The ur­gent need for Repub­li­cans to stand up to the Don­ald

Procla­ma­tions about the quasi-monar­chi­cal scope of his power speak only of Trump’s panic and grow­ing des­per­a­tion, writes El­iz­a­beth Drew

Irish Examiner - - Analysis - El­iz­a­beth Drew is a con­tribut­ing editor to The New Re­pub­lic and the au­thor, most re­cently, of Wash­ing­ton Jour­nal: Re­port­ing Water­gate and Richard Nixon’s Down­fall

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.

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, favour 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 cho­sen not to seek re-elec­tion. 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 furore 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 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 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 aides and Rus­sians con­nected to Vladimir Putin’s regime.

Trump’s un­re­lent­ing at­tacks on the FBI, wreck­ing ca­reers and de­mor­al­is­ing 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.

Pic­ture: Saul Loeb

Don­ald Trump and Kim Jong Un shake hands fol­low­ing the sum­mit in Sin­ga­pore this week. The North Korean leader is one of many au­to­crats the US pres­i­dent has shown sym­pa­thy for, while con­versely pick­ing fights with al­lies.

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