US President Donald Trump may not seem to have much in common with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, but Trump’s autocratic tendencies are becoming more apparent by the day. Propositions regarding the extent of presidential power that once would have been considered preposterous – both constitutionally and according to longtime practice – are now being discussed as if they were normal ideas.
Kim might find in Trump – the first US president to meet with a North Korean leader (a gift to Kim before talks even begin) – a kindred spirit, at least compared to previous US presidents. But America’s founders would be appalled at what has become of the ideas they enshrined in the US Constitution. Determined not to establish another king, they considered the Congress more significant than the presidency and put it first in the US Constitution, with presidential powers defined in Article II. Trump is taking direct aim at an essential concept: that the president can be held accountable to the citizens.
While the presidency has grown stronger over the years, during the Trump administration Congress has been timid and subordinate. That is because the leaders of the Republican Party – which controls both the House of Representatives and the Senate – are frightened of Trump’s base. They cannot afford to alienate the roughly 30-35% of Americans who passionately back him, ignore his personal transgressions, tolerate his degradation of the country’s civil discourse, favor his brutal treatment of immigrant families, and don’t mind that he is leaving the US almost friendless in the world.
That base constitutes a very high percentage of Republicans who vote in primaries, where nominees for the House and Senate are chosen. No surprise, then, that Republican members of Congress, wary of being challenged in party primary elections, are reluctant to take on that base, which Trump has been cultivating. So long as his base remains intact, so will much of his strength.
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 Times exposed 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.