Back in December of 2015, on the cusp of the 2016 presidential primaries, when candidate Trump was previewing his Putinesque behavior, I warned in a column that “we’re in danger of embracing a very American version of autocracy … Do we really want to flirt with autocracy?”
A fatally thin margin of voters in pivotal states basically said “Yup.” And on Wednesday, sure enough, a hireling on Trump’s “legal” team vocally extolled autocracy — declaring during the Senate trial that Trump cannot be impeached for anything because his self-interest is the personification of the national interest. Which is the same mentality that marked the 17th-century reign of France’s “Sun King,” Louis XIV, who famously decreed L’etat c’est moi (“I am the State”).
Former O.J. and Jeffrey Epstein lawyer Alan Dershowitz framed it this way:
“If the president does something that he thinks will help him get elected, in the public interest, that cannot be the kind of quid quo pro that results in impeachment.”
And to think this guy actually taught law at Harvard.
Let’s play out his reasoning. If Trump were to extort a foreign country for domestic dirt on a potential election opponent, that would be in the national interest, and therefore not impeachable? Correct, because that’s the issue at hand. And if he were to, say, order the Justice Department to gin up phony probes of election opponents, that too would be in the national interest and therefore not impeachable? Correct. And if he were to cover up evidence of those probes, that’s no problem? Correct. And if he were to simply throw those opponents in jail, that’s OK too? And if he were to order a Watergate-style break in at Democratic headquarters? Ditto.
A more urgent question: When Dershowitz crafted his monarchist credo, did a single Republican senator in the chamber utter a peep of protest, or in any way signal that such a statement clashed with the U.S. Constitution – and that, in fact, the American Revolution was a revolt against the divine right of kings? Why bother to ask. As they plot Trump’s exoneration, they have become supplicants to royalty.
Dershowitz is mostly a joke, a TV celebrity long past his sell-by date, best known these days for claiming that he kept his undies on while he was massaged by one of client Epstein’s girls. But what he said merely distilled what Trump’s previous enablers — and Trump himself — have been saying all along. Not to mention what Trump has been doing all along.
Back in December 2017, when it was clear that Trump was working hard to block Robert Mueller’s probe, Trump lawyer John Dowd contended that a president, by definition, “cannot obstruct justice because he is the chief law enforcement officer.”
And Trump went much further during a speech last July: “I have an Article II, where I have to the right to do whatever I want as president.” In truth, Article II of the Constitution doesn’t give a president total power. It also stresses the importance of congressional oversight, and holding presidents accountable via impeachment.
But Trump has long proved he can’t be stopped by a piece of parchment. He has indulged his authoritarian impulses on multiple fronts both large (declaring a fake “national emergency” to build his border wall, spending money far beyond the amount authorized by Congress) and small (pressuring Air Force crews to stay at his Turnberry resort in Scotland during refueling stops, then claiming he knew nothing about it) and chilling (confiscating the notes of his private meetings with Vladimir Putin, concealing the details from his senior aides.)
Parchment can’t save democracy — only people can do that. And the Senate Republicans, forfeiting their constitutional duty to act as a co-equal branch of government, are preparing to put the Dershowitz credo into practice. It’s certainly the easiest way to let Trump off the hook. They can’t contest the facts about what Trump did in his bid to rig the 2020 Election. Therefore, Plan B is to simply say that he did it in “the national interest” because he is L’etat and vice versa.
What this ultimately means for the future, assuming there comes a time when Trump is gone, is that any president would be free to do whatever he or she wants, to retain or abuse power, as long as a mere 34 senators are willing to exonerate whatever he or she does.
But hey, we have nobody to blame but ourselves. A sufficient share of voters, aided by the distortions of the Electoral College, put us where we are and where candidate Trump always signaled we would go. The window for democracy is rapidly narrowing, and November may be the last chance to pry it open.
As a French lawyer-diplomat, Joseph de Maistre, warned two centuries ago, “Every nation gets the government it deserves.”
Dick Polman, a veteran national political columnist based in Philadelphia and a Writer in Residence at the University of Pennsylvania, writes at DickPolman.net. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.