Trump Signed a Contract to Uphold the Rule of Law. He’s Stiffing America on That Deal.
What happens to a nation when its leader decides he is above the law?
In the United States, the rule of law has an almost mythical quality. It is the bedrock of our entire democratic system of government and, at crucial times in our history, the legal system has been at the vanguard of delivering on the promise of America.
But at its heart, the rule of law is merely a social contract between the governed and those who govern. It is effective as long as we collectively submit to its wisdom and judgments.
What happens, though, when one side welches on that contract and refuses to agree to its primacy? We are watching in real time as the most important signatory to that contract — the man responsible for enforcing the rule of law — simply decides that he no longer must submit to it at all.
The loud, stupid proof of that this week was Trump’s apparent deep involvement in the “storming of the SCIF,” in which dozens of Republican congressmen bumbled their way into the secure location where impeachment interviews were being conducted. After all, throwing your body in the way of investigators is the very definition of obstruction of justice.
But even that insanity wasn’t the most troubling example this week of Trumpian disdain for the law. In a Washington, D.C., courtroom, Trump’s personal lawyer argued to a panel of federal appeals judges that “nothing could be done” if Trump actually shot someone on Fifth Avenue. Not only could he not be prosecuted while president, the lawyer argued, but police couldn’t even investigate the incident!
The social contract is ripping apart.
But just because Trump thinks he’s above the law, that doesn’t make him above the law, right? Well, it kind of does. The executive branch is ultimately responsible for enforcing our laws — and enforcing judicial declarations that someone is breaking the law.
The man who Trump made America’s highest law enforcement official is William Barr, who has been publicly linked both to the Ukraine scandal itself and even more deeply to the ongoing cover-up. Under our preexisting rule of law social contract, Barr should have resigned weeks ago… or, at the absolute minimum, recused himself from these investigations and gone to great lengths to clear up any conflicts. Instead, he’s staying in charge and continuing to support Trump’s extracurricular activities.
The social contract is ripping apart.
Once that social contract breaks down, there really aren’t many arrows left in the people’s collective quiver. Congress can (and should) impeach both men for their egregious actions. However, even that co-equal power can be hamstrung and undermined by people who consider themselves unconstrained by the rule of law — by, for instance, sending dozens of goons to disrupt the investigation, freed from any fear they could be held accountable for their actions.
This crisis reminds me of the one Hillary ad in the 2016 election that, at the time, I honestly thought had destroyed Trump’s chances at the presidency.
The ad featured an interview with an architect who worked on a project at Trump’s golf club in Westchester, New York. As Trump is wont to do, he refused to pay the contractor the agreed-upon price and forced him to settle for a low-ball offer.
Now, I didn’t think this ad would end Trump’s candidacy because he was shown to be a bad client or because he hurt this one random architect. But rather, I found the ad devastating because Trump welched on a contract — an inexcusable transgression in life and an almost unfathomably terrible thing to do as a man entrusted with the power of the presidency.
We’re all that architect now. Our system is built on a foundation of good faith. A “billionaire” who would rip up a contract with a small-town architect to save a few thousand dollars is not operating in good faith.
Trump put his hand on the Bible and signed America’s rule of law contract. Now, he’s welching on that deal, too.
And if Trump is allowed to unilaterally renege on this vital contract, it’s not clear how America ever rebuilds it again. The stakes are far higher than merely holding Trump and his associates responsible. Nothing less than the social contract undergirding the rule of law is at stake.