THE COMMODUS PRESIDENCY
Trump to Congress: It’s None of Your Business if I Break the Law
Trump lawyers are arguing he’s an emperor, above the law, even as he calls on the Department of Justice to prosecute his political enemies.
Donald Trump thinks Congress has as much clout as a potted plant.
William Consovoy, the president’s personal lawyer, told a federal judge on Tuesday that Congress was powerless to hold the president’s feet to the fire, and that the Watergate and Whitewater hearings exemplified congressional overreach. As for a House committee’s subpoena to Trump’s accountants, Rep. Elijah Cummings and all those damn Democrats might as well pound sand. The Oval Office was out of bounds for congressional oversight—even in the face of presidential corruption.
Hail Caesar! Hello praetorian. As Consovoy saw things: “That is law enforcement… Are you complying with federal law?… I don’t think that’s the proper subject of investigation as to the president.”
According to Cosovoy’s Kafkaesque syllogism, Congress is barred from investigating the president because that is a proper function of law enforcement, not Congress, and in turn, law enforcement may not investigate President Trump because he is immune from prosecution.
Confused? That’s the point.
It’s a theory
After the court hearing, our constitutional democracy stands at the precipice of being transformed into an updated version of ancient Rome, helmed by a leader who demands unaccountability for himself and tribute from the rest of us. As for Congress in this script, think part rubber stamp, part tax collector, and part tourist attraction.
Who cares if the Constitution gives Congress pride of place, and enumerates its powers in Article I? In Trumpworld numbers don’t matter unless Trump says they do, until he doesn’t. Just like those financials he gave to Deutsche Bank back in the day.
Exaggeration? Not really.
When Sen. Lindsey Graham, the one-time floor manager of Bill Clinton’s impeachment, tells Don Jr., the president’s son, that it’s OK for him to defy a committee subpoena, that’s pretty much where we are at. According to the Trumpian playbook, this president, in particular, and his royal household stand way above the law. Rules and obeisance are for us saps, us lesser mortals.
Just ask Javanka, they’ll gladly tell you, and they do. If Jared weren’t married to the boss’s daughter it’s unlikely that he would be anywhere near the West Wing or holding a security clearance. How many times does it take to get an SF-86 right? Yes, we also saw this movie before—when Jared’s dad, Charlie Kushner, bought his boy a Harvard admissions ticket.
This is all brand new terrain. Prior presidents tussled with Congress and prosecutors, and claimed executive privilege, not wholesale immunity from scrutiny. In the end, they understood that America and the Constitution were far larger than them.
Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton both offered sworn testimony under oath in criminal proceedings, Reagan about Iran-Contra, and Clinton about Monica Lewinsky. Admittedly in the case of Clinton, testifying truthfully and testifying were two different things.
But it doesn’t end there. Abraham Lincoln met behind closed doors with the House Judiciary Committee concerning alleged White House leaks. Woodrow Wilson opened himself up to congressional questioning over the Treaty of Versailles. Gerald Ford faced congressional music over his pardon of Richard Nixon.
Once upon a time, presidents and Republicans paid more than lip service to the notion of Congress actually being a co-equal branch of government.
Indeed, during the Clinton presidency Newt Gingrich fancied himself as the second coming of William Pitt, the 18th century British prime minister, and envisioned government driven by Congress, not the White House. For good measure, Gingrich even gave a big juicy thumbs-up to impeaching Clinton for obstruction of justice.
Fast forward. When Barack Obama was president, Gingrich actually intimated that our commander-in-chief was King John reborn, the English monarch who was brought to heel at Runnymede by England’s barons (think Congress) and the Magna Carta (think the Constitution).
Fifteen years after Gingrich resigned from Congress in disgrace, he explained to us, “King John believed that he governed by divine right, that God had given him power to make law. He was literally above the law and able to define it. According to this theory, there were no limits on his authority.”
Funny, but those same words could be applied to the incumbent, but not by Gingrich. These days, Callista, Gingrich’s third wife, is the US ambassador to the Vatican and the president’s personal lawyers are telling a federal court that the congressional investigations into Watergate and Whitewater were likely illegal.
In Gladiator, we see Commodus, the oft-unhinged emperor who would have definitely gotten into watching WWE and giving Vince McMahon the shearing of his life, jailing his opponents in the Senate.
It’s the unlikely movie of our times, as Trump would have the Department of Justice prosecute his political adversaries.
“Lock her up” was more than a campaign slogan. For Trump, it’s l’État, c’est moi—with America as a second scoop of chocolate ice cream to be devoured whole.