It sounds bad when you describe it this way: The president of the United States explicitly violating a government rule to divulge secret jobs data, causing a billions-of-dollars move in the world's financial markets. It's become something of a tired cliché (which, of course, plays right into the scheme) to point out that if Barack Obama or George W. Bush had done this, it would have sparked angry denunciations, wall-to-wall coverage on cable news, and maybe a congressional hearing or two.
But when President Donald J. Trump (as our leader likes to casually refer to himself) does it, it's pretty far down the weekly list of rule-breaking, "norm"-shattering, dignity-obliteration, truth-abolition and assorted misdemeanors and occasional high crimes that have not only defined America's 45th presidency, but have flooded the system and short-circuited the ability of our institutions such as the media, Congress and the courts to process it all in real time.
Why did Trump tweet, "Looking forward to seeing the employment numbers at 8:30 this morning" on Friday, tipping off the American people — and investors — that the jobs numbers he'd previewed the night before would be good news? Was Trump aware that his tweet — 69 minutes before the Labor Department released the report — violated not only long-standing presidential practice but a 1985 rule laid down by the Office of Management and Budget? Possibly not. Does Trump, with his clique of billionaire friends, give anyone else this insider information? Who is going to check?
The main reason that Trump violates long-standing norms and established rules, or tells so many easily disprovable lies from the presidential podium, is because he knows that no one will stop him. And that exercise of unchallenged power isn't just a weird quirk of the Trump presidency. It is, rather, its driving force.
One word describes the massive erosion of American democracy that's accelerated in recent days. And I'm not talking about anything that Roseanne Barr tweeted or even the C-word (which, by the way, is uncalled for and never appropriate) — the epithets that managed to dominate the TV news cycle in a culture that loves fighting its culture wars.
No, I'm talking about forbearance, and if that word lulls you to sleep, maybe that's part of the problem. What that term means — and it's laid out brilliantly by political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt in their 2018 best seller with the chilling title, How Democracies Die — is "not deploying one's institutional prerogatives to the hilt, even if it's legal to do so." In other words, an American president can launch a nuclear first strike, add justices to pack the Supreme Court, fire prosecutors investigating him or his family or, failing that, issue full pardons to his allies or even perhaps himself. There are no laws and clauses in the Constitution to stop him from doing these things. Only tradition and a sense of what's right and what's good for America.
The American experiment has survived for 242 years because even past presidents who violated some of our democratic norms in the worst ways possible still held onto this larger sense of forbearance. Even Richard Nixon, who spied on his enemies and obstructed justice when his burglars were caught, turned over the White House tapes when the Supreme Court ordered him to do so and resigned when the evidence on those tapes was incriminating.
But Trump is already doing some of the dangerous things described above. Forbearance is not in his vocabulary. Here's three unusually alarming things from just last week.
— Trump is abusing his pardon power to reward his friends and other high-profile celebrities. If the president is deploying any of his institutional prerogatives "to the hilt," it's the blanket power to issue pardons and clemency in federal cases, as granted by the Constitution. That power is a remarkable opportunity to overturn a perceived past injustice and reward redemption — but also to benefit a president's cronies, or even help protect the chief executive himself from prosecution.
One of the so-called democratic norms that's evolved over American history is a formal pardon-review process to prevent the potential abuses. Past presidents waited on recommendations from the Justice Department's Office of the Pardon Attorney — a lengthy process that typically includes a five-year waiting period to allow an applicant to prove he or she is contributing to society. The process has sometimes sparked frustration; many urged Obama, for example, to move sooner than he did to right some of the excesses of the latter 20th-century "war on drugs."
Trump has paid no attention to process, or tradition. He's issued pardons for people not yet brought to justice — the Arizona ex-sheriff Joe Arpaio, a Trump supporter who's shown no remorse for the charges that he defied court orders to racially profile Latinos — and people who aren't giving back to society, like the also remorseless and generally despicable, conservative, outrage-generator Dinesh D'Souza, pardoned just last week. The only guiding principle, it seems, is being a friend or political supporter of Trump or — in the (deserved) case of late boxer Jack Johnson — getting recommended by a celebrity friend of Trump, Sylvester Stallone.
This week, the president made headlines by meeting in the Oval Office with fellow reality-TV icon Kim Kardashian West, who appealed for criminal justice reform and pleaded for a pardon for Alice Marie Johnson, a 63-year-old great-grandmother and model inmate, volunteering in her prison's hospice, serving a life sentence for a first-time, nonviolent drug arrest. Trump listened — and then instead went out and pardoned D'Souza and told reporters he might issue clemency or a pardon for two people he worked with on TV's The Celebrity Apprentice, former Illinois govenor Rod Blagojevich and lifestyle guru Martha Stewart.
Each Trump pardon — technically legal, even as they obliterate any sense of process or fairness — lowers our resistance for the day when Trump may offer a pardon to players in the scandals surrounding his own 2016 presidential campaign or his close allies. If and when — and Trump's recent moves are pointing to "when" — a pardon is issued to someone like already-pleaded-guilty ex-national security adviser Michael Flynn or under-investigation Trump lawyer Michael Cohen, Trump will surely say they were "treated very unfairly" — just like his TV pal Blago.
— Trump's lawyers are now out there openly saying they believe the president of the United States is above the law. This weekend, the New York Times published a 20-page letter that Trump's personal attorneys sent to special counsel Robert Mueller seeking to avoid an interview with the prosecutor, which includes the stunning claim that it's impossible for the White House to obstruct justice because, in the end, the president is justice.
The secret letter, drafted in January, argues that Trump has sweeping constitutional powers, including the ability to kill off a probe into criminality in his own campaign — to, "if he wished, terminate the inquiry, or even exercise his power to pardon." That means, they argue, it's also within Trump's rights to fire Mueller or the prosecutors overseeing him — even though a similar move by Nixon in 1973 triggered a flurry of impeachment resolutions.
L'Etat, c'est moi. Trump and his lawyers are claiming the rights, and the powers, of a king — not a democratically elected president. The lesson of Watergate and Nixon's ultimate resignation was supposed to be that no president is above the law — a lesson that got muddled when Gerald Ford pardoned Nixon. Forty-four years later, Team Trump is dropping an H-bomb on what's left of that apparently quaint notion.
— It's easy to overlook that the pace of Trump's assorted untruths and out-and-out lies is actually increasing. The Washington Post last month reported that the president had made 3,251 false or misleading claims since becoming president. Just last week, Trump allegedly made 35 false statements at one rally in Nashville. Among the week's more outrageous Trump lies is an Orwellian claim that the administration's new policy of prosecuting immigrant asylum seekers at the border and taking their kids away is somehow the fault of a law passed by Democrats.
Trump is wearing down the American people, one lie at a time. He is chipping away at our notion of what constitutes American justice, one crony pardon at a time. And he is eroding the foundation of our democracy, to make it so weak that by the time he makes his inevitable moves to nullify the Mueller investigation, the remaining frayed house of cards may be too weak to fight back.
Trump is doing very little with his presidency but to dictate things. He wakes up every morning and dictates lies, then he dictates arbitrary justice, and then he dictates unilateral policies — trade wars with our allies in Canada or in Europe, requiring power plants to burn dirty fuels like coal, or ripping little kids from their mommies and daddies at the border — that could never win political or legislative support, because they lack common sense or morality, or both.
Hour by hour, lie by lie, dictate by dictate, Donald Trump is becoming an American dictator. And recent days have proved what many of us have long feared: That no one knows how to stop this. Not the Republicans or Democrats on Capitol Hill who, for different reasons, are too cowed politically to take substantive action. And not a news media that doesn't have the mechanisms for informing the public when a president is a compulsive liar. Maybe things will change after the November midterm election — but there's no guarantee, and that feels like a long time away.