From the Orlando Sun-Sentinal editorial board
A dictator occupies the White House. That word should not be uttered lightly, but it defines with precision any head of state who, like Donald Trump, declares himself to be above the law.
Trump and his lawyers have made it clear that he believes himself above the law — ANY law, not just obstruction of justice. On Twitter Monday, Trump even asserted the “absolute right to PARDON myself,” though he insisted yet again that he has done nothing wrong. Remember what they say about protesting too much.
No other president uttered such staggering arrogance — not even Richard Nixon, who resigned rather than face certain impeachment for obstruction of justice in the Watergate scandal and begged a pardon from his successor to forestall a criminal indictment. Four days before he resigned, the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel wrote that “Under the fundamental rule that no one may be a judge in his own case, the president cannot pardon himself.” That opinion still stands.
“It would be a tremendous abuse of his authority if he were to do so, as well as remarkably unwise,” said Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, one of the few Republicans to speak up for the nation. “If I were president and somebody, some lawyer told me that I could do that, I’d hire a new lawyer,” said Republican Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, chair of the Judiciary Committee.
But to take Trump at his word, he thinks he could get away with it, and that is a clear and present peril to our democratic republic.
Whatever his intent — whether to fire special counsel Robert Mueller, pardon anyone whom Mueller indicts as complicit in crimes, or simply to pardon himself if it comes to that — Trump is counting on continued indulgence from his claque of enablers in Congress, who have excused multiple scandals that would have brought down a Democratic president.
These people are as faithless as Trump to their oaths of office. For some, it’s about Trump’s radical judicial appointments, the tax cuts and other destructive policies. With others, it’s self-serving fear of retribution from the presumed hard-core Trump voters.
Even so, it is risky for Trump to assume that because Congress has forgiven him so much, it would excuse a self-pardon as well. But it is riskier for voters to assume that Congress would rise to its duty. Thus, every election for the House and Senate should turn foremost on these questions:
- Do you believe that any president is above the law?
- Do you agree with Trump’s attorneys that as head of the government, he has the absolute power to control and abort any investigation by the Justice Department or the FBI?
- If the president shut down the investigation of Russia’s cyberwarfare in our 2016 election, would you consider that an impeachable offense?
- Should he pardon himself, would you regard that as an impeachable offense?
No candidate who answers “yes” to the first two questions or “no” to the last two deserves public office.
The Constitution mentions no limitations on the presidential pardon power, “except in case of impeachment.” Writing in the Federalist, Alexander Hamilton italicized that phrase to highlight its intent as a curb on presidential excess. But the deterrent effect depends on the willingness of Congress to enforce it — and that depends on the expressed will of the voters. November’s election is shaping up as the most consequential mid-term vote since the Civil War.
No court has had occasion to say whether a president could pardon himself. The prospect of the Supreme Court acting on that issue is an obvious concern in the election — before there is another Supreme Court vacancy.
Trump and his lawyers aren’t simply trying to bluff Mueller from subpoenaing him. Their tactics send a plain message to anybody who might be thinking of cooperating with Mueller or testifying truthfully under oath. Don’t worry about Mueller, Trump is saying, because if I can pardon myself, I can certainly pardon you.
The president’s pardon of Republican troll Dinesh D’Souza for glaring campaign finance crimes sends that same message. So do his musings about pardoning former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who tried to sell a U.S. Senate seat, and Martha Stewart, who lied to the FBI.
The 20-page memorandum that Trump’s lawyers sent secretly to the special counsel in January, which the New York Times revealed on Saturday, is breathtaking in several respects.
“He could, if he wished, terminate the inquiry or even exercise his power to pardon if he so desires,” they wrote.
They complained, as Trump himself repeatedly has, of “corruption within the FBI and Department of Justice which appears to have led to the alleged Russia collusion investigation.” No one worthy of belief has made any such credible accusations against the FBI, and it is a disgrace to themselves as officers of the court that the lawyers would parrot it.
They argued that Trump has already provided Mueller with more than enough information that his own testimony should be unnecessary, and that he is too busy to give it. This recalls Nixon’s assertion that the Congress and special prosecutor did not need the “smoking gun” audio tapes and Bill Clinton’s that he was too important to be bothered with a deposition in a civil lawsuit. It didn’t work for either president.
The lawyers wrote that “no president has ever faced charges of obstruction merely for exercising his constitutional authority,” which begs the question of the extent of his authority and overlooks how close Nixon and Clinton came to being indicted after leaving office.
“We are prepared to meet to discuss a final list of questions that you need to be answered so that the Nation may move forward, and so that we may preserve the dignity of the Office of the President of the United States,” they concluded.
Sad to say, the dignity of the office has already been thoroughly debased by the man in it — the man who now claims to be above the law.
In so saying, he renounces his constitutional duty to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed,” and flagrantly betrays the oath he took “to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”
Editorials are the opinion of the Sun Sentinel Editorial Board and written by one of its members or a designee. The Editorial Board consists of Editorial Page Editor Rosemary O’Hara, Elana Simms, Andy Reid and Editor-in-Chief Julie Anderson.