After constant attempts by other branches and institutions to check his power, Trump continues to disregard norms, rules, and the will of the people. America must confront a reality: its president has become a king.
Go back to the beginning of our country. The Constitution was designed to prevent the rise of another British monarchy in America. Its articles are specifically created to avoid the tyranny the Founding Fathers experienced leading up to revolution. The Third Amendment prevents quartering soldiers in civilians’ homes, a tactic the British used to control revolutionaries. The Constitution places so much importance on Congress in the first article because the Founders didn’t want one leader to have too much control.
The most extreme step they took to prevent a monarchy was adding in an emergency release. An eject button meant to save democracy. The writers of our Constitution included impeachment as a way to remove from office the worst, most power hungry presidents. They wanted to give Congress (and the Chief Justice) a way to prevent an American king.
But with President Trump’s impeachment behind him, it’s well worth examining whether the process of removal is broken. The argument made by Republican senators in order to avoid checking the president’s power was that he had already learned from these mistakes. This idea may have been part of the Founders’ vision. They could have viewed an impeachment without removal as a sort of censure against a corrupt or authoritarian-leaning president. Much like when Athenians attempted to avoid voting, they would be caught with tar-covered ropes and dragged to the city center; impeachment leaves a black tar marking on the otherwise white robes of a president’s time in office.
This is how we look at both Nixon’s and Clinton’s impeachments. While Nixon was never formally impeached, the pressure towards Republicans from their constituents forced the scandal-plagued president out of the White House. Clinton’s impeachment, while unsuccessful and partisan, marred his presidency forever; both men will always have an asterisk next to their name, signifying the mistakes they made during their time in office. Their impeachment is the most memorable part of their presidency.
So how will historians look at the Trump presidency? Obviously as a steep turn away from the status quo, a time when norms were completely shattered. But after the failure of impeachment to remove him from office, will Trump be humbled like the impeached presidents before him? Has this ultimate check made him any less power-hungry, has it made him behave more sensibly?
In the Roman empire, most of the government’s power was divided between two consuls. These two could wage war, dispense justice, and exhibit absolute authority throughout the empire. The consuls’ power was checked by a division of powers; one could veto the actions of the other. They were also elected and controlled by the Senate. A lot of this system is evident in how the U.S. government was created. But the Roman division of powers found its flaw when Julius Caesar, a candidate backed by the richest man in Rome, became consul. He had his co-consul threaten and bully the Senate, and then waged a hostile takeover—after the attempts by the Senate to remove him from power—declaring himself dictator for life (dictator was a position of total control and was only needed when the empire was in imminent danger). By assuming this role, Caesar proved that with enough support and enough lust for power, the carefully designed system of checks and balances of the empire could be thrown into chaos.
A power hungry politician, from the upper echelons of society, gets elected to the highest position of power in the nation. He uses coercive tactics and aggressive political allies to browbeat the Senate into submission. The Senate tries to check him, but fails. Who does this sound like to you?
Look, for example, at Trump’s handling of national intelligence after his impeachment. On February 13, the White House received a briefing about Russia’s interference in the 2020 election, which will likely be in the president’s favor. When Trump heard about this report, he “blew his stack,” according to White House officials, and eventually pressured the Director of National Intelligence out of the government. Trump’s actions are in line with his long held beliefs about the intelligence community being biased against him. The difference now is that he no longer faces consequences for his actions.
“And what we’re seeing at the moment is now that Trump has been unshackled from the impeachment drama and all that, he’s now going after an intelligence community that he feels has been going after him his entire presidency,” says Alex Ward, a reporter at Vox, on the podcast Today, Explained. “He’s going after our intelligence community for just speaking truth to power.”
Trump’s vengeful actions extend beyond national intelligence. He forced Gordon Sondland, a key witness in the impeachment hearings, out of diplomatic service. He fired Alexander Vindman, who also testified against him, from the National Security Council and attempted to have him investigated by the military. And, for no apparent reason, Trump fired Vindman’s twin brother, Yevgeny, just because he’s related to a political dissident.
Alexander Vindman’s testimony to Congress, the one that cost him his job, was ultimately ironic. “In Russia, my act of expressing concern to the chain of command in an official and private channel would have severe personal and professional repercussions,” says Vindman. Here, he assumes that because of the checks and balances, Trump does not have the ability to fire him as political retribution. He assures his late father of this: “Dad … do not worry. I will be fine for telling the truth.”
Aside from his rampage of revenge, Trump has been exercising more impactful powers. He is currently funneling 3.8 billion dollars from the Pentagon to building his border wall. Clearly, the 11 billion dollars that have already been allocated for the project are not enough, so the now unchecked president did what he wanted to: he bypassed Congress, the branch that controls the purse strings, and dedicated a massive amount of money to a personal, political goal.
Because this comes at the same time that Trump is feuding with his intelligence community, it shows the true irony in his actions. His intelligence warns him of North Korea and Iran’s nuclear capabilities, but he rebukes their knowledge. He’s been told that Russia will interfere with the 2020 election, but he doesn’t believe them. How could North Korea be continuing its nuclear program? He met with Kim Jong Un. How could Iran be building nukes? Trump pulled the U.S. out of the Iran nuclear deal. And Russia couldn’t be meddling, because they promised not to. ISIS, climate change, North Korea: the intelligence community is constantly showing Trump that the gravest, most dangerous threats are the ones he either doesn’t believe in, or thinks he’s fixed.
Rather than deal with those problems, Trump has been focusing on politics. He’s focused on delivering campaign promises like “build the wall! build the wall!” rather than addressing real national security concerns voiced by the intelligence community. When Hurricane Dorian was a pressing threat to the East Coast, Trump altered a map so that it was in line with his claims that the storm would hit Alabama. As COVID-19 becomes a more pressing threat, Trump has continually downplayed its significance, contradicting the Center for Disease Control and his own administration. He has become a man with no restrictions, whose only concern is getting elected again.
After impeachment, it has become clear that Congress will not act against Trump in any meaningful way. Without checks, his power is limitless. He has his old enemy list out, and has begun checking off names, starting with an old political foe: Robert Mueller. Trump has been firing the team that worked on the Mueller probe for months. But after his new authoritarian reality, he may be aiming higher.
“Trump, moreover, seems to be preparing for what would ordinarily be unthinkable in a democratic republic: prosecuting federal prosecutors for their love of this country,” says Yale fellow of journalism John Stoehr. “Yes, I’m talking about Robert Mueller.” Stoehr believes that Mueller himself is “in his cross-hairs,” a theory that would mean Trump is attempting to jail someone who ran a legitimate investigation into him, just for the crime of doing his job.
Trump has one campaign promise that even he, with little care for the truth, can’t claim he has achieved. He’s building the wall, he’s (or thinks he is) draining the swamp, and he ended NAFTA. During his time in office, unemployment has remained low, and the economy has remained strong. But Trump cannot say that he has locked up his 2016 opponent, Hillary Clinton. For now.
Would it surprise me if Trump’s justice department opened investigations into Clinton? No. Because she commited a crime: lèse-majesté, insulting the king. This offense, it shouldn’t surprise you, was common in pre-revolutionary England. It was punishable by death.
God save the king.