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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

A felon in the Oval Office would test the American system

Jack Smith, the special counsel overseeing two federal cases against former President Donald Trump, during the news conference announcing Trump’s indictment, in Washington, Aug. 1, 2023. As hard as America’s founders worked to establish checks and balances, the system they constructed to hold wayward presidents accountable ultimately has proved to be unsteady. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)

By Peter Baker

Revolutionary hero Patrick Henry knew this day would come. He might not have anticipated all the particulars, such as the porn actor in the hotel room and the illicit payoff to keep her quiet. But he feared that eventually a criminal might occupy the presidency and use his powers to thwart anyone who sought to hold him accountable. “Away with your president,” he declared, “we shall have a king.”

That was exactly what the founders sought to avoid, having thrown off the yoke of an all-powerful monarch. But as hard as they worked to establish checks and balances, the system they constructed to hold wayward presidents accountable ultimately has proved to be unsteady.

Whatever rules Americans thought were in place are now being rewritten by Donald Trump, the once and perhaps future president who has already shattered many barriers and precedents. The notion that 34 felonies is not automatically disqualifying and a convicted criminal can be a viable candidate for commander in chief upends 2 1/2 centuries of assumptions about American democracy.

And it raises fundamental questions about the limits of power in a second term, should Trump be returned to office. If he wins, it means he will have survived two impeachments, four criminal indictments, civil judgments for sexual abuse and business fraud, and a felony conviction. Given that, it would be hard to imagine what institutional deterrents could discourage abuses or excesses.

Moreover, the judiciary may not be the check on the executive branch that it has been in the past. If no other cases go to trial before the election, it could be another four years before the courts could even consider whether the newly elected president jeopardized national security or illegally sought to overturn the 2020 election, as he has been charged with doing. As it is, even before the election, the Supreme Court may grant Trump at least some measure of immunity.

Trump would still have to operate within the constitutional system, analysts point out, but he has already shown a willingness to push its boundaries. When he was president, he claimed that the Constitution gave him “the right to do whatever I want.” After leaving office, he advocated “termination” of the Constitution to allow him to return to power right away without another election and vowed to dedicate a second term to “retribution.”

His advisers are already mapping out an extensive plan to increase his power in a second term by clearing out the civil service to install more political appointees. Trump has threatened to prosecute not only President Joe Biden but others that he considers to be his enemies. In seeking immunity from the Supreme Court, Trump’s lawyers even embraced the argument that there are circumstances when a president could order the assassination of a political rival without criminal jeopardy.

“There is no useful historical precedent whatsoever,” said Jeffrey A. Engel, the director of the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University. “The interesting matter is not that a former president has been tried and convicted, as the founders might well have anticipated, but that he remains a viable candidate for office, which they would have found astounding and ultimately disheartening.”

The question of how to create an empowered executive without making him an unaccountable monarch absorbed the framers when they designed the Constitution. They divided power among three branches of government and envisioned impeachment as a check on a rogue president. They even explicitly made clear that an impeached president could still be prosecuted for crimes after being removed from office.

But even then, there were voices worried that the limits were not enough. Among them was Henry, the patriot famed for his “give me liberty or give me death” speech. At the Virginia convention on ratifying the Constitution in 1788, he warned of the possibility of “absolute despotism.”

Robert Kagan, a scholar at the Brookings Institution in Washington, warned in his new book, “Rebellion: How Antiliberalism Is Tearing America Apart — Again,” that a second Trump term could result in unfettered abuses of authority.

“With all the immense power of the American presidency, with his ability to control and direct the Justice Department, the FBI, the IRS, the intelligence services and the military, what will prevent him from using the power of the state to go after his political enemies?” Kagan wrote.

To Trump’s supporters and even some of his critics, such concerns go too far. His allies maintain that when Trump makes provocative comments like being a “dictator” for a day, he is either joking or pushing buttons to get a rise out of his critics. The real crisis is not a lack of accountability for presidents, they argue, but the politicization of the justice system against Trump.

Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University who was in the New York City courtroom Thursday when the jury returned its guilty verdict, called the case against Trump “a raw political use of the criminal justice system” and a “thrill kill” by his opponents. “What happened in that room comes at a cost,” he said on Fox News. “It comes at a cost to the rule of law.”

Even some who do not support Trump argue that warnings of an unchecked executive are overwrought. Eric Posner, a professor at the University of Chicago Law School who wrote his own book calling Trump a demagogue who tests American democracy, said the former president was too “weak” and incompetent to execute a true dictatorship.

U.S. lawmakers have struggled to devise an independent mechanism to enforce presidential accountability without seeming so tainted by politics that it loses credibility with the public. The issue has come up repeatedly over the past half century without a consensus resolution.

Nine out of the last 10 presidents have had a special counsel or independent counsel investigate themselves or someone in their administration — the lone exception being Barack Obama. (Gerald Ford’s campaign finances came under scrutiny while he was vice president and resulted in no charges.)

Neither of the two who faced serious risk of criminal charges before Trump let it get that far. Richard Nixon escaped prosecution for the Watergate cover-up by resigning and then accepting a pardon from Ford, his successor. Bill Clinton avoided possible perjury and obstruction of justice charges stemming from his affair with Monica Lewinsky by making a deal with prosecutors on his last day in office in which he admitted to providing false testimony under oath and gave up his law license.

Mindful that Nixon fired the first special prosecutor investigating Watergate, Congress passed the independent counsel law creating a prosecutor theoretically insulated from politics. But Republicans grew disenchanted with that model after Lawrence Walsh’s Iran-Contra investigation, as did Democrats after Ken Starr’s Whitewater investigation, so Congress let the law lapse.

The special counsels who have investigated subsequent presidents, including both Trump and Biden, were appointed by the attorney general at the time. While they have considerable autonomy, they are not completely independent and therefore their investigations and conclusions have often been assailed as political, even without evidence of interference.

Having endured the Russia investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller and the current election interference and classified documents investigations by special counsel Jack Smith, Trump is hardly likely to appoint an attorney general who would allow Smith to continue his work, much less name any new special counsel to look into him.

Instead, Trump has proved that pushing ahead relentlessly regardless of scandal, investigation and trial can work for him politically — at least so far. He is on track to win the Republican presidential nomination for a third time and has at least an even chance of beating Biden to return to the White House. If he does, he will set a new standard for what is considered acceptable in a president.

“I think my biggest takeaway is how lucky we’ve been as a nation to have presidents who have mostly comported themselves with dignity, or at least respected the dignity of the office,” said Lindsay M. Chervinsky, the incoming executive director of the George Washington Presidential Library and the author of “Making the Presidency,” a book about John Adams to be published in September. “This conviction brings into stark relief how violently Trump has rejected that tradition.”

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