For more than 800 years — ever since the Magna Carta was issued in 1215 — British and then American philosophers and politicians have been fighting to limit the power of their political leaders. That is why the English Civil War and the American Revolution were fought. That is why in 1689 the English Parliament issued a Bill of Rights that declared that “suspending the laws or the execution of laws by regal authority without consent of Parliament is illegal.” That is why in 1789 the American states adopted a Constitution that declared the president “shall take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed,” and why the First Congress added 10 amendments to the Constitution “in order to prevent misconstruction or abuse of its powers.” And that is why, less famously, Congress in 1883 passed the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act establishing the principle that federal employees would be hired based on merit, not political connections, and would serve the whole country rather than just their political party.
If President Trump is familiar with this history, he gives no sign of it. As others have noted, his governing principle is borrowed from King Louis XIV of France: “L’état, c’est moi” — I am the state. If you keep that simple maxim in mind, his conduct, otherwise inexplicable, becomes all too predictable. Whatever he does, he does for his own benefit. The conduct of others he judges based not on whether it’s good for the United States but whether it’s good for Trump.
The president cannot be bothered to go out into the rain to honor America’s war dead — or to interrupt his frequent golf outings for an unpleasant and possibly perilous trip to visit U.S. troops in a war zone. When asked about soldiers having to spend Thanksgiving away from their families on a pointless political deployment in Texas, Trump expressed complete indifference. “Don’t worry,” he said on his way to Mar-a-Lago. “These are tough people.” No wonder Trump refers to “my military”: He treats its members with all the consideration he might accord to groundskeepers at Mar-a-Lago.
Trump feels no compunction about trashing American heroes such as John McCain and William McRaven. In his own mind, they had it coming because they dared to criticize him, which is the only thing that matters to him. Trump called McRaven the worst names he could imagine — a “Hillary Clinton fan” and an “Obama backer” — because this meant that McRaven did not support him. Trump cannot process the possibility that McRaven might be apolitical and that, in calling out attacks on the press and abuse of the security-clearance process, the retired admiral might be acting not out of hatred for Trump but out of love for the country. In Trump’s mind, loyalty to a cause higher than his own well-being is simply unimaginable.
The same solipsism is evident in Trump’s nonchalant reaction to the Saudi murder and dismemberment of Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi. Trump dismissed the CIA’s conclusion that Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman ordered this crime, writing “maybe he did and maybe he didn’t!” All that matters to Trump is preserving the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia, which he justified with fanciful and fictitious figures – $110 billion in Saudi arms sales and $450 billion in general Saudi investment.
One suspects Trump’s sympathies lie with the Saudis for more personal reasons. The Saudi king and crown prince laid out the red carpet, literally, for Trump on his first trip abroad as president in 2017. They haven’t criticized him. Why should he criticize them? He is tougher on the SEAL commander who was responsible for killing Osama bin Laden than on the Saudi despot who was responsible for killing Jamal Khashoggi — simply because the latter is nicer to him than the former.
And, lest we forget, Saudis have shown their respect for Trump in tangible ways. He now denies doing business with Saudi Arabia, but in 2015 he bragged: “Saudi Arabia, I get along with all of them. They buy apartments from me. They spend $40 million, $50 million. Am I supposed to dislike them? I like them very much.” Perhaps another president would not let such pecuniary considerations affect his decisions, but in Trump’s case it’s hard to have any faith that he will act in accordance with a higher good.
His lack of regard for the principles of constitutional governance is evident most flagrantly in his demands that the Justice Department end the investigation of him and, as the New York Times just reported, launch investigations of James B. Comey and Hillary Clinton. Trump’s attempts to politicize justice have been thwarted so far — but for how much longer, with a political henchman now installed as acting attorney general? In any case, obstruction of justice, even if unsuccessful, remains an impeachable offense, as Richard M. Nixon found out.
How could any president so grievously misuse his power? Simple. Trump doesn’t recognize any loyalty to any cause other than his own well-being. Let us hope that our political system is strong enough to disabuse him of this dangerous conceit that he shares with a long line of absolute monarchs.