According to a recent report in Axios, cited by CNN’s Chris Cillizza, Donald Trump’s personal attorney, John Dowd, recently said the “President cannot obstruct justice because he is the chief law enforcement officer under [the Constitution’s Article II] and has every right to express his view of any case.” http://cnn.it/2AUcpAw That extraordinary claim has now been repeated in even more stark terms by the President (not mine) himself: ““I have absolute right to do what I want to do with the Justice Department,” Trump asserted in a widely reported interview with the New York Times. My emphasis on “absolute right,” because this is the type of claim made by dictators and kings. Under the Constitution there are few, if any, absolute rights and the right to break the law is certainly not one of them.
By extension, Trump’s principle leads to this: since every governor is likely the chief law enforcement officer in a state, the governor cannot obstruct justice under state law by interfering with the independence of the state office of attorney general. And, since the police chief is the chief law enforcement officer in a city, he cannot obstruct justice either, no matter what he does or no matter what inspires him to act (e.g., here’s $100,000 to stop my friend (or me) from being prosecuted)? Or is it the mayor? Or both? Does Trump really believe that all these people are above the law and may interfere in investigations and prosecutions that could lead to themselves as targets? If that is the state of things, and you add up how many powerful people that involves, with command over the military, National Guard and police, you have the makings of tyranny and dictatorship.
Most likely, Trump never thought about the implications of his statement which he probably sees as applicable only to himself in his capacity as the supreme being.
Mr. Dowd, in his capacity as Trump’s lawyer, is entitled, of course, to make what are sometimes called “extension of law” arguments to support his client’s position, even if, as I believe is true here, the argument is pure poppycock. It is fundamental that a statement (read “expression of view”) made in one context may be harmless but pure poison if said to the wrong person or in a different context. Is the President merely expressing his opinion when he says to the head of the FBI “I sure wish you would let the Flynn thing slide,” and then fires the Director when he does not comply?
One might have pause over this in light of the supporting statements of Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz (disclosure: I studied First Year Criminal Law under him). Dershowitz, however, as smart as he is, is not infallible. His position reminds me of some of the ultra-fine point-making for which law school classes were notoriously famous and are fine in an academic setting. In the real world we inhabit now, it proves way too much to say that the President of the United States is essentially immune from the law against obstruction of justice.
Dershowitz seems to be saying the President is “merely” exercising his Constitutional authority when he, for example, countermands a potential criminal prosecution or, for another, pardons himself or pardons targeted members of his staff even before they are charged with anything. He argues that no president has ever been charged for doing so. So what? Perhaps Special Prosecutor Mueller will be the first. There is always a first time and Trump seems primed to be it.
Obstruction seems just the kind of “high crime” that the Constitution’s impeachment provision was intended to expose to sanction by Congress and by law enforcement after impeachment succeeds.
This “I am the law” approach to governance is precisely what the Founders of the country were trying to overcome in fashioning a constitutional republic of laws, not of men. It was the essential lawlessness of the King of England, whose decrees were final and not subject to question, that the Founders intended to prevent when the office of the President of the United States was created with a provision for impeachment of the President for “high crimes and misdemeanors.” For a short, but incisive, treatment of this subject, read Impeachment, A Citizen’s Guide, by Cass Sunstein. [Note: I expect to discuss that, and some related books, in a forthcoming post.]
Mr. Dowd’s/Trump’s view that the President is both “the law” and “above the law” poses a threat to every American, including those who still think, if that word can be used here, that Trump is infallible. In this country, no one is immune from the reach of the law for crimes committed, including obstruction of justice.
No doubt an impeachment action based on obstruction of justice, collusion with enemies of the country, would end up in the Supreme Court pretty fast because Trump will never yield no matter how compelling the evidence. So, Mr. Mueller, the world turns its eyes to you. Whenever you’re ready. Bring it.
And Happy New Year.