Standing on the Shoulders of Tyrants
Donald Trump’s rhetoric is breathtakingly authoritarian, but so far he’s done less than his predecessors to expand executive power.
Gene Healy from the May 2019 issue – view article in the Digital Edition
“I have the absolute right to PARDON myself,” President Donald Trump announced via Twitter in June 2018. With that, he pitched a can of Sterno into the ongoing media firestorm over the special counsel’s Russia investigation.
The last time a president contemplated a self-pardon was during the “final days” of Watergate. Nixon wasn’t entirely in his right mind during this period: frequently drunk, possibly suicidal, incoherent, pacing the halls at night “talking to pictures of former presidents,” according to his son-in-law. Still, even at his worst moment, Nixon had enough wits about him to know that trying to pardon himself would be crazy.
Trump seems to have arrived at a similar conclusion. His claims about his right to undermine the rule of law are frequent and contemptible. Yet as far as we can tell, they have mostly been rhetorical.
In the run-up to the 2018 midterms, for instance, the president threatened to issue an executive order revoking birthright citizenship—a move that would have flouted the plain language and legislative history of the 14th Amendment while putting more than 4 million Americans at risk of deportation. But this too seems to have been a pump fake designed to thrill the base and rile the media; it was abandoned after Election Day.
It’s become a familiar pattern. Trump hits “send tweet” on some crank theory of absolute executive power. Law professors and pundits cancel their weekend plans, scrambling to figure out “Can he do that?”—only to realize, weeks later, that they needn’t have taken him literally or seriously.