Trump is now testing, and stretching, the limits of presidential power, both at home and abroad. It’s not good
Last Wednesday I wrote a piece headlined "Trump’s contempt for the rule of law: It’s deeply troubling, and getting worse." I laid out some examples of President Trump's manipulation of the Justice Department and flouting of norms and rules. I noted that on a number of occasions he's explicitly said that he is not subject to the rule of law, whether in letter or spirit.
For instance, Trump has repeatedly claimed that the president cannot have a conflict of interest and therefore cannot be held liable for corruption. He has said that a president cannot be accountable for passing classified information to whomever he chooses, because he has the power to declassify documents for any reason at all. And he told The New York Times, "I have absolute right to do what I want to do with the Justice Department," explaining that as long as he felt the DOJ was being fair he wouldn't exercise that power. He has since said many times that he is preparing to intervene; indeed, it's been reported that Trump is still pressuring Jeff Sessions to be his "Roy Cohn" and take back control of the Russia investigation.
Over the weekend, The New York Times reported that the president's lawyers have made these claims officially in memos to Special Counsel Robert Mueller. The documents come right out and say it:
Indeed, the President not only has unfettered statutory and Constitutional authority to terminate the FBI Director, he also has Constitutional authority to direct the Justice Department to open or close an investigation, and, of course, the power to pardon any person before, during, or after an investigation and/or conviction. Put simply, the Constitution leaves no question that the President has exclusive authority over the ultimate conduct and disposition of all criminal investigations and over those executive branch officials responsible for conducting those investigations.
Rudy Giuliani explained in vivid terms that the law does not and cannot apply to the president. He told the Huffington Post, “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.”
Giuliani even suggested that the president could not be indicted for murder: “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.”
Since the Republican Congress is actively engaging in obstructing an investigation into Trump's possible conspiracy with a foreign adversary and helping to subvert the rule of law at every turn, that is hardly reassuring. And their voters apparently don't care:
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In Giuliani's imaginary scenario, one can easily imagine that Trump would tweet that he'd had to shoot Comey to defend America and that would be that. After all, he famously said that he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue in broad daylight and not lose any votes. I suspect he's right about that.
There is a school of conservative constitutional thought that has always argued for a "unitary executive" with expansive powers. But this takes that concept to an entirely new level. If you read the Times article in full, you'll see that Trump's attorneys make this argument on shaky ground and ignore many recent opinions. Let's just say the consensus in the legal profession is that the lawyering in this memo leaves a lot to be desired.
Still, this makes clear that Trump and his minions really do believe that the president is basically an absolute monarch. Which leads us to his other royal decrees in the last few days.
Under a dubious definition of "national security emergency," Trump is planning to order the Energy Department to force power-grid operators to purchase energy from coal and nuclear plants that otherwise would be forced to shut down because of competition from cheaper sources. Aside from the disastrous environmental consequences of this order, it's going to cost consumers more money as well. This is being done on behalf of the coal industry, obviously, which was a major supporter of Trump's campaign.
And the administration dusted off the same "national security" rationale to announce last week that the president will enact aluminum and steel tariffs against America's closest allies, Mexico, Canada and the EU, sparking fresh fears of a real trade war and causing a major rift with America's most enduring alliances:
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau weighed in as well, stating the obvious, a sentiment undoubtedly shared by other U.S. allies who have just been slapped in the face for no good reason:
Our soldiers who had fought and died together on the beaches of World War II . . . and the mountains of Afghanistan, and have stood shoulder to shoulder in some of the most difficult places in the world, that are always there for each other, somehow — this is insulting to them.
There may be reasons to enact trade barriers and tariffs on certain goods, under a sane program that makes even a little bit of economic and foreign policy sense, but not like this. Even the president of the United Steelworkers has said his union does not support enacting tariffs on Canadian steel.
Trump has been systematically alienating U.S. allies since he took office, reducing our relationship with them to a crude and simplistic economic transaction, without the slightest understanding of the world's complexities, including those in the economic realm. He reportedly has been screaming at economic advisers for the past year, "I want tariffs, bring me some tariffs!" and apparently just decided that he was going to do it himself.
Former GOP operative Mike Lofgren told the Atlantic's James Fallows that the stakes here are much higher than people might realize:
Trump's dangerous moves could very well bring down NATO, fracture the EU, and leave the US alone against two hostile powers (China and Russia), while our biggest force multiplier and a regional bloc which shared liberal democratic values with us, has been irrevocably alienated and possibly destroyed.
Trump doesn't just believe that as president he has unlimited power to do as he pleases in his own country. He clearly believes the U.S. has unlimited power to dominate the world as he pleases as well.
None of this should surprise us. He has said over and over that "the world is laughing at us," and he's determined to make it pay, one way or another. He doesn't think he's a king. He thinks he should be emperor.