It is a strange truism of this White House that the most damning, unanswerable, unforgettable revelations come from President Trump himself.
In a December 2017 interview with the New York Times, Trump offered unexpected praise for former Attorney General Eric Holder:
Leave aside the factual question of whether the IRS and “guns for whatever” controversies were real scandals. It’s enough, for our purposes, to says Trump believes they were, or at least wants us to believe they were.
Consider, then, what Trump is saying. He thinks the Obama administration was fundamentally corrupt, with a loyalist attorney general protecting a rogue president from facing justice. And he has great respect for that!
This was not, by any means, a one-time slip of the tongue. On Monday, Trump tweeted a similar sentiment, lashing Attorney General Jeff Sessions for permitting investigations into, and indictments of, Republican Reps. Chris Collins and Duncan Hunter.
Trump delivers such daily servings of outrageousness that it is easy to miss when he has said something truly dangerous to democracy. But this is one of those comments. As retiring Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) said, “This is not the conduct of a President committed to defending and upholding the constitution, but rather a President looking to use the Department of Justice to settle political scores.”
Trump’s fury with Sessions has deep roots. According to Bob Woodward’s new book, Trump has called Sessions “a traitor” for recusing himself from the Russia investigation and leaving Trump exposed to special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation. He’s been nearly as blunt in public:
Meanwhile, he has routinely demanded that Sessions use the considerable might of his office to prosecute prominent Democrats.
In Trump’s defense — if it can be called that — he appears to believe that this is what every other White House does too. He acts this way, and the people he surrounds himself with act this way, and it is obvious to him that everyone else acts this way too. He is one of those men who look out into the world and see only their own reflection.
But such justifications speak less to Trump’s innocence than to his guilt, and to the unique danger he poses to the country.
A president with this worldview cannot be trusted
Trump wants to fire Attorney General Sessions, and he has suggested he will do so directly after the midterms. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) backed the move in advance. “The president’s entitled to having an attorney general he has faith in,” he said.
In a normal presidency, that would be true. But in this presidency, an attorney general the president can have faith in is an attorney general the public cannot have faith in. After all, Trump has bluntly stated that he admires the previous attorney general for protecting a corrupt presidency, and he has raged against his own attorney general for doing too little to protect him from investigation.
These are mistakes, presumably, that Trump will not repeat with his next appointment. Which means that there is no one he could appoint to the job whom the public could trust; we’d never know the assurances made behind closed doors to win the role, and so we’d never be able to have faith in the Justice Department itself.
And it’s not just Sessions. This week, Trump’s nominee to the Supreme Court, Brett Kavanaugh, is testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee. We can’t know precisely why Trump chose Kavanaugh for the role, but we do know that Kavanaugh, unusually among judges, has advocated “exempting a President — while in office — from criminal prosecution and investigation, including from questioning by criminal prosecutors or defense counsel.”
This raises an obvious question: What, if anything, did Trump demand from Kavanaugh to win one of the most coveted positions in American government? Did Kavanaugh assure Trump, directly or indirectly, that he would take a dim view toward troublesome investigations into the White House’s conduct? Did he reiterate that he thinks it is too distracting for a president to face criminal prosecution while in office, and his decisions would reflect that? Does Trump, at the least, think he did?
Kavanaugh’s defenders will hear this as an outrageous slur. Kavanaugh is a decorated judge, they say, and his law review article proposing a law exempting presidents from prosecution will not affect his jurisprudence given that Congress ignored his plea. And they may be right! But who can know for sure?
That’s the problem with a president who so clearly believes that his appointments owe him a blood debt of loyalty and protection: He casts unanswerable doubt on each and every one of his nominees.
A president we cannot trust is a president we should not keep
This is the dilemma we face with Trump’s presidency: The White House is, by the president’s own admission, a thoroughly corrupted institution. There is no reasonable read of the president’s statements that doesn’t eviscerate one’s faith in the administration and its motivations.
The common rejoinder from the administration’s defenders is that Trump’s own intentions are effectively foiled by a White House staff that endeavors to distract, confuse, and box in the president. Woodward’s book includes stories of White House aides literally stealing documents off Trump’s desk so that he cannot make disastrous decisions:
This led to the bizarre spectacle of Fox News’s Brit Hume saying, “Woodward’s accounts of chaos and dysfunction in the Trump WH suggest he has been repeatedly restrained by advisers from his most reckless impulses. And to think there are never-Trumpers on the right who think good people should not serve this president. Good thing they do.”
Perhaps, but it would be an even better thing if we did not have a president who needed his staff to upend the chain of command and spirit papers out of the Oval Office in constant, last-ditch efforts to subvert their boss’s intentions.
Last year, I reported out a detailed piece on impeachment — what the founders intended for the power, how it had changed over time, and how we should think about it now. Two conclusions from that piece are relevant here.
The first is that “high crimes and misdemeanors” is a broad term that is commonly misunderstood today. In his 1833 Commentaries, Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story concluded that impeachment is “of a political character” and can be triggered by “gross neglect, or usurpation, or habitual disregard of the public interests, in the discharge of the duties of political office.” It is hard to deny that Trump’s attitude toward the rule of law represents a disregard of the public interest.
The second is that we disregard the wisdom of how impeachment is structured in our system. Impeachment, in Trump’s case, would lead to the elevation of Vice President Mike Pence — a Republican who is better liked by his party and who, to Democrats’ chagrin, would likely be much more effective in pushing a conservative legislative agenda. Firing an executive and replacing him with his handpicked lieutenant should not be treated as such a dangerous remedy, particularly given the very real danger posed by doing nothing while a lawless executive corrodes our institutions.
Impeachment is not currently possible, and without substantial bipartisan support, it is not desirable. But it should be possible, and it should command widespread bipartisan support.
It is not too much to ask that the president of the United States of America be committed to the rule of law. And given that the Republican Party has a perfectly good vice president waiting in the wings — and, should that fail, a speaker of the House — it should not be too much to ask that they demand a president who upholds the rule of law, and whose decisions are not inherently untrustworthy because they radiate out from a hopelessly corrupted worldview.