If you listen carefully to what White House officials say about Trump and Roger Stone, you get to the truth

Impeachment has let the genie out of the bottle, so now we have to ask ourselves: Is acquitted Trump the check or the balance? Or both?

John T. Bennett
Washington DC
Wednesday 12 February 2020 22:28 GMT
Trump denies interfering in Roger Stone sentencing

It’s pretty standard stuff in Washington: When in doubt, when you’ve employed all other options and arguments, quote the Federalist Papers. And as Donald Trump grows more and more brazen after his Senate acquittal, there are reasons to harbor doubts.

The House Democratic impeachment managers trotted out the papers during their closing argument as they tried to convince Republican Senators that the president abused his power and unjustly obstructed Congress. So, too, did Trump’s legal team.

So as the president openly applauds his hand-picked attorney general, William Barr, for responding to his tweet complaining that the Justice Department was about to recommend a too-stiff sentence for a longtime friend, Roger Stone, this cold day in Washington certainly feels like an occasion to crack open the Federalist Papers and see what the founders might think of all this.

Asked by this scribe how life after the impeachment saga is going, one White House official who speaks regularly with President Trump replied: “About the same as before.” Not quite. As several legal experts wrote for the Lawfare blog, there’s a whole lot more “business as unusual” going on in the nation’s capital than before Speaker Nancy Pelosi in October announced her caucus would open impeachment proceedings.

To hear White House officials tell it, Trump did nothing wrong. Or at all, really.

“[Trump] did not talk to Attorney General Barr about this before the sentence. In fact, the attorney general and the DOJ made very clear that they made this decision before any tweet went out,” Principal Deputy Press Secretary Hogan Gidley said Wednesday. “They made this decision on their own.”

Or did they?

“Look, he's the chief law enforcement officer. He has the right to do it,” Gidley added, leaving some notable wiggle room for the boss.

What Democratic lawmakers and many legal experts are warning of is a constitutional crisis set off by an unleashed commander-in-chief who has just learned that Senate Republicans will stand by him through, it seems, anything. Trump didn’t bring about America’s tribal political era, but he gets every inch and mile from it possible. No matter who occupies the Oval Office in such partisan times, there is mounting evidence that a chamber of Congress controlled by that chief executive’s party will be anything but a check or balance on his or her power.

The incentives are all wrong. The system, including campaign finance laws and the threat of an ideologically pure candidate from an incumbent’s left or right mounting a serious primary challenge, is, to borrow a phrase from Trump, “rigged” against the founder’s notion of checks and balances – likely much to James Madison’s chagrin.

“It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices [checks and balances] should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary,” Madison wrote in Federalist No. 51.

Oh, we’re way past angels here.

“If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary,” the country’s fourth president wrote.

Internal controls. Novel concept. They seemed to erode a bit this week, however.

“This is a horrible and very unfair situation. The real crimes were on the other side, as nothing happens to them,” Trump tweeted Monday morning, referring to the Justice Department preparing to recommend a nine-year sentence for Stone. “Cannot allow this miscarriage of justice!”

Hours later, the department announced it would seek a shorter sentence. Imagine that.

The president later on Tuesday denied ordering Barr to do anything. In that Trumpian way, he had floated an idea, sending a smoke signal to his team, and it magically happened. But was there ever a clear order, a Nixonian moment? Nope. Another novel concept.

Sure, there was sturm and drang. Cable news hyperventilated. White House aides went silent, likely to shield themselves and future career prospects. Senior Democratic lawmakers demanded investigations and hearings, as they do.

But what actually happened to Donald Trump? Nothing. And by Wednesday afternoon, it was clear nothing would probably happen. GOP Senators Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski, among others, opined after voting to acquit the president that they thought he had learned his lesson about pushing the envelope of presidential power.

They were correct. Only, he learned he can push it even further, free of a check or balance from his fellow Republicans in the Senate.

“Congratulations to Attorney General Bill Barr for taking charge of a case that was totally out of control and perhaps should not have even been brought. Evidence now clearly shows that the Mueller Scam was improperly brought & tainted,” Trump wrote in a Wednesday morning tweet.

What the president appears to have learned is there is no check at present, so he can be the balance. Meaning the balance of justice. And if one is the balance, then one can tip it toward oneself just about any time and about anything one wants.

“Trump unleashed—ugly & alarming. He’s learned no lesson. Just the opposite. Republican colleagues are denying reality. Hold him accountable,” Senate Judiciary Committee member Richard Blumenthal tweeted.

The courts yet may. But, for now, House Democrats’ decision to impeach him has opened a box and the Trump genie has emerged more powerful and more likely to be re-elected.

“In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself,” Madison wrote. “A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.”

Senate Republicans and Trump’s impeachment defense lawyers argued that Trump might have acted inappropriately, but since it’s an election year, voters – not their august elected representatives – should decide if that warrants his removal.

In fact, a new poll suggests there is a feeling across the country that Trump’s re-election is something of a foregone conclusion. While the Monmouth University survey found 55 per cent of those polled believe he should be replaced in the Oval Office, a larger amount — an eye-popping two-thirds — believe he will win a second term. Those kinds of polls, coupled with a strong economy and the Trump team’s warnings about all the Democratic presidential candidates being beholden to “socialists” on the “extreme left,” help explain the White House’s palpable confidence.

“It doesn't matter which one is at the top of the ticket,” Gidley said of the remaining Democratic hopefuls. “The fact is, they all want to erode what this president has done and, by extension, hurt the American people's future.”

Storms cause erosion. Impeachment was a storm; so, too, is Trump’s presidency. It seems appropriate, then, to think of his supporters loudly chanting “Four more years!” Monday night at a rally in New Hampshire while realizing the erosion in Washington likely has just begun.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in