The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion What should happen when Trump says horrendous things

Trump's policy of family separation was part of a broader pattern of attacks against immigrants and should never have existed, argues Elias Lopez. (Video: Kate Woodsome, Gillian Brockell/The Washington Post)

Republicans have insisted that President Trump is neither a racist nor an authoritarian. Unfortunately, time and again, Trump proves them wrong. The Post reports:

In a pair of tweets sent late Sunday morning during his drive from the White House to his Virginia golf course, Trump described immigrants as invaders, called U.S. immigration laws “a mockery” and wrote that they must be changed to take away legal rights from undocumented migrants.
“We cannot allow all of these people to invade our Country,” Trump wrote. “When somebody comes in, we must immediately, with no Judges or Court Cases, bring them back from where they came. Our system is a mockery to good immigration policy and Law and Order. Most children come without parents.”
The president continued in a second tweet, “Our Immigration policy, laughed at all over the world, is very unfair to all of those people who have gone through the system legally and are waiting on line for years! Immigration must be based on merit — we need people who will help to Make America Great Again!”

Actually, the rest of the world is not laughing; other democratic countries are expressing horror and incredulity that the United States has deployed a policy that traumatized children for the purpose of deterring others who wanted, under the laws of the United States, to pursue asylum.

Trump’s Sunday tweets were awful, but they weren’t unique. He has continually urged abolishing constitutional rights for those who oppose him or those he deems dangerous — whether his target is Muslim immigrants, a free press or his political opponents. These outbursts are not incidental to his governing philosophy; they are central to an authoritarian and racist mind-set that casts only certain people — whites, his followers — as part of the project to “make America great.”

Ian Bassin, executive director of the nonpartisan Protect Democracy, responded to Trump’s utterances. “The President of the United States is calling for doing away with judges and court cases,” Bassin tweeted. “This is happening. We are being tested. It can happen here unless we all stand up in defense of our country and principles.”

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The American Civil Liberties Union put out a statement that read: “What President Trump has suggested here is both illegal and unconstitutional. Any official who has sworn an oath to uphold the Constitution and laws should disavow it unequivocally.”

What else should happen when a president says something in dereliction of his oath to execute the nation’s laws and defend the Constitution? A swift, bipartisan statement from congressional leaders, perhaps in the form of a resolution, should be issued to rebuke the president, remind him of his obligations under the Constitution and warn him that any effort to deprive any group of people of their constitutional liberties will be furiously opposed. They should also advise Trump that he is evidencing an inability to perform his duties as chief executive, one that Congress should consider in the entire context of his conduct if it were to consider whether he has committed “high Crimes and Misdemeanors.”

That is how Republicans who put country and democracy over party would respond. It sounds entirely preposterous only because House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (Wis.), Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and the vast majority of elected Republicans (not to mention the right-wing media scrum) lack the spine to confront a president who behaves in ways inimical to our constitutional democracy.

In a parallel universe we would hear Trump denounced by the conservative Federalist Society, which ostensibly is devoted to defense of our constitutional system. Sadly, that group has apparently traded its role as constitutional defender for the ability essentially to hand-pick judicial nominees.

Legal organizations, former judges and former Justice Department officials in our better-world fantasy would explain that the president’s view is contrary to our constitutional system. Yes, and in a time when political appointees took their oaths of office seriously — remembering that they take that oath to the Constitution, not to the president — you would hear current officials, including the attorney general, the FBI director and the secretary of homeland security, refute the president’s statement.

We are, however, living in a time when a fleet of public officials with an “R” after their names see themselves as warriors in a tribal test of wills. They imagine their highest calling is to do the president’s bidding, avoid “poking the bear” (as Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee colorfully put it) and wait for Trump to move onto the next outrageous assertion. In short, they do not take their oaths seriously.

The notion that Trump’s comments don’t matter — that speaking up is unnecessary or itself inflammatory — is belied by his actions. His noxious views have repeatedly translated into action — the Muslim ban, the family-separation policy, attempted interference in the special prosecutor’s investigation of Trump and his cronies, etc.

Ironically, Trump’s comments will be fodder for plaintiffs challenging Trump’s policies and actions — as has been the case in the Muslim ban. They are evidence of current racial animus, revealing that the motive behind his policy choices is racial bias, not national security.

Speaking of the courts, sitting judges do not and should not speak out on political issues of the day. They must do their talking and writing in cases presented to them. However, make no mistake: They are watching and listening. They are coming to appreciate that any encouragement for Trump’s imperial, lawless mind-set could be fatal to our democracy.

There can be no reasonable doubt that judges, including the justices of the Supreme Court, understand that what Trump is saying is that he, not the courts, will determine what is constitutional. That position is not compatible with our constitutional system, nor is it an executive-branch posture that judges, whether appointed by Republicans or Democrats, will tolerate. Remember this when Trump tries to pardon himself or he refuses to honor a subpoena or asserts that a president cannot obstruct justice — or when he refuses to accord a group of immigrants the protection of U.S. laws.