A respect for the limits of your branch of government, a respect for the role of other branches of government is sort of the oil that makes the machinery work. Absent that, things break down. And I think we’re definitely seeing that with this administration in unprecedented ways.
Rep. Gerald Connolly (D-VA)
No matter what the Mueller Report says about Donald John Trump’s possible crimes while in office, by my count, he is batting a perfect seven for seven in the sins department. Of pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath, and sloth—it is his pride that most threatens the state of our union. Although Trump’s pride may well lead to his fall from the grace of American voters in 2020--it is not an impeachable offense.
The bombastic 45th president of the United States describes himself in grandiloquent terms.
I think nobody knows more about taxes than I do, maybe in the history of the world.
Trump not only speaks of himself in hyperbolas and the third person he hears what others say—or imagines them having said—in equally braggadocian terms. Responding to a question about US-China relations he quoted the director of the Center for Chinese Strategy, a conservative think tank.
If you look at Mr. Pillsbury, the leading authority on China…he was saying that China has total respect for Donald Trump and for Donald Trump’s very, very, large brain.
Hubris has brought down many a tragic figure throughout history and literature. Would the consequences of Trump’s boasts be his alone to bear and not serve as a precedent for other presidents to follow, I would be less anxious over the fate of the nation. It is no exaggeration to say that Trump’s actions while in office have the potential to weaken the underlying foundation of the republic for which he and we stand.
As president of the United States, Trump has sworn an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; bear true faith and allegiance to the same…and…well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office for which he now holds.
When it comes to Trump’s assault on the constitutional foundation of the country, I am not speaking about theemoluments clause and his possibly profiting off his occupation of the White House. Most presidents these days have found their time in office a stepping stone to immense wealth—whether selling their memoirs or charging exorbitant speaking fees.
Jimmy Carter is likely the only one in modern US history who has refused the glitz, glitter and extraordinary wealth available to him as a former president of the US. Charging just $50,000 for the rare paid appearance, the man from Georgia often gives what he makes to charity.Compare this to Bill Clinton's speaking fee of $750,000.
Trump has perhaps jumped the gun a bit when it comes to profit-making. Although, I suspect he has lost more than he has made—given the rush of many residents and investors to scrub the Trump name off apartment buildings, hotels, clothing brands, and casinos. Nevertheless, I believe the nation capable of surviving his greedy grab for lucre.
The mercurial Mr. Trump’s violation of the US Constitution is more basic than bucks. His transgression hits at the heart of the body politic—the separation of powers.
It was during the Age of Reason that the US won its independence from the British monarchy. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the Framers of the Constitution were influenced by the writings of Locke and Montesquieu. in the formation of a federal government comprised of three separate but equal parts.
Montesquieu wrote in his The Spirit of the Laws that democracy requires a constant preference of public to private interest. According to the Frenchman, democracy limits ambition to the sole desire, to the sole happiness, of doing greater services to our country than to individual citizens or classes of citizens. Democracies become corrupt through the spirit of inequality when the interest of individuals are put ahead of those of their country. Montesquieu added the judiciary to Locke’s spoken of executive and legislative branches of government.
Locke argued that sovereignty resides with the people. In the Second Treatise on Government, he describes the nature of legitimate government as a social contract between those elected to govern and those governed. Upon their election and assumption of office, the people’s representatives—whether executives, legislators, or judges—enter into an agreement. The contract commits them to govern and act in accordance with the spirit and letter of the law(s) of the land. Should the elected violate the terms of their contract they can be removed from office—either through impeachment or the electoral process.
The US is the oldest existing nation with a constitutional government in which leaders are elected by the people. Like every nation, the US has faced good times and bad. It has survived wars—foreign and domestic--overcome economic and natural disasters, and “gladly” suffered the tyranny of fools. Throughout it all, the nation has remained strong and true to its constitutional beginnings.
To thwart would-be monarchs and demagogues, the Founders took the doctrines of Locke and Montesquieu a step further by incorporating checks and balances into the Constitution. Separation of the executive, legislative and, judicial branches of government, however, is far from absolute.
The president’s power to act independent of the Congress and the courts is limited. If he wants money for his proposed programs, he must ask the Congress to appropriate and authorize the required sums. A president can issue an executive order, while the courts have the power to declare it unconstitutional. Congress may pass legislation, but it only becomes law upon a president’s signature. If the chief executive vetoes the legislation, Congress can override presidential resistance with the vote of a two-thirds majority. Judges can rule on the legitimacy of an enacted law but cannot write one. (Figure 1)
It is that balance of independence and interdependence between the branches that is the distinct organizational characteristic of our federal government, according to law professor Peter Shane.
Trump has made no secret of his disdain for the system of checks and balances. His lèse-majesté approach to governance violates his sworn oath to bear true faith and allegiance to the Constitution. He defies rather than defends the rule of law—issuing executive orders or demanding others in his administration to take on tasks he has been advised are likely unconstitutional.
Trump’s disrespect of the law and his incivility towards the other branches of government undermines the constitutional underpinnings of the republic. Every president, at one time or another, has been frustrated by his legislative and judicial partners—just as they have felt and been frustrated by the chief executive. The difference between Trump and most of his presidential predecessors is his willingness to go kamikaze—whatever the consequences. Consider the 2018-2019 partial government shutdown--the longest in history.
If the Mueller report is to be believed, as I think it should be to a large degree, Trump’s own senior advisors recognize his hubris and the danger in which he puts himself and the nation by yielding to it. Their answer is to save him from himself by NOT following his orders hoping he’ll cool off or be too busy launching his next tweet- attack to remember—notwithstanding his boast of having one of the great memories of all time.
What Trump does today, successors will feel empowered to do tomorrow.
Prior to taking office Trump said he thought President Obama’s use of executive orders was irresponsible. Nevertheless, he thanked Obama for paving the way for him to use presidential orders just as freely for his own purposes.
Trump, of course, is not the only member of the government to act this way. Senate Majority Leader McConnell speaking about recent Democratic initiatives like the Green New Deal told audiences to think of him as the Grim Reaper. None of that is going to pass, he said.
Senate Minority Leader Schumer agrees with McConnell’s description of himself:
Leader McConnell has turned the Senate into a legislative graveyard for priorities the American people care about. The greatest challenges we face — health care, income inequality, voting rights, gun safety, the environment, paycheck fairness — McConnell and the Republicans refuse to take any action.
In fairness, I must admit that the Democrats these days appear no more ready to cooperate with their Republican counterparts. The last time the Democrats were a majority in the Senate, the then majority leader Harry Reid (D-NV) triggered the nuclear option over the Republicans refusal to confirm Obama’s judicial nominees. Politicians see, politicians do.
The economic and physical might of the nation, along with its longevity as a functioning republic hides the fragility of its democracy. For the system to work as it was intended, a reasonable degree of comity is required. What we have seen instead over the past quarter century is enmity.
Trump promised to drain Capital City’s swamp. What he has done instead is to turn the swamp into a quagmire in which the branches of government become bogged down in their own mess and can no longer function as they were intended to by the Founders.
In accordance with the Constitution the people will judge whether Trump has violated the terms of his contract as they cast their votes in the 2020 presidential election.
Lead image: Wikimedia Official White House photo
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Joel B. Stronberg
Joel Stronberg, MA, JD., of The JBS Group is a veteran clean energy policy analyst with over 30 years’ experience, based in Washington, DC.