When George Washington was preparing to take office, everybody wondered what to call him. Senators proposed lofty titles like “Illustrious Highness” and “Sacred Majesty.”
But Washington expressed irritation at such fawning, so today we are led by a modest “Mr. President.” Later, Washington surrendered office after two terms, underscoring that institutions prevail over personalities and that, in the words of biographer Ron Chernow, “the president was merely the servant of the people.”
That primacy of our country’s institutions over even the greatest of leaders has been a decisive thread in American history, and it’s one reason President Donald Trump is so unnerving. His firing of James Comey can be seen as simply one element of a systematic campaign to undermine the rule of law and democratic norms.
The paradox is that Trump purports to be (like Richard Nixon) a law-and-order president. His administration has ordered a harsh crackdown on drug offenders, when we should be scaling up addiction treatment instead. Trump is focusing on chimerical fraud by noncitizen voters, even as he impinges on an investigation into what could be a monumental electoral fraud by Vladimir Putin. He favors tough law and order for the little guy.
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Comey took the investigation into possible collusion between the Kremlin and the Trump campaign seriously enough that for his last three weeks leading the FBI he was getting daily updates, according to The Wall Street Journal. The new acting director of the FBI confirms that the inquiry is “highly significant.”
For months, as I’ve reported on the multiple investigations into Trump-Russia connections, I’ve heard that the FBI investigation is by far the most important one, incomparably ahead of the congressional inquiries. I then usually asked: So will Trump fire Comey? And the response would be: Hard to imagine. The uproar would be staggering. Even Republicans would never stand for that.
Alas, my contacts underestimated the myopic partisanship of too many Republicans. Sen. Charles Grassley, an Iowa Republican, spoke for many of his colleagues when he scoffed at the furor by saying, “Suck it up and move on.”
This goes way beyond Comey. When judges block presidential orders, Trump denounces the courts. When the opposition criticizes him, Trump savages individual Democrats. When journalists embarrass him, Trump threatens to tighten libel laws and describes the press as “the enemy of the people.”
Trump has also challenged and evaded the ethics rules that traditionally constrain administration officials. He has breached the four-decade norm that presidential candidates release their taxes. And – how else to put this? – he has waged war on truth. These days, any relationship between White House statements and accuracy seems coincidental.
Patterns emerge. Trump also ousted Preet Bharara, a U.S. attorney who infuriated Moscow and investigated Tom Price, Trump’s secretary of health and human services. Likewise, Trump fired Sally Yates, the acting attorney general, after she warned the White House that Michael Flynn could be blackmailed over his lies about Russian contacts.
In short, Trump challenges the legitimacy of checks on his governance, bullies critics and obfuscates everything. Trump reminds me less of past American presidents than of the “big men” rulers I covered in Asia and Africa, who saw laws simply as instruments with which to punish rivals.
It’s reported that Trump sought a pledge of loyalty from Comey. That is what kings seek; the failure to provide one got Thomas More beheaded. But in a nation of laws, we must be loyal to laws, norms and institutions, not to a passing autocrat.
Trump acknowledges that he was frustrated by the Russia investigation and that it was a factor in firing Comey. This may not meet the legal test for obstruction of justice, but step back and you see that Trump’s entire pattern of behavior is obstruction of the rule of law and democratic norms.
Earlier this year I quoted a presidential historian as saying that “there’s a smell of treason in the air,” and it’s essential that we have a thorough investigation to find out what happened. With Senate Republicans blocking an independent commission, that means that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein must choose an independent special counsel to probe Russian interference in our election.
George Washington warned that we need checks on leaders because of the “love of power and the proneness to abuse it.” This prophecy was tested during Watergate, and as a teenager then I watched Republicans like Howard Baker, Lowell Weicker, Elliot Richardson and William Ruckelshaus heroically stand up for their country rather than for a corrupt president of their own party. Partly because of them, our institutions triumphed.
The passion for truth over politics was then periodically expressed in a Latin phrase: fiat justitia, ruat caelum. Let justice be done, though the heavens fall.
Now that principle is tested again, and so are we, all of us – politicians, journalists, judges and citizens.
In particular, this is the moment of truth for GOP moderates like Sens. Susan Collins, Jeff Flake and Bob Corker, who may hold decisive power. Will they align with George Washington’s vision of presidents as servants of the people or with Trump’s specter of His Sacred Majesty, the Big Man of America? Will they stand for justice, or for obstruction of it?