Trump’s un­par­don­able hubris

He thinks he’s like a king or an em­peror: He can’t vi­o­late the law be­cause, af­ter all, he is the law.

Los Angeles Times - - OPINION -

Don­ald Trump once said dur­ing the 2016 pres­i­den­tial cam­paign that he could stand in the mid­dle of Fifth Av­enue and shoot some­one, and still not lose any vot­ers. And who knows? He may have been right.

Now that he’s pres­i­dent, could he also be pro­tected from pros­e­cu­tion for pulling the trig­ger? Trump seems to be­lieve so. That’s the essence of his as­ser­tion Monday morn­ing that he has the ab­so­lute right to par­don him­self.

Of course the con­text of his tweet was not a New York shoot­ing but the on­go­ing spe­cial in­ves­ti­ga­tion into al­leged Rus­sian in­ter­fer­ence in the elec­tion. But the claim would seem to be no more or less valid for one pres­i­den­tial ac­tion than any other.

If fed­eral pros­e­cu­tions are merely ex­ten­sions of the pres­i­dent’s ex­ec­u­tive power, and if he could par­don him­self as read­ily as he could par­don Joe Ar­paio or Di­nesh D'Souza, then it’s hard to see how he could be held to an­swer for break­ing any fed­eral law. Pros­e­cute me, Trump seems to be say­ing, and I will just par­don my­self and we’ll move on. So why bother pros­e­cut­ing me in the first place?

In this view the pres­i­dent is like kings and em­per­ors of ages past. By def­i­ni­tion, he can­not vi­o­late the law. It’s not that he is above the law. As pres­i­dent, the ar­gu­ment goes, he is the law.

That no­tion is for­eign and un­par­don­able — a struc­turally monar­chi­cal pres­i­dency con­strained by noth­ing but the pres­i­dent him­self. White House Press Sec­re­tary Sarah Huck­abee San­ders’ later state­ment that “no one is above the law” of­fers lit­tle com­fort, given that the pres­i­dent ap­par­ently be­lieves that he is.

Trump is cor­rect when he says that there are some legal schol­ars who back his as­ser­tion that the pres­i­dent can par­don him­self. It is a claim not yet vet­ted in the courts be­cause there has never be­fore been a pres­i­dent will­ing to push the ques­tion very far. Richard Nixon fired his pros­e­cu­tor but ul­ti­mately re­signed be­cause he knew he faced im­peach­ment, not be­cause of im­pend­ing crim­i­nal pros­e­cu­tion. Pres­i­dent Ger­ald Ford did par­don Nixon and shielded him from crim­i­nal ac­count­abil­ity for his ac­tions, but by then Nixon was out of the White House, no longer a dan­ger to the na­tion or a threat to the rule of law or the checks and bal­ances of gov­ern­ment.

So per­haps im­peach­ment, re­plete with the trap­pings of legal pro­ce­dure but at heart a po­lit­i­cal ac­tion, is the proper check on the oth­er­wise un­fet­tered power of a pres­i­dent over how, or even whether, the law is en­forced? But then there is no check at all on any pres­i­dent who is suf­fi­ciently pop­u­lar that he can, say, shoot some­one on Fifth Av­enue with­out fear from Congress, be­cause it’s not in the po­lit­i­cal in­ter­ests of the GOP ma­jor­ity to stand up to him. That would make us a na­tion of men (and women) and not of laws. And that’s not what we are.

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