Trump thinks he’s exempt from the laws that govern mere mortals

George Mason, one of our most eloquent Founding Fathers, would be appalled by Donald Trump's banana republic pretensions.

The constitution of the United States of American with a vintage flag


George Mason, one of our most eloquent Founding Fathers, would be appalled by Donald Trump’s banana republic pretensions.

During the crafting of the Constitution, he famously convinced his colleagues that presidents – especially presidents, given their potential for abuse – must obey the laws that govern everyone else. In Mason’s words, “The criminal law sets a general standard of conduct which all must follow….Shall any man be above justice? Above all, shall that man be above it who can commit the most extensive injustice?”

That principle has guided America since its founding. And unless we’ve already slid too far down the slippery slope to autocracy, that principle cannot be successfully sabotaged by Trump lawyers who apparently earned their constitutional law degrees from Trump University.

There’s no other way to explain the desperate memo they sent to Robert Mueller back in January. Leaked to The New York Times over the weekend, the 20-page screed mixes elements of Richard Nixon (who claimed, after he quit, that “when the president does it, that means it is not illegal”) and King Louis XIV of France (the so-called “Sun King” who decreed “I am the State”).

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

John Dowd, who has since quit the Trump defense team, and Jay Sekulow, a religious-right lawyer who’s way over his head, insisted that Trump has the “constitutional authority” to “close” any Justice Department probe that displeases him (namely, any probe that could target him), and to “open” any Justice probe that might please him (namely, any probe that would target opponents). Trump can do those things “at any time or for any reason.” Trump has “exclusive authority over the ultimate conduct and disposition of all criminal investigations and over those executive branch officials responsible for conducting those investigations.”

Therefore, they argued, “these actions cannot constitute obstruction, whether viewed separately or even as a totality.”

Translation: They were rightly terrified that if Congress were to ever rouse itself to do its job, it would clearly have grounds to impeach Trump and throw him out of office. So they endeavored to drape him in a monarch’s cloak and claim exemption from the laws that apply to mere mortals. A monarch cannot commit obstructions of justice because he, the monarch, is the apogee of justice.

Wow. I guess they don’t teach history at Trump University. Because as I recall from my own schooling, the Declaration of Independence was crafted with the clear purpose of separating the colonies from a monarch who dissed the rule of law. It says right in the document that King George III “has obstructed the administration of justice.” That was one of the core reasons why our forebears chose to fight and die for checks and balances and the rule of law.

And as I recall from my own early adulthood, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Nixon had to cough up his Oval Office tapes precisely because he, as president, was not above the law. Indeed, the first article of impeachment approved by the House Judiciary Committee (with six Republicans voting yes) specifically charged Nixon with obstruction of justice (because he had sought to hamper the FBI’s Watergate investigation). And a quarter century later, congressional Republicans invoked that precedent when they impeached Bill Clinton for obstructing the Monica Lewinsky probe.

I almost feel sympathy for Trump’s lawyers. Their client is a nightmare, so they’re throwing everything at the wall in the hope that something sticks. But some passages in the memo are simply hilarious.

One of their most pressing goals is to head off a Mueller subpoena; the last thing they want is to see their serial liar speaking under oath. So they wrote: “Ensuring that the office (of president) remains sacred and above the fray of shifting political winds and gamesmanship is of critical importance.” Right, because this president has done so much to keep the office “sacred” and free of political gamesmanship. Apparently those lawyers don’t read Twitter.

This passage was also a lot of fun: “The president’s prime function as the chief executive ought not be hampered by requests for interview. Having him testify demeans the office of the president before the world.” Right, because there’s no way this president would ever demean the office. Especially in front of the world.

But best of all was the lawyers’ reference to the infamous Trump Tower meeting. Remember when Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, and Paul Manafort parlayed with some visiting Russians (including a lawyer close to the Kremlin, and a guy with longstanding ties to Russian military intelligence) during the ’16 campaign because they were promised Russian dirt on Hillary Clinton (Junior’s email: “I love it”)? Remember when the Trump campaign initially lied that it was all very innocent, that they’d merely discussed child adoptions? And that Junior had written the coverup lie with no help from daddy?

Well, it turns out that daddy dictated the coverup lie.

Lawyers Dowd and Sekulow acknowledged it in their memo to Mueller. They said that Trump’s dictated statement was “short but accurate.” Which is hilarious, because Sekulow publicly insisted, last summer, that “the president was not involved in the drafting of that statement.” That too was a lie. (Trump’s lie could be construed as an obstruction of justice – unless we accept Sekulow’s premise that nothing Trump does is an obstruction of justice.)

Which brings us to Rudy Giuliani. Of course.

On ABC News yesterday, he was asked to explain the Trump team’s shifting explanations – i.e., litany of lies – about the ’16 Trump Tower meeting. Rudy’s priceless response: “This is the reason you don’t let the president testify. Our recollection keeps changing.”

Our recollection keeps changing…Some day, that should be carved on the wall at the one-book Trump Presidential Library.

But seriously, folks. Trump and his enablers have drawn the line in the dust. Either their un-American view of the presidency will win in the end, or ours will. There is no middle ground. Fortunately, we have legal precedent and the Founding Fathers on our side. To quote the Declaration of Independence, “Let Facts be submitted to a candid world.”

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal