Trump’s naked mega­lo­ma­nia con­tin­ues a bi­par­ti­san trend

Chicago Sun-Times - - OPINION - JA­COB SULLUM @ja­cob­sul­lum Ja­cob Sullum is a se­nior ed­i­tor at Rea­son mag­a­zine.

After Don­ald Trump floated the idea of de­lay­ing the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion last week, the most strik­ing re­sponse came from Fed­er­al­ist So­ci­ety co-founder Steven Cal­abresi.

“This lat­est tweet is fascis­tic,” the North­west­ern Uni­ver­sity law pro­fes­sor wrote in The New York Times, “and is it­self grounds for the pres­i­dent’s im­me­di­ate im­peach­ment again by the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives and his re­moval from of­fice by the Se­nate.”

For Cal­abresi, who op­posed Trump’s im­peach­ment for pres­sur­ing the Ukrainian govern­ment to in­ves­ti­gate Joe Bi­den, the pres­i­dent’s sug­ges­tion that the elec­tion should be resched­uled was a tweet too far. Whether or not you agree, the bi­par­ti­san re­jec­tion of Trump’s sug­ges­tion is a hope­ful sign that his blunt self-ag­gran­dize­ment has rein­vig­o­rated con­cerns about pres­i­dents who claim pow­ers they were never granted — a prob­lem that ex­tends far be­yond this par­tic­u­lar pres­i­dent or his party.

“Pres­i­dent Trump needs to be told by ev­ery Repub­li­can in Con­gress that he can­not post­pone the fed­eral elec­tion,” Cal­abresi wrote. “Do­ing so would be il­le­gal, un­con­sti­tu­tional and with­out prece­dent in Amer­i­can his­tory.”

While Trump did not ex­plic­itly as­sert that he has the uni­lat­eral power to post­pone the elec­tion, he has un­am­bigu­ously claimed the au­thor­ity to with­hold con­gres­sion­ally ap­pro­pri­ated money from states that al­low wide use of mail-in bal­lots. Such ex­tor­tion “would be a se­ri­ous threat to both fed­er­al­ism and sep­a­ra­tion of pow­ers,” notes Ge­orge Ma­son law pro­fes­sor Ilya Somin.

Trump’s as­ser­tion of “to­tal” au­thor­ity over COVID-19 lock­downs was equally du­bi­ous. “Some in the Fake News Me­dia are say­ing that it is the Gov­er­nors de­ci­sion to open up the states, not that of the Pres­i­dent of the United States & the Fed­eral Govern­ment,” he tweeted in April.

In fact, Trump averred, “it is the de­ci­sion of the Pres­i­dent.” That evening he told re­porters that “the pres­i­dent of the United States calls the shots.”

That was a gross mis­char­ac­ter­i­za­tion, since states have broad au­thor­ity to com­bat com­mu­ni­ca­ble dis­eases under their gen­eral “po­lice power,” while the fed­eral govern­ment is limited to pub­lic health mea­sures de­rived from its power to reg­u­late for­eign and in­ter­state com­merce. Even if Con­gress were in­clined to cite the Com­merce Clause as a jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for lift­ing state lock­downs, the pres­i­dent would have no au­thor­ity to act with­out new leg­is­la­tion.

Il­lus­trat­ing the bi­par­ti­san ap­peal of the im­pe­rial pres­i­dency, Michi­gan Gov. Gretchen Whit­mer, a Demo­crat who would be among the first politi­cians to deny that Trump has the power to over­ride state pub­lic health poli­cies, last month urged him to help con­trol COVID-19 trans­mis­sion by im­pos­ing a na­tion­wide mask man­date. She did not even bother to sug­gest where Trump would get the au­thor­ity to do that.

In 2017, when Trump sug­gested that the Fed­eral Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Com­mis­sion should yank the li­censes of broad­cast­ers who of­fend him, he got push­back from FCC Chair­man Ajit Pai, who promised that “the FCC under my lead­er­ship will stand for the First Amend­ment.” Trump’s de­ter­mi­na­tion to build his “big, beau­ti­ful” bor­der wall, not­with­stand­ing the leg­isla­tive branch’s re­fusal to pay for it, is an­other ex­am­ple his crit­ics like to cite as ev­i­dence of his law­less will­ful­ness.

One pres­i­den­tial power grab Trump’s crit­ics tend to over­look, pre­sum­ably be­cause of their pol­icy pref­er­ences, is his capri­cious ban on bump stocks, which ar­bi­trar­ily trans­formed hereto­fore le­gal gun ac­ces­sories into con­tra­band based on a rein­ter­pre­ta­tion of the law at odds with its plain mean­ing. Last March, Supreme Court Jus­tice Neil Gor­such, a Trump ap­pointee, won­dered why the courts should “de­fer to such bu­reau­cratic pirou­et­ting.”

Bi­den prom­ises Amer­i­cans a re­turn to nor­mal pres­i­den­tial be­hav­ior, which un­for­tu­nately does not mean a more con­strained view of the of­fice’s pow­ers. When it comes to wag­ing war, for in­stance, Bi­den thinks the pres­i­dent does not need con­gres­sional ap­proval for “limited” mil­i­tary op­er­a­tions that serve “im­por­tant U.S. in­ter­ests,” which amounts to a blank check.

Stylis­ti­cally, Trump is no­tably dif­fer­ent from his pre­de­ces­sors. But his naked mega­lo­ma­nia con­tin­ues and crys­tal­lizes a longterm trend blessed by both ma­jor par­ties.

DREW ANGERER/GETTY IMAGES

While Trump has not ex­plic­itly as­serted that he has the uni­lat­eral power to post­pone the elec­tion, he has un­am­bigu­ously claimed the au­thor­ity to with­hold con­gres­sion­ally ap­pro­pri­ated money from states that al­low wide use of mail-in bal­lots.

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