Even before the Trump Impeachment, trial (or, lack thereof) and acquittal (non-acquittal as there wasn’t really a full on trial, but that’s an analysis for another time and probably for another person to write), there has been a loud discussion in American politics and the talking-head sphere on what, exactly, are the powers of the Presidency and what are the limitations. Is the President really just a King limited to, at most, two four year terms? Or, is the President really much more limited in their power and only through Congressional inaction can a President become king-like?
Frankly, I think this discussion misses the current political and power crisis we face in America with Trump in the White House. Sure, it’s a solid, and important, discussion to be had, and should probably be a good two-day discussion at the start of each Congress to remind our elected officials the power of Congress and that, at the end of the day, Congress, the President and the Judiciary share power as co-equals. Don’t believe me? Read the Constitution.
No, the real discussion we should be having is regardless of what the Constitution allows, what do we The People, as the sole arbiter and true source of governmental power want our President to be. This bit of soul searching and public debate needs to be had without the context of who currently occupies the Oval Office. Do we, as a nation, want a King? Is this really what the Founders fought for, an elected King with the powers of a King, who aside from impeachment, would willfully follow the rule of law?
A King, by historical definition, is above the law. Divine Right and all that. Historically, they are the law, the final arbiter of what is and is not good for the nation (which, historically has many times been what has been good for them personally). Even in modern European Constitutional Monarchies the monarch is the Head of State, and the State, in the public’s eye, is indistinguishable from the monarch. Let us also not forget that the Founders explicitly prohibited titles of nobility to be given by the Federal Government (Article I, Section 9, Clause 8). Clearly, this provides ample evidence and support to the idea that the Founders, under no circumstances, wanted to revert the Republic to a Monarchy, Constitutional or not. After all, if they did just that (yes, I know, there were debates around this very issue), then what were they fighting for? Why did so many of America’s early political leaders put life and limb in mortal jeopardy, simply to have an elected King as head of the new Nation? Is that what we think breaking away from the English Crown was all about? No, our Founders clearly sought a Constitutional Republic founded and wrapped in Democratic processes and institutions.
Coming back to the present, we need to ask ourselves what we would have done and wanted Congress to do if Barack Obama had done even half of what Trump has done. What about George W. Bush? Going back to Nixon, clearly at that point in our history we saw that the Presidency was limited, that to do what needed to be done to ensure re-election was limited by law, morals and ethics. It would seem the modern Republican Party no longer shares that view. Even if privately Senators Collins, Murkowski and Alexander found Dershowitz’s defense of Trump repugnant, that the Founders willingly and knowingly bestowed more power in the Presidency than that of a King and what the President does in order to get re-elected is in the best interest of the nation and therefore allowable, acceptable and encouraged, they still voted to acquit. What this tells me, and the nation at large, is that Dershowitz is right. That the person occupying the Oval Office is somehow magically above the law. What is good (lawful) for the goose has no bearing on the gander. That for all the talk of co-equal branches of government, for all the oversight the Founders built into the original Constitution, the President is more than a modern King, more than an Emperor, above, beyond and outside the law.
Is this what we want? Let’s switch our perspective for a minute. Let’s say Dershowitz is right, that the way the Founders wrote the Constitution the Office of President contains more powers and authority than the hereditary position of Monarchs. The Office of President bestows upon the occupant Divine Right with the only authority above them that of the Creator. What does it say about past Presidents, from Washington on to Obama, that they executed and used that power reasonably and (relatively) within the bounds of the law? That at no point (punditry, political fighting, and Nixon aside) has any President so used their powers in such an indiscriminate way as what we’re seeing with Trump. Every past President has, through custom, propriety, sense of duty, and tradition, treated the Office of President as a sacred duty to the Nation, one which clearly fell within the bounds of the law, and that only under extraordinary circumstances would they think and act to break tradition and custom, to at the least stretch the law, and at the worst break the law.
Before we tangent into specific cases (Iran-Contra, Clinton’s lying to Congress, etc., etc.) let us take a step back and agree that this is a big picture view. Let us also agree that specific examples of a President knowingly and willingly breaking the law (or, turning a blind eye to an underling’s criminal behavior) primarily prove my point. Only under specific, extraordinary circumstances has a President acted in an extra-legal way.
Now, let us also remember that we, as a Nation, decided that, for all the good FDR did for the country, Washington’s precedent of holding the Office of President for only two terms was such a great idea it needed to be written into the very Constitution itself. What does this tell us about the intent of the American People with regards to the legal place of the Presidency? This alone, not to rehash what I’ve already laid out, should tell us that we as a Nation, we as a People, do not want a President King. We do not want any individual to hold such a powerful office, whether in reality or mere perspective, indefinitely, for that just brings us one step away from a true King. A lifelong office of Supreme Power. An individual, using Dershowitz’s arguments, that can use the law to dissolve the law, Congress, the Courts and the very Constitution itself.
But, this seems to be what the Republican Party and its members want. By acquitting Donald J. Trump, by rushing through the Senate Impeachment Trial, not calling witnesses (even just those who’d already testified in the House), not requesting and demanding additional documents, the Republican Party, in its clear Senate majority, declared unequivocally that the President, specifically Donald J. Trump, is above the law. That there is nothing the (current) President can do that is out of bounds. Nothing Donald J. Trumps says or does is outside the limits of the Presidency. That, at the end of the day, the Presidency has no limits, and that the role of Congress is not that of a co-equal branch, but as merely a rubber stamp and a blind eye to whatever actions Trump wants to take.
While our Founders and the Framers of the United States Constitution, for all the powers they vested in the Office of the President, clearly did not want a King, the modern Republican Party is doing everything in its power to change that. It is We the People who need to stand up and say that the President, be it Trump or Obama, Bush or Clinton, Bernie or Elizabeth, Pete or Amy, is not above the law. They are not King, Queen, Emperor or Pharaoh. In this, The United States of America, the Law is Supreme, above one and all, and the President, while wielding extraordinary power, is just another Citizen, bound and constrained by the Laws of the Land.
If we do not stand and declare our Nation one of Laws then we will become nothing more than yet another Russia, China, Turkey, or any number of nations falling prey to autocrats and their cronies. The irony here is that the Empire we fought so hard to rid ourselves from, the Monarchy our Founders faced treason and sure death to unshackle themselves from, is more Democratic today than we are.