous times for us and our future.
I have hope, although it is dwindling. Right now I have no sense that anyone will stand up and push back on Mr. Trump. In interview after interview I feel as though the Members of Congress have their collective heads in the sand. I continue to hear them say that “he wouldn’t do that” because of the political fallout and because it would be beyond the norm.
His entire campaign and administration has been a series of things that “no one else would do.” Time after time he has done and said things that were beyond the pale and each and every time he’s gotten away with all of it. No repercussions. Why would he stop now?
We as citizens are the answer. No one else will save us from ourselves.