WASHINGTON — Three and a half years after candidate Donald Trump bragged he could shoot someone in Fifth Avenue and not lose a vote, a lawyer for President Donald Trump was asked about the same scenario in a court of law.
Trump’s lawyer had gone before the judge to stop the release of the president’s tax returns, which the Manhattan district attorney had subpoenaed as part of a criminal investigation. Trump’s legal team was breathtaking in its hubris: Because he was the president, Trump was immune from the criminal laws of New York or any other state.
Did the same argument apply to Trump’s Fifth Avenue hypothetical, the judge pressed Trump’s lawyer. “Local authorities couldn’t investigate? They couldn’t do anything about it?”
Trump’s lawyer noted that his client could be held liable once he left office. But what if the sitting president shot someone on Fifth Avenue, the judge asked. “Nothing could be done?”
“That is correct,” the lawyer replied. We’ll call this Exhibit A.
A few weeks later, Trump announced he would pardon three service members accused or convicted of war crimes. When the Navy secretary refused to carry out Trump’s order to reverse the punishment given out to a SEAL officer convicted of taking a trophy photo with the corpse of an Afghan teenager, the secretary was forced out. Let’s call this Exhibit B.
And not long after that, Exhibit C: At the end of a week that saw a parade of witnesses give damning evidence about the president’s corrupt shake down of the Ukrainian government, Trump called into his favorite TV show, Fox & Friends, and delivered a 50-minute screed during which, almost as an aside, he admitted to obstructing justice when he fired FBI Director James Comey two years ago.
“By the way, if I didn’t fire Comey, I would have been in some trouble right now,” Trump said. “Because they were coming after me and I wouldn’t have known that he was a phony. And that Strzok and Page, and all of these people — McCabe — the whole gang of them. We wouldn’t have been able to find it out. Turned out to be the best move I ever made, firing Comey, because they were looking to take down the president of the United States.”
So it goes in Trump’s America. Not a week goes by without fresh evidence of President Trump’s total disregard for the rule of law and the guardrails of a functioning democracy. He pardons war criminals because Fox News told him to. He takes the position that the president is impervious to accountability for possible crimes. He profits from domestic and foreign interests who book his hotels and golf at his courses. He shakes down foreign leaders in exchange for personal favors, calls on foreign adversaries to meddle in U.S. elections, incites violence among his supporters, and demands loyalty from those around him in office, even if that means ignoring a legal subpoena.
Trump is hardly the first president to make full use of the frighteningly expansive power of the presidency. That bipartisan tradition dates back decades. More recently, we saw it in the vast executive theory used by George W. Bush to justify torture and wage endless wars. We saw it Barack Obama’s expansion of the war on terror, use of a secret drone-strike kill list, and wielding of executive authority to put in place hundreds of new regulations.
But Trump exists in a different realm. He thinks he is the law, an untouchable and all-knowing sovereign. Reality bends to his will. He stands in front of the American people and tells them to believe the opposite of what they see and hear, tells them that he alone can fix what’s broken in American politics.
This is the behavior of a president who believes he’s a king.
THE SIGNS HAVE ALWAYS BEEN there. The gold-plated fixtures, the portraits of himself displayed at his properties, and the procession of wives. As a businessman, he’d treated the law as a mere suggestion, whether by ducking taxes or stiffing workers. He descended a golden escalator into the 2016 race as if delivered unto the people from high, and he declared his candidacy in the closest thing to a royal hall at one of his finest properties. At the Republican convention in 2016, he told party faithful that no one but him could cure America’s broken politics. “Nobody knows the system better than me,” he said, “which is why I alone can fix it.” I alone can fix it.
Back then a few Republicans saw the inner monarch in Trump. “Donald Trump does not represent Republican ideals to me,” Rep. Chris Stewart (R-Utah) said in March 2016. “He is our Mussolini.” Stewart criticized Obama’s use of executive power, and then likened that strategy to then-candidate Trump. “Donald Trump has exactly the same approach, and it offends me,” Stewart said. “Donald Trump’s approach is: ‘Well, I’m just going to do it.’ I say no, you don’t. You are the president; that doesn’t mean you are the king.”
Three years on, Stewart is one of Trump’s loyal defenders in the House of Representatives, dismissing the ongoing impeachment investigation as “nonsense,” “unfair,” and “Impeachapalooza 2019.”
In truth the Trump-Ukraine scandal captures so many of Trump’s king-like impulses. No one disagrees that the most crucial part of the transcript of Trump’s now-infamous phone call with Ukraine’s president is the word “favor” — as in, the president wanted a favor when he conditioned a White House meeting and nearly $400 million in foreign aid on Ukraine announcing investigations into Trump’s political rivals.
But the second-most important part of that transcript is the date: July 25, 2019.
The day before, Special Counsel Robert Mueller went before Congress and painted the picture of a lawless and dishonest president. Mueller’s delivery was uneven, but the message was clear enough: His investigation turned up voluminous evidence that Trump had obstructed justice when he fired Comey and tried to fire his first Attorney General as well as Mueller himself. Mueller said Trump was untruthful in his written responses to the special counsel, and firmly rejected Trump’s chest-beating assertion that the special counsel’s report exonerated him. If he were confident the president hadn’t committed any crimes, Mueller said, he would’ve said so.
Any other president (aside from maybe Nixon) would have felt chastened by Mueller’s testimony. Trump felt liberated — so liberated that, the very next day, he asked Ukraine’s president to interfere in the 2020 presidential race. What could be more revealing about Trump’s mentality and his I-alone approach to governing this country?
The founders of this country anticipated a future president like Trump. They’d just rid themselves of one mad king and now sought to prevent the rise of another in their new home. George Washington feared that “cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion.” James Madison, writing in the Federalist Papers, warned against the rise of “a man unprincipled in private life, desperate in his fortune, bold in his temper, possessed of considerable talents.”
Madison and the other founders outlined all the ways such a man could run roughshod over American democracy. A president, Madison wrote, “might betray his trust to foreign powers.” (Trump in 2018: “They said they think it’s Russia; I have President Putin, he just said it’s not Russia. I will say this: I don’t see any reason why it would be.”) He might “displace from office a man whose merits require that he should be continued in it.” (Trump to Comey: “I need loyalty. I expect loyalty.”) Another signer of the Constitution, Abraham Baldwin, similarly warned against a president who “in a fit of passion” ousted “all the good officers of government.”
What the founders feared, in short, was a president who saw himself as above the law and free from accountability. As James Wilson, one of the first Supreme Court justices, put it, a president “cannot act improperly, and hide either his negligence or inattention…Far from being above the laws, he is amenable to them…in his public character by impeachment.”
The Framers insisted on the power to impeach a president for a moment like this one. For the high crime of abuse of power, impeachment is one of the few checks Congress has on an unaccountable president. The real risk would be to not pursue impeachment for what President Trump has done so far. To do so would send a message to future presidents: Go ahead and rule like a monarch. No one’s going to stop you. All hail the king.