One hears often lately about how America’s founders sought to assure that America’s president could not become a “king”— meaning someone not accountable to the rule of law.
(In our times, with absolute monarchs long gone, the word one would use would not be “king” but “dictator.” That’s because, over the past century, dictatorship is the nightmare we’ve seen other nations live.)
Recent developments have brought greater awareness of the danger of a lawless president. That specter is now – at last – even having an impact on the feelings of Republicans. A recent poll shows that 28% of Republicans support an impeachment inquiry, and 18% have already concluded that this president should be removed from office.
That leaves, however, a substantial majority of Republicans still backing this president. Since it seems doubtful that so many Americans favor having a dictator, one is compelled to conclude that those Republicans do not see Trump as seeking to put himself “above the law.”
It must take some significant mental gymnastics, however, to maintain such a belief. One would have to ignore compelling evidence of Trump’s crimes and abuses of power.
The “smoking gun” of the Ukraine scandal, for instance, that has moved Republicans to favor impeachment, also moved some 300 former national security officers of the United States – both Republican and Democratic – to publish a letter calling for impeachment because of Trump’s “unconscionable abuse of power.”
It seems also that many Republicans still believe that the Mueller Report found that the president had committed no crimes. But maintaining that belief requires ignoring the fact that over 1,000 former Justice Department officials – again, from both parties – came together to tell the public that the facts laid out in Mueller’s Report show that Trump committed “multiple felonies” of “obstruction of justice” – crimes for which anyone else but the president would be indicted.
(But only Congress can “indict” a sitting president — and that indictment is called “impeachment.”)
President Trump’s “obstruction of justice” – trying to block the legal system’s investigation into his conduct – is specifically an effort to place himself “above the law.” Like a dictator.
How does an American ignore the testimony of these many hundreds of American patriots telling the public about presidential wrong-doing in areas in which their professional lives make them uniquely qualified to judge?
Now we’ve entered a new phase – one where the president is not just transgressing against the Constitution’s limits to his rightful powers but is actually arguing that he has the right to put himself out of reach of the law.
Three instances just in recent days:
1) In a case in federal court in New York, Trump’s lawyers argued that the president is immune not only to being indicted but even to being investigated. In a scathing rejection of Trump’s argument, the federal judge declared that “This court finds aspects of such a doctrine repugnant to the nation’s governmental structure and constitutional values.”
2) In another federal court, dealing with an altogether different matter, the Trump-Barr Justice Department made a stunningly strange argument to keep the Congress from important evidence. Trump’s people argued that the Supreme Court was wrong when it decided unanimously that the Congress was entitled to grand jury testimony when it was investigating the possible impeachment of President Nixon.
“Wow!” the federal judge in that case responded when she heard the “extraordinary” position the Trump people were taking. Keeping relevant information away from the only people the Constitution gives the power to hold a president accountable was tantamount to declaring the president above the law.
And fast upon those developments we have the letter written by Trump’s White House counsel to the House of Representatives declaring that it will not cooperate in any way with the current impeachment process – indeed, declaring it to be somehow “unconstitutional” for Congress to exercise a power explicitly given to it by the Constitution.
All the legal experts seem to agree that Trump’s document is legally indefensible and an embarrassment. It is patently absurd, they say, for the president to claim the right to declare Congress’s impeachment inquiry illegitimate. It is not up to a president to determine what legal efforts to hold him accountable are to be allowed.
Trump’s refusal to acknowledge the powers that the Constitution – in our system of “checks and balances” – gives to Congress points clearly down the path of tyranny. Like a dictator, Trump grabs powers the Constitution denies the president and denies the powers the Constitution grants Congress to assure that no president may abuse his powers or place himself above the law.
When Trump asserts, in his message to the House, that he has the right to reject their investigating whether he should be impeached, he shows his contempt for anything and anyone that might hold him accountable. He shows himself a threat to what our founders have bequeathed to us.
Not king, dictator.