The Divine Right of Donald
The few elected Republicans who have spoken out strongly against some of Trump’s practices are among the unusually high number of incumbents who have decided not to seek reelection. Most are tired of the deep partisanship that has infected US politics, and the consequent near-paralysis in Congress. But the president’s claims on power have become so extraordinary that even some loyal Republicans are growing restive.
The furor over Trump’s monarchical concept of the presidency erupted recently when The New York Timesexposed letters that the president’s lawyers had written to US Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who is leading the investigation into issues related to obstruction of justice and possible collusion between Trump’s presidential campaign and Russia. Trump’s lawyers set forth astonishingly broad claims of authority, and Trump tweeted his agreement with several of them – including that the president can pardon himself, thereby quashing any legal charges against him. Of course, those who claim such authority, including Trump, hasten to insist that there will be no reason to use it.
This week, House Speaker Paul Ryan, heretofore a Trump loyalist who had let some of his Republican flock take unprecedented actions to undermine Mueller’s probe, sent tremors through Washington when he let it be known that he thought it unwise for a president to pardon himself. Ryan apparently meant that it would be a bad idea politically, rather than a bad idea in principle.
Ryan, one of 44 House Republicans leaving Congress after this term (and possibly sooner if his most conservative and now restive troops have their way), then issued a somewhat bolder declaration of independence. He agreed with the powerful conservative congressman Trey Gowdy’s rejection of Trump’s claim that the FBI had infiltrated spies into his 2016 campaign. This particular Trump fantasy was based on the fact that the FBI, following routine practice, had asked an informant to look into suspicious relationships between Trump campaign aides and Russians connected to President Vladimir Putin’s regime.
Trump’s unrelenting attacks on the FBI, wrecking careers and demoralizing an institution that plays a crucial role in keeping America safe, had become too much for Gowdy. But Trump had already successfully bullied the deputy attorney general who is supervising the investigation into sharing highly sensitive information with his allies on Capitol Hill, upending all precedent. And it was assumed that what Trump’s allies learned would be fed to the White House, undermining the crucial concept of congressional oversight of the executive branch.
But Trump’s lawyers have argued that his constitutional powers extend even further. They claim, for example, that the president can end the Mueller investigation at any time and for any reason. Moreover, they argue that, because the president is effectively in charge of the investigation, Trump cannot be held to have obstructed justice – because he can’t obstruct himself. Nor, Trump’s attorneys insist, can the president be subpoenaed to appear before a grand jury – a scenario that they are frantic to avoid, in order to prevent their client, an inattentive, compulsive liar, from testifying under oath and possibly facing a perjury charge.
But the most outlandish claim was made by former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who joined the president’s team after the letters to Mueller were written. Giuliani asserted that Trump could have shot and killed former FBI director James Comey in the Oval Office and not be indicted for it. His point was that no president can be indicted, only impeached by the House of Representatives, perhaps to be followed by conviction by the Senate, which requires a two-thirds vote, or 67 senators, a high bar to removing the president from office. So, for now, members of the president’s team are focused on ensuring that he has the 34 Senate Republicans needed to keep him in office.
No one outside the investigation knows what evidence Mueller has accumulated and what he is still seeking. Meanwhile, the president tries to undermine public faith in the investigation by attacking it routinely, to some effect, all the while picking fights with America’s closest allies and displaying sympathy for the world’s autocrats.
Trump’s proclamations about the quasi-monarchical scope of his power speak not of his innocence, but of his panic and growing desperation. Americans are waiting for more Republicans to speak up.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2016.