Donald Trump’s disregard for the Constitution has been evident from the day he took office. Yet the coronavirus pandemic and the economic crisis that extends from it have seen Trump go to new and exponentially more troubling extremes. The president is twisting the founding document and the laws of the land to fit with a warped world view in which he imagines himself as precisely the sort of monarchical leader that the initiators of the American experiment sought to avoid.
It has come to the point where Congress must renounce and rebuke the president for his lawless words and deeds. Representative Tom Malinowski recognized the necessity last week when he introduced a bill resolving that “the House of Representatives affirms that when someone is the president of the United States, their authority is not total.”
It is a measure of how far Trump has strayed from the norms of governance in a civil and democratic society that members of Congress are now called upon to affirm “the sense of the House of Representatives that the powers of the president remain limited by the Constitution and laws of the United States.” But this is where we are. And this is why citizens must organize to demand not merely that Malinowski’s resolution be approved but also that Congress push back, far more aggressively than it has to this point, against an increasingly imperial presidency.
Trump’s approach is as dangerous as it is wrongheaded. To a greater extent than ever before, his over-the-top rhetoric about presidential authority is intersecting with his reckless exercise of that authority. He is not merely abusing his position; he is signaling to his supporters that these abuses are appropriate and should be defended with a politics that disregards the respect for the rule of law and the basic premises of constitutional order.
Trump brought the issue to a head Monday evening when, in a desperate attempt to change the narrative regarding his fundamentally flawed response to the pandemic, he tweeted: “In light of the attack from the Invisible Enemy, as well as the need to protect the jobs of our GREAT American Citizens, I will be signing an Executive Order to temporarily suspend immigration into the United States!”
The president’s aides were befuddled by the unplanned announcement and scrambled early Tuesday to put it in perspective. But Ali Noorani, the executive director of the National Immigration Forum, saw things clearly: “This is not about the policy. It is about the message the president wants to send. He wants people to turn against ‘the other.’ And, regardless of the valuable contributions immigrants are making to the response and recovery, he sees immigrants as the easiest to blame.”
“The president is using the COVID-19 pandemic as an excuse to dramatically advance his racist, anti-immigrant policy agenda,” said Kristin Kumpf of the American Friends Service Committee. “Suspending all immigration will not keep us safe from the pandemic. What it will do is separate families and communities and distract from what we actually need—a public health response that helps keep everyone healthy and safe.”
The president of the United States has a great deal of power, and that includes a measure of flexibility when making decisions regarding immigration. But Trump’s panic move of the moment is not a legitimate exercise of that authority. Trump believes that the results of the 2016 election—which he lost by 2.9 million votes in the popular balloting—afforded him unchecked power. And he is flexing that power because he believes that monarchical words and deeds might somehow reverse a decline in trust that imperils his 2020 reelection bid.
The president has gone to such extremes in recent weeks that the Associated Press on April 18 headlined a “Fact Check” report: “Trump isn’t a king but claims expansive power.” The review began by observing, “Over the past week, President Donald Trump was pretender to a throne that doesn’t exist as he claimed king-like powers over the coronavirus pandemic response and Congress.”
But it’s not just the past week. Trump’s megalomania has been on display throughout his troubled tenure.
Last July, the president radically misstated the section of the Constitution that outlines presidential powers (and the limits upon them) when he announced, “Then I have an Article 2, where I have the right to do whatever I want as president.”
That wasn’t the first time the president asserted that he had unlimited authority. In an interview about the inquiry by special counsel Robert Mueller, Trump claimed, “Article 2 allows me to do whatever I want. Article 2 would have allowed me to fire [Mueller].”
Far from granting the president the expansive powers that he imagines, Article 2 details the most vital check and balance upon kingly abuses: the proviso that the chief executive may be removed “via impeachment for, and conviction of, treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.”
But Trump, a fully impeached president who avoided removal only because of hyper-partisan dereliction of duty by Republican senators, has in recent weeks indulged his kingly impulses with unsettling frequency. Last week, on April 13, as he wrangled with Democratic and Republican governors over how to reopen states that have been locked down to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, he tweeted, “For the purpose of creating conflict and confusion, some in the Fake News Media are saying that it is the Governors decision to open up the states, not that of the President of the United States & the Federal Government. Let it be fully understood that this is incorrect. It is the decision of the President, and for many good reasons.”
“The president of the United States calls the shots,” Trump announced the same day, in a press briefing on when states might reopen. “It’s a decision for the president of the United States.” While he said he would like to work with the states, Trump concluded, “They can’t do anything without the approval of the president.”
Again that same day, Trump proclaimed: “When somebody is the president of the United States, the authority is total and that’s the way it’s got to be. It’s total.”
Amid an outcry from Republican allies, he walked back some of his most extreme language on April 14.
But on April 15, he was back at it, telling a White House briefing that he might adjourn Congress and unilaterally appoint his nominees to judicial and administrative positions. Trump justified his proposal to override the confirmation process by declaring, “I have a very strong power.” The president was engaging in an abusive reading of a narrowly defined constitutional provision that allows for adjournments when there are disagreements between the leaders of the House and Senate. Even the law professor who defended Trump during the impeachment inquiry, Jonathan Turley, argued, “This is a dormant provision that should be left in well-earned slumber. Indeed, the recess appointments that Trump seeks to use have themselves been denounced as archaic and unnecessary.”
But Trump keeps “going there.”
Furious over the revelation of his total incompetence, and panicked about what that will mean for his reelection prospects, he claims “total power.” He reimagines the Constitution as a royal decree rather than a decree against royalism. This is not going to stop until the president is checked and balanced with an overwhelming assertion of the truth. Congress and the American people must tell Donald Trump that he is absolutely and unequivocally wrong. As Representative Justin Amash, a cosponsor of Malinowski’s resolution who was elected as a libertarian-leaning Republican but who now sits in the House as an independent, says, it is necessary to tell Donald Trump to “put down the authoritarianism and read the Constitution.”