Friday, June 8, 2018

King Trump's Pardon Power

The "deeply stupid" Edward VIII might be the model for America's newest monarch

The outrages and violations seem to come too fast for us to keep up with them. Our wannabe despot president gives us a new scandal each and every day, too much for us to resist. Some of them get lost in the shuffle, and one that has been too overlooked is Trump's use of the pardon power.

Yes, there was hue and cry after he pardoned conservative bottom-feeder Dinesh D'Souza, but that was one episode in a larger story that ought to be concerning for us. There was also Joe Arpaio and Scooter Libby before him, establishing a pattern whereby conservative political figures who commit crimes get clemency. It should greatly concern us that the president would so brazenly use his powers to allow criminals to get away with it.

Even when he uses his pardon power for good, he uses it not as a carefully considered instrument of justice, but as a PERSONAL power. For instance, Kim Kardashian came to him to beg clemency for an inmate, and he granted it. Now he is asking protesting NFL players to give him names of people who ought to be pardoned. This is of course completely tone-deaf to what those players are saying, but he obviously sees his pardon power as a "deal making" opportunity. In his typically crass fashion, Trump is offering a quid pro quo.

Our institutions are not meant to be wielded in this fashion. I've said it before and smarter people than me have said time and again, Donald Trump does not know or care about the Constitution or democratic governance. He cares about nothing or no one but himself, with the possible exception of Ivanka, who he sees as an extension of himself. This is why he appears to get along better with despots like Putin and Duterte than with democratic leaders. He is one of them. He would have gone farther by now if not for institutional controls, but those are being worn down.

He has now discovered one area where he as president has a tremendous amount of latitude: the pardon. This power is so broad and expansive that many at the time of the Constitution's writing took issue with it. Trump has been wielding that power less like a president, and more like a king. He seeks to rule personally, as Trump, not impersonally, as president.

There is, of course, a remedy within the Constitution for this: impeachment. The men who wrote the Constitution fought a revolution against the abusive power of the English crown and were well aware that such abuses of power could happen in America. As Hamilton wrote in Federalist 69 (nice):

"The person of the king of Great Britain is sacred and inviolable; there is no constitutional tribunal to which he is amenable; no punishment to which he can be subjected without involving the crisis of a national revolution. In this delicate and important circumstance of personal responsibility, the President of Confederated America would stand upon no better ground than a governor of New York, and upon worse ground than the governors of Maryland and Delaware."

Basically, removing a criminal president should be just as easy (or easier!) than removing a criminal governor.

If you read the Declaration of Independence, you'll notice that after the famous preamble, it is a long litany of accusations of abuse of power by the English crown. As flawed and messed up as the American Revolution was, we can still draw strength from its assertion that America is not to be ruled arbitrarily by kings.

Donald Trump is probably the closest thing to a wannabe king we have had in this country's history. He reminds me of so many addled monarchs in history. I think of Emperor Ferdinand I of Austria, who when told there were not apricot dumplings at dinner because dumplings were out of season screamed "I am emperor and I demand dumplings!"He reminds me as well of George IV, the English king who was famous for his extravagant spending and womanizing. Like Trump, he did not take power until later life, after years of wastrel behavior. Or perhaps Trump is most like Edward VIII, later the Duke of Windsor. This ill-fated king was famously forced to abdicate the throne, partially because he was a Nazi sympathizer. Gore Vidal once described him as "deeply stupid."

It might be tempting to laugh at this, but our current mad king is possessed of much greater powers and authority than those old monarchs. He also has implements of nuclear destruction at his disposal. Yet again, things are going to get worse before they get better.

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