L’État, c’est Trump!
By Roger Cohen
NYT May 19, 2017
Louis XIV of France summed up his view of power with the phrase “L’État, c’est moi,” or “I am the State.” Donald Trump became president four months ago with roughly the same idea. In the Trump universe, he had been judge, jury and executioner. He saw no reason why that would change.
Trump had no knowledge of, or interest in, the checks and balances enshrined in the Constitution. Circumscribed power was for losers, a category of humanity for which he reserves his greatest disdain. Just this week, after passing along classified information about the Islamic State to Russia, and so jeopardizing an ally’s intelligence asset, Trump tweeted that he had the “absolute right” to do so.
Absolutism is Trump’s thing. He’s installed his family in senior White House posts where influence and business intersect. His aides are terrified. His press secretary hides “among the bushes.” The family knows everything; nobody else knows anything. He demanded loyalty of the F.B.I. director he subsequently fired for lèse-majesté. All this is right out of Despotism 101.
Absolutism is not, however, America’s thing. In fact it is what the United States was created to escape from. The Declaration of Independence excoriates the “absolute Tyranny over these States,” exercised by King George III. Among the British king’s usurpations: “He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.”
No wonder the Constitution ratified a dozen years later has this to say about the judicial branch: “The Judges, both of the supreme and inferior Courts, shall hold their Offices during good Behaviour, and shall, at stated Times, receive for their Services a Compensation, which shall not be diminished.”
But Trump came into office with whatStephen Burbank, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, described to me as “little regard for the law.” Nor would a man so ahistorical have had any notion that the Constitution diffuses power between three branches of government because it reflects the experience of dealing with a king. The clash between an autocratic president and the institutions of American freedom that intensified this week with the appointment of a special prosecutor, Robert S. Mueller III, was inevitable.
The president can declassifyinformation if he wishes but that’s not an open invitation to recklessness. Giving sensitive intelligence to Russia, a rival power that of late has resembled an enemy, could raise legal issues. For Trump to then use the word “absolute” in his defense recalls Lord Acton: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
Trump did not need much corrupting. He was already well schooled. He has poured scorn on an independent judiciary (dismissing as “so-called” a federal judge who ruled against him) and called the press “the enemy of the American people.”
The president’s contempt for the Constitution was signaled in his inaugural speech when he invoked his “oath of allegiance to all Americans.” No, the president’s oath is to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” His allegiance is to the law. We know where allegiance to the “volk” can lead.
In firing James B. Comey, the F.B.I. director, Trump used a letter from Rod J. Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, as justification, before finding other reasons. Rosenstein got played. He knows it. Trump’s contempt for the judiciary, in the person of this United States attorney with a 27-year career in the Justice Department, was evident.
Rosenstein has now done the right thing by appointing Mueller to look into possible ties between Trump campaign associates and Russia. The former F.B.I. director is a man of undisputed integrity. He will give backbone to the post-Comey F.B.I.
Mueller’s investigation must be complemented by congressional inquiries into the Trump campaign’s Russian connections that are likely to move faster and more openly. The one must not preclude the other; they are complementary. It is past time for the Republican firewall of support for Trump to crumble. Mueller, whose work will take many months at least, is investigating violations of criminal law, but “high crimes and misdemeanors,” the grounds for impeachment, are not confined to that.
Something that violates criminal law is likely to be a high crime and misdemeanor, but not necessarily vice-versa,” Burbank said.
It is against this confrontational domestic backdrop that Trump will be consorting with autocrats and democrats on his first foreign trip (to Saudi Arabia, Israel, Belgium, the Vatican and Italy), without the world knowing which he favors. He can only blame himself for the turmoil. Trump’s White House is a valueless place that has already neutered the American idea. That this shallow, shifting president now sees himself as a possible advocate of global religious tolerance is a measure of how far ego can induce blindness.
Richard Nixon once said that, “When the president does it, that means that it is not illegal.” But the state was not Nixon, as he learned, and nor is it Trump, whose education in the coming months will be harsh. Trump calls it a “witch hunt.” No, Mr. President, it’s called the law.