Donald Trump, Republican nominee for president, does not believe in the United States Constitution.
That’s a strong statement, but it’s increasingly clear that it’s true. Trump wants to be president of a country whose fundamental organizing document he almost completely disagrees with. Even if he has read the Constitution – which is a serious question, as raised by Khizr and Ghazala Khan during the DNC – Trump doesn’t believe in its core principles and values. You know, the principles and values that make America great.
This disdain was on full display Monday. When talking about the recent bombings in New York and New Jersey, Trump lamented the fact that the Constitution would require suspected bomber Ahmad Khan Rahami to be treated fairly. “He will be represented by an outstanding lawyer. His case will go through the various court systems for years and in the end, people will forget and his punishment will not be what it once would have been. What a sad situation,” he said. “We must have speedy but fair trials and we must deliver a just and very harsh punishment to these people.” Trump also decried that Rahami would be given “amazing hospitalization” and “a fully modern and updated hospital room.”
Putting aside Trump’s inaccurate assessment of the quality of medical care prisoners receive and the woefully underfunded public defender system in the U.S., Trump is attacking some of the bedrock principles of American justice. Ever since Gideon v. Wainwright, the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution has been understood to require that everyone charged with serious offenses in this country receive defense counsel.
This protection for criminal defendants is cause for celebration, not castigation. Speaking about this right in glowing terms, the Supreme Court has said it is “necessary to insure fundamental human rights of life and liberty” and called this a “noble ideal” without which there can be no fair trial.
Similarly, the Eighth Amendment prohibits “cruel and unusual punishment.” We already know from Trump’s advocating extreme forms of torture that he is no fan of this part of the Constitution, but his comments Monday make that even clearer. Prisoners’ serious medical needs cannot be ignored; doing so would be “cruel and unusual.” The Supreme Court has explained that “infliction of such unnecessary suffering is inconsistent with contemporary standards of decency” and outlined the basic principle that “the public be required to care for the prisoner, who cannot, by reason of the deprivation of his liberty, care for himself.”
Just this weekend, he once again showed that he couldn’t care less about the First Amendment. After The New York Times published a story finding that Trump relied on $885 million in tax breaks to build his real estate empire in New York City, Trump tweeted, “My lawyers want to sue the failing @nytimes so badly for irresponsible intent. I said no (for now), but they are watching. Really disgusting.”
Of course, as any middle school student will tell you, the First Amendment protects the freedom of the press. Part of that protection is that no public figure can sue as a result of a bad story without proving malice, meaning that the journalists knew the story was false or demonstrated complete disregard for whether it was true. This standard is crucial in protecting the press from being attacked by people who don’t like unflattering coverage. Without this principle, the press would be too scared to write pieces critical of the powerful, and the First Amendment would be virtually meaningless.
It’s been clear from other contexts, though, that “virtually meaningless” is how Trump views the First Amendment as a whole. Among other things, he has called for violence against individuals expressing their opinions and advocated for a religious test for those entering the country. These positions fly in the face of the First Amendment’s protection of free expression and freedom of religion, as well as its guarantee against an established state religion.
Trump is no fan of the rest of the Constitution either. His recently announced maternity leave plan includes no coverage for fathers, which shows his lack of concern for the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause; his insistence that women and doctors should be punished for abortion shows that he doesn’t believe in a constitutional right to privacy under the Due Process Clause; he has promised to violate treaties, which are constitutionally recognized sources of law; he doesn’t understand the difference between state and federal authority, the basic principle of federalism which underlies the Constitution; nor does he care about separation of powers, the founding constitutional idea that the president, Congress and the courts have different responsibilities in order to prevent tyranny.
In other words, other than his repeated invocation of the Second Amendment, including his not-so-oblique references to one of his supporters shooting Hillary Clinton (something that came up again this weekend), Trump has shown that he disagrees not just with one or two isolated parts of the Constitution – which would be within normal democratic bounds, and is countenanced by the Constitution’s amendment process – but rather with the very fabric of the document.
This is highly unusual in American politics, where most debate occurs against the backdrop of accepted constitutional principles. Trump doesn’t appear to accept those principles at all, and instead seems to want to be president of a country with a foreign understanding of government and its relationship to the people.
If Trump were elected, he would have to swear the same allegiance to the Constitution that every president has before him: “I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the office of president of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”
Based on how he has campaigned over the past year, if he were to utter those last 10 words, he would be lying – as has become par for the course with Donald Trump.