We expect the leader of the United States to uphold the constitution, but this one confronts and threatens it every day
By Jill Abramson | The Guardian | Wednesday 17 May 2017 13.27 EDT
‘I have the absolute right” to share classified information with Russia. So tweeted the United States president in defence of having spilled national security secrets to the Russians. Note that well, and put the emphasis on the word absolute, because the president’s use of the word shows that he lacks any understanding of the US constitution.
America’s founding fathers were deathly afraid of centralised, absolute power. This is why the government they structured had three equal branches, and plenty of checks and balances. And the first amendment is first for a reason. Freedom of the press is guaranteed because the founders envisaged the press as a bulwark against absolute power. This goes to the heart of who we are, and what we might become.
No one in the United States has absolute power or an absolute right to do anything that violates the constitution
This is American law for dummies, but Trump gives no indication of knowing its basic tenets. Fundamentals bear repeating. No one in the United States has absolute power or an absolute right to do anything that violates the constitution. But apparent violations seem to be occurring almost daily.
In a stunning cascade of revelations from the New York Times and the Washington Post, we learn that Donald Trump has, allegedly, obstructed justice. According to a contemporaneous memo written by James Comey – the former FBI director – after a conversation with the president, Trump asked him to drop the investigation into Michael Flynn, the national security adviser Trump fired for lying about his contacts with Russia. As we know, Comey himself was later fired by the president.
If the Flynn allegations are true, this is, according to the Brennan Centre of Constitutional Law, “an assault on the rule of law. The president’s request is beyond the pale and poses an extraordinary test for our democracy. Our system depends on the rule of law and checks and balances. This appears to be textbook obstruction of justice and abuse of power.”
But then the charge sheet envisaged by many is now a long one. It says Trump violated his oath to protect the country by improperly disclosing highly classified information about impending terror attacks and sharing it with Russia, a country that is hostile to many US policies. It says he trampled on Comey’s due process rights by firing him without cause and providing the public with a false pretext for the termination.
It says Trump flouted anti-nepotism law by appointing his daughter and her husband to White House jobs. The former ethics tsars for presidents Obama and Bush agree that such law applies to the presidency.
A bronze statue of George Washington in Alexandria, Virginia. Photograph: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images
It says he trespassed on prohibitions on self-dealing and conflict of interest by continuing to profit from his ties to the Trump Organisation while his sons pursue foreign deals. Furthermore, it says his daughter’s brand has received trademarks from China while the White House is involved in myriad issues involving China. The real estate conglomerate owned by the family of Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, is also actively seeking foreign investment, including in China.
Whether or not these actions trigger articles of impeachment is a political question for the majority Republican party. But it seems highly probable that Trump has violated the law.
Even Republicans see the gravity of this unfolding situation. Jason Chaffetz, chairman of the house oversight committee, chooses his words with care, but if the Comey claims are true, he concludes that Trump resorted to an “extraordinary use of influence”.
Legislators such as Chaffetz have been slow to defend democracy, but the beleaguered press has not. For without the enterprise and reporting of the New York Times and Washington Post, we would know nothing about the machinations of the president, his advisers and his family. Reporters have a key role. With Republicans controlling the legislative branch and with the supreme court leaning rightward, the free press must be the check on power the founders envisioned.
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Trump, according to Comey’s notes, told the former FBI director he would be glad to see journalists jailed for publishing “classified information”. But these are the very people the founders trusted to hold both power, and those in government, accountable.
George Washington worried that a despot seeking absolute power could ruin the union. This was part of the reason he decided to step down after two terms. In his farewell address of 1796, he warned of the “disorders and miseries” that “gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual”. For sooner or later, he said, the “chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of public liberty”.
It’s hard to see the legal overreach by Trump as rooted in anything other than the service of his own elevation. He is truly the kind of despot that Washington feared could ruin the country.
The writer Gabriel García Márquez saw where delusions of absolute power inevitably lead. “When one reaches absolute power,” he wrote, “one loses total contact with reality.” A president so adrift from the US constitution surely meets that terrible criterion.