President Trump has proved to the 21st century that Lord Acton’s 19th-century maxim still holds: Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
Trump began staking his title to absolute power in his first weeks in office. “The whole world will soon see, as we begin to take further actions, that the powers of the president to protect our country are very substantial and will not be questioned,” White House adviser Stephen Miller announced. He wasn’t kidding.
Trump soon stated that “I have the absolute right” to fire FBI Director James Comey. He subsequently proclaimed the “absolute right” to provide Russia with an ally’s highly classified intelligence; the “absolute right” to pardon himself; the “absolute right” to shut down the southern border; the “absolute right” to fire special counsel Robert Mueller; the “absolute right” to sign an executive order removing the Constitution’s birthright-citizenship provision; the “absolute right” to contrive a national emergency to deny Congress the power of the purse; the “absolute right” to order U.S. businesses out of China; the “absolute right” to release apparent spy-satellite imagery of Iran; and, most recently, the “absolute right” to ask other countries to furnish evidence that Joe Biden is corrupt.
Kellyanne Conway asserted Trump’s “absolute right” to give his son-in-law a security clearance over security professionals’ objections. White House counsel Pat Cipollone said current and former White House officials are “absolutely immune” from testifying before Congress.
As others have noted, Trump has repeatedly said the Constitution’s Article II empowers him “to do whatever I want” and bestows on him “all of these rights at a level nobody has ever seen before.”
At a level nobody has ever seen. Now we see the corrupting effect of this claim of own absolute power:
Without troubling himself to engage in the usual consultations with lawmakers, allies and military leaders, he ordered a pullout of U.S. troops from northern Syria, setting off a Turkish invasion as well as fears of a massacre of our Kurdish allies and religious minorities (including some 50,000 Christians) and of a revival of Islamic State. He did it at the request of the repressive leader of Turkey, where Trump has boasted of his extensive business interests.
Trump declared “perfect” his phone call with the Ukrainian president, at a time when Trump was withholding military aid to that country, requesting a “favor” and asking for damaging information about Biden — a stark violation of campaign-finance law. He then publicly asked China for the same on the eve of trade talks.
He responded to the resulting impeachment inquiry in the House with a bizarre letter from Cipollone asserting, essentially, that Trump is exempt from all congressional oversight and won’t participate in this “unconstitutional inquiry” — even though the Constitution expressly gives the House “the sole Power of Impeachment.”
Belatedly, the Syrian situation led some of Trump’s biggest champions to recognize something has gone awry. “The president of the United States is in danger of losing the mandate of heaven if he permits this to happen,” Pat Robertson warned on his Christian Broadcasting Network.
Evangelical Christians have been among Trump’s most loyal supporters. They have stood with him through the “Access Hollywood” tape and the Stormy Daniels payoff, through public vulgarity and blasphemy, through cruelty to migrant children and abuses of power for personal gain. In exchange, they can point to policies and judges restricting abortion and gay rights and expanding religious freedom.
Such logic is behind the declaration of religious-right activist Ralph Reed, in a forthcoming book, that evangelical Christians “have a moral obligation to enthusiastically back” Trump in 2020. Reed dispenses this moral advice after a lobbying stint in which he worked with disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff and, after telling Abramoff “I need to start humping in corporate accounts,” reportedly received more than $4 million from Indian tribes in a fight among rival casino operations.
Maybe the Kurdish tragedy will finally make more principled evangelicals rethink their Faustian bargain.
Maybe they will finally realize that by supporting Trump as he claims absolute power, they are clearing the way for a successor who ignores Congress and inconvenient laws to, say, expand abortion rights, gay rights, gun control and restrictions on Christian schools. Maybe they will grasp that the democratic safeguards they are now letting Trump overrun won’t be there when a future leader claims an “absolute right” to assault what they hold dear.
Doubtful. But let’s hear no more pseudo-piety about “moral obligations” from the likes of Reed. The highest moral obligation for all who favor a democratic future is to stop an absolutely corrupted man.
Dana Milbank is a political reporter for The Washington Post and has authored two books on national political campaigns and the national political parties.