Commentary: Rule of law trumps tantrums of Trump
“I think it’s a disgrace, what’s happening in our country,” President Trump declared recently. “A lot of people should be ashamed of themselves, and much worse than that.”
The president was attacking the FBI and the Justice Department, headed by people he appointed. But the biggest disgrace is Trump himself, a president who continually proves that he knows nothing about how the American system of government works. If anybody should be ashamed, it’s the current occupant of the Oval Office.
In particular, the president completely misunderstands the nature of the legal and law-enforcement community. Yes, he appoints the chief officers of that community -- the attorney general, the FBI director, federal judges and prosecutors -- but in a basic sense, they don’t work for him. They work for the country.
The president’s political interest is secondary to the national interest. The rule of law trumps the tantrums of Trump. But he cannot grasp or accept this point. He demands personal loyalty from his appointees, and when he doesn’t get it, he berates or even fires them.
“We have a president who seems to have no understanding of the professional ethos of the Justice Department, who has no understanding of how these people think about their jobs,” law professor David Strauss of the University of Chicago told The New York Times.
There is a broader pattern here. Trump is taking aim at any institution, not just the Justice Department, that can independently check and balance his actions.
As John B. Bellinger III, a former Justice Department lawyer under President Bush 43, argued in The Washington Post, “The president’s attacks on the ‘top leadership and investigators’ of the Department of Justice and the FBI, like his attacks on the press and the judiciary, appear to be intended to undermine public trust in institutions that hold him accountable.”
Start with the media. Trump denounced journalists as “among the most dishonest human beings on Earth” and called them “the enemy of the American people.” He’s threatened to tighten libel laws and seek a court order blocking publication of a book he doesn’t like.
Federal judges who rule against him are routinely dismissed as “so-called judges.” Even before his election, Trump repeatedly derided Judge Gonzalo Curiel, who was handling a case involving Trump’s business interests. “I think Judge Curiel should be ashamed of himself. I think it’s a disgrace that he’s doing this,” said Trump, who repeatedly denounced Curiel as a “Mexican,” even though he was born in Indiana.
Another favorite Trump target are the intelligence agencies, which stand accused of leaking information that’s damaging to him. At one point, the president described their actions as being “just like Russia,” and at another, he asked, “Are we living in Nazi Germany?”
Trump’s latest tirade focused on congressional Democrats who refused to applaud during his State of the Union speech. “Can we call that treason?” the president ranted during a speech in Cincinnati. “Why not? I mean, they certainly didn’t seem to love our country very much.”
Those Democrats do love their country. It’s Trump they don’t like. And the president and the country are not the same thing. In fact, it’s the country’s enduring respect for dissent that enables Trump’s rivals -- and all those other independent institutions -- to stand up and hold him accountable.
Right now the biggest threat to Trump -- and therefore the source of his greatest anger and frustration -- is a legal system that includes the FBI, the Justice Department and special counsel Robert Mueller, who is investigating possible collusion between Team Trump and Moscow during the 2016 campaign. Any attempts by Trump to thwart Mueller could cause a constitutional showdown, but the president is perfectly capable of doing that anyway.
After all, Trump has already fired FBI Director James Comey; forced out Andrew McCabe, the No. 2 man at the FBI; and made clear his unhappiness with both Attorney General Jeff Sessions and his deputy, Rod Rosenstein. The New York Times reported that Trump wanted to fire Mueller last summer, and was only dissuaded when White House Counsel Donald McGahn threatened to quit.
Sen. John McCain, battling brain cancer and immune to Trump’s ire, warns that Russian leader Vladimir Putin is loving the president’s assaults on constitutional order. “If we continue to undermine our own rule of law, we are doing Putin’s job for him,” said McCain.
The president is correct: It is “a disgrace, what’s happening in our country.” But the disgrace belongs to him. He owns it.
Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.