|America again needs to affirm that no one is above the law.|
In an editorial today the New York Times editorial board reminded all of a reality that separates American democracy from a dictatorship: the principle that no citizen is above the law, not even the occupant of the White House. What is disturbing is that many Republicans, especially members of Congress, seem to have forgotten this principal. Once upon a time - think the Watergate era - Republicans had not forgotten this crucial principal. Frighteningly, we may be about to reach a moment of truth where either congressional Republicans will put America and the rule of law first or put their party and Der Trumpenführer first and push America on the road to autocracy. The only possible bulwark against this fate, if it comes to pass, is to flip both the House of Representatives and U.S. Senate to the Democrats. Here are editorial excerpts:
“This great nation can tolerate a president who makes mistakes,” declared Senator Orrin Hatch, the Utah Republican. “But it cannot tolerate one who makes a mistake and then breaks the law to cover it up.”
No, Mr. Hatch wasn’t talking about Donald Trump. It was 1999, and he was talking about Bill Clinton.
Now Mr. Hatch and his fellow lawmakers may be approaching a harsher and more consequential test. We quote his words not to level some sort of accusation of hypocrisy, but to remind us all of what is at stake.
News reports point to a growing possibility that President Trump may act to cripple or shut down an investigation by the nation’s top law-enforcement agencies into his campaign and administration. Lawmakers need to be preparing now for that possibility because if and when it comes to pass, they will suddenly find themselves on the edge of an abyss, with the Constitution in their hands.
Make no mistake: If Mr. Trump takes such drastic action, he will be striking at the foundation of the American government, attempting to set a precedent that a president, alone among American citizens, is above the law.
What can seem now like a political sideshow will instantly become a constitutional crisis, and history will come calling for Mr. Hatch and his colleagues.
Until the last few weeks, Mr. Trump had shown restraint, by his standards, anyway. He and his lawyers cooperated with investigators. Mr. Trump never tweeted directly about Robert Mueller, the special counsel, and spoke about him publicly only when asked.
Alas, that whiff of higher executive function is gone. Mr. Trump is openly attacking both Mr. Mueller and Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, appointed by Mr. Trump himself. Mr. Rosenstein is overseeing the Russia investigation and signing off on Mr. Mueller’s actions.
He may choose not to fire either man. We know he has already twice told his aides he wanted Mr. Mueller fired, only to be talked out of such rash action.
But if the president does move against the investigators, it will be up to Congress to affirm the rule of law, the separation of powers and the American constitutional order. The miserable polarization and partisan anger that have been rising in American life for decades will hit a new crescendo, and that will present congressional Republicans with a heavy burden indeed.
Republicans used to warn the nation about Mr. Trump openly, back when they thought they could still protect their party from him. Here’s a short sampling: “malignant clown,” “national disgrace,” “complete idiot,” “a sociopath, without a conscience or feelings of guilt, shame or remorse,” “graceless and divisive,” “predatory and reprehensible,” flawed “beyond mere moral shortcomings,” “unsound, uninformed, unhinged and unfit,” “a character and temperament unfit for the leader of the free world,” “A bigot. A misogynist. A fraud. A bully.” Some still say these sorts of things, albeit anonymously.
Maybe — and this is the scariest contingency to contemplate — Republican leaders would calculate that with their support, or mere acquiescence, Mr. Trump could get away with it. The overwhelming majority of Americans, including most Republicans, want Mr. Mueller to keep his job, and perhaps a groundswell of revulsion at unchecked presidential power would follow any action against the special counsel.
We can be fairly certain that the pressure on Republican lawmakers from the minority of Americans who support Mr. Trump, as well as from the likes of Fox News and Sinclair, would be intense.
A few senior Republicans have been saying the right things — including Mr. Hatch. He tweeted that anyone telling the president to fire Mr. Mueller “does not have the President or the nation’s best interest at heart.” Senator Lindsey Graham, of South Carolina, warned Mr. Trump that firing Mr. Mueller would be “the beginning of the end of his presidency.”
That’s all necessary and good. But it’s not enough. More Republicans need to make it clear that they won’t tolerate any action against either man, and that firing Mr. Mueller would be, as Senator Charles Grassley said, “suicide.”
[S]hould Mr. Trump move to hobble or kill the investigation, he would darken rather than dispel the cloud of suspicion around him. Far worse, he would free future presidents to politicize American justice. That would be a danger to every American, of whatever political leaning.
The president is not a king but a citizen, deserving of the presumption of innocence and other protections, yet also vulnerable to lawful scrutiny. We hope Mr. Trump recognizes this. If he doesn’t, how Republican lawmakers respond will shape the future not only of this presidency and of one of the country’s great political parties, but of the American experiment itself.