News & Opinion » Urban Journal

Donald Trump and the president's power


President Trump's assault on American principles come so quickly and so often that we can become numbed to them. Outraged about the assault of the day? By tomorrow, there'll be a new one, and we'll have forgotten about this one. The sheer volume is anesthetizing.

We'd better not forget the outrage that the New York Times brought to light this past weekend, though.
Among the things Special Counsel Robert Mueller is investigating is whether Trump has obstructed justice. But according to the Times, Trump's lawyers have argued that he can't obstruct justice "because he has unfettered authority over all federal investigations."

In a January letter to Mueller, the Times article says, the lawyers insist "that the president cannot illegally obstruct any aspect of the investigation into Russia's election meddling because the Constitution empowers him to, 'if he wished, terminate the inquiry, or even exercise his power to pardon.'"

Meaning that no matter what the president – any president – does, only the president can decide whether that action can be investigated. And presidents can pardon themselves.

This ought to frighten even the most ardent Trump supporter. Trump, after all, won't be president forever.
While Trump's new lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, chimed in on Sunday, agreeing that Trump "probably" has the Constitutional authority to pardon himself, some Republicans did express concern. But they're worried about politics, not about the implications all this has for the country and democracy.

Texas Republican Representative Will Hurd said it would be "a terrible move" politically for Trump to pardon himself. Former New Jersey Chris Christie said Trump won't pardon himself "because it'll become a political problem."

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy said Trump shouldn't pardon himself and insisted that he doesn't plan to. We'll see. Maybe McCarthy has a better sense of Trump's long-term thinking than most people do. But Trump certainly seems to enjoy using his authority to pardon people.

The most recent pardon went to conservative commentator Dinesh D'Souza, which probably pleased Trump's base. Then came his suggestion that he might pardon Martha Stewart and Rod Blagojevich.
Pardoning celebrities like Martha Stewart tends to get the public's attention, but the possibility of pardoning Blagojevich is a lot more troubling – and more significant.

Blagojevich, who was governor of Illinois from 2003 to 2009, is a star in the cast of politicians linked to corruption. He was convicted on 17 charges involving wire fraud, attempted extortion, bribery, and conspiracy. Among the misdeeds:
  • Holding up legislation that would benefit Illinois racetracks until one track owner donated $100,000 to Blagojevich's campaign;
  • Trying to cut $8 million in state funding for a Chicago children's hospital because the hospital's chief executive wouldn't donate $500,000 to his campaign;
  • Trying, in effect, to sell Barack Obama's US Senate seat after Obama was elected president. As governor, Blagojevich could name Obama's successor to the Senate, and he attempted to trade the appointment of Obama's friend Valerie Jarrett to the Senate in exchange for Obama naming him Secretary of Health and Human Services.
Blagojevich's conviction has withstood appeals, but Trump knows better. Blagojevich, Trump says, "shouldn't have been put in jail."

President Trump's bullying, his threats, his change of positions: all have been so public, and so frequent, that they seem routine. So have his assaults on the country's system of laws and justice, right up to the highest levels.

It occurred to me recently that all this could be a blessing in disguise. Maybe the sheer magnitude of the outrages will demonstrate how destructive the policies of the Trump administration are. Maybe declaring himself above the rule of law will shock enough voters to flip not only the House but also the Senate in the November elections.

The problem is, our collective attention span is short. And Trump's a master at diverting attention. The midterm elections are still five months away. That's plenty of time for plenty more diversions.