It’s official. Everything you thought you knew about how our government works is wrong. Also, politics, international relations, the press, law enforcement, and every other aspect of public life.
There was a time Before Tweety (B.T.) when Republicans took Reagan’s dictum that you never spoke ill of another Republican to be an immutable law. Trump proved that that was not true.
There was a time B.T. when you knew a presidential candidate would have to produce his medical records to prove he was fit and that he wasn’t insane. Trump proved that that was not true.
B.T., it was thought a candidate was required to produce his tax returns to assure the electorate that he was honest, to gauge his charitable giving, and to show if there were any conflicts of interest. Trump proved that that was not true.
B.T., it was thought that, if elected, you had to divest your business interests and put assets in a blind trust to avoid conflicts and to free you to concentrate on the work of the people. Trump proved that that was not true.
B.T., Russia was understood to be a power hostile to our ideals and way of life, and impeding our ability to make it available to others around the world. Trump proved that that was not true.
B.T., the F.B.I., C.I.A., and other intelligence-gathering agencies were thought to be working to help us defend ourselves against all manner of attack and subversion. Trump proved that that was not true.
B.T., it was thought that the role of the press was crucial in shedding light on ambiguous policies and ethical lapses, and that at regular intervals they would be able to ask the questions of those in power that citizens were owed the answers to. Trump proved that that was not true.
B.T., it was thought that the President was not above the law, and that ultimately he must answer to congress and the courts. We thought the resignation of Richard Nixon proved this. Congress had the power to try him for high crimes and misdemeanors, and, when he saw they were going to do just that, he cut his losses as best he could and resigned in disgrace.
Nixon’s successor, Gerald Ford issued a presidential pardon (Proclamation 4311) that granted Nixon a full and unconditional pardon for any crimes he might have committed against the United States while president. It was controversial because many people thought it was a subversion of our system of checks and balances, and because they wanted to see Nixon tried and punished like any other citizen, which they thought they knew to be the way things should be.
But Ford thought it would serve the country better to just move past the ugliness that Nixon had created in the Executive branch, and that civility and public trust would be restored faster by just ending the agony. Maybe he was right.
Even Nixon never thought that he could escape his persecutors by simply pardoning himself. Why resign and wait for his successor to do it? Why not just do it yourself and retain the presidency and skip all the shame? Why not?
Even Nixon could see that it would be an insane abrogation of the power of the presidency and the public trust to attempt such an audacious and dystopian gambit. Even Nixon saw that it made no sense in the context of the American system.
Everyone could see this was obviously true, and for Nixon to pretend it wasn’t would be to affirm the accusations of his most vicious detractors: it would prove he was an insane megalomaniac, a narcissist with no understanding of the principles American government and justice, and no respect for the citizenry.
But Trump has now proved that even this is untrue. He has pronounced that he has the absolute right to pardon aides, family members, and, yes, even himself. And like everything Trump, he may able to justify it all with some sloppy wording in some statute, some missing comma, some failure to include language that no one ever conceived would be needed, some atom of ambiguity that turns everything his way. In this piece, the Failing New York Times asks the question, “Could Trump pardon himself?”, and answers:
This is not clear. The only limitation explicitly stated in the Constitution is a ban on using a pardon to stop an impeachment proceeding in Congress, and the only obvious implicit limitation is that he cannot pardon offenses under state law.
And like everything Trump, having asserted it or tweeted it or even thought it makes it true enough for his followers and for those who feel they benefit somehow by letting this slow-motion dismantling of our social and political institutions continue.
We thought we knew that a president was “only” a president, and not a dictator, a king, an emperor, a pharaoh, or a God. Trump is proving that even that is not true.