"I can tell you I have the support of the police, the support of the military, the support of the Bikers for Trump — I have the tough people, but they don’t play it tough — until they go to a certain point, and then it would be very bad, very bad.”
You could imagine Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro or Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan saying something like this. It’s not a stretch to say that Benito Mussolini would toss words like this around. That the president of the United States should say it is profoundly disturbing. President Trump’s bully-boy threat shows the lengths to which he would go (or contemplate going) to keep power and his disdain for the foundational principles of democracy. And that Republican pundits, donors, think-tankers and lawmakers would not be horrified and consider such comments disqualifying suggests that the survival of our democracy depends on the GOP’s convincing defeat in 2020.
Certainly, it’s a long way to November 2020, but there are helpful signs. Thursday’s solid 59-to-41 vote in the Senate to disable Trump’s phony declaration was both politically and legally significant. On a political level, we see just a crack opening between Trump and Senate Republicans, perhaps enough to begin a pattern of rebukes and defiance.
As a legal matter, the sponsor of the House declaration on which the Senate voted, Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Tex.), had an interesting observation. “I believe that there is an incredible legal significance to [Thursday’s] vote. Think about it: both chambers of Congress, one Democratic and one Republican, voted to terminate the President’s emergency declaration. As the courts review this, that will be a significant legal fact.”
Constitutional scholar Larry Tribe quite agrees that although “the Senate’s 59-41 vote wasn’t veto-proof,” it will help Congress as the case proceeds through the courts. “Justices who are fans of the steel seizure decision, and especially of the separate opinions of Justices [Robert] Jackson and [Felix] Frankfurter — and that certainly includes Chief Justice [John G.] Roberts [Jr.] — would have a tough time explaining why the actions of the House and Senate in repudiating Trump’s national emergency declaration by strong (even if not veto-proof) majorities weren’t at least as strongly indicative of congressional disapproval as anything they could point to in the Youngstown steel case.” In other words, the strong bipartisan vote would be support for the proposition that the courts must halt the president’s usurpation of congressional authority, which the National Emergencies Act never contemplated.
Tribe’s co-author for “To End a Presidency: The Power of Impeachment,” Joshua Matz, says that although the vote technically should not determine the outcome, “as a matter of legal realism, however, [Thursday’s] vote signals to the judiciary that Congress disagrees profoundly with Trump’s emergency declaration. This is not a case where the courts have been asked to rule against the political branches. It’s a case where the courts would vindicate majority sentiment in Congress were they to rule against Trump.” He added, “That may not matter formally, but it will change the political and cultural climate in which courts consider the question of whether Trump’s emergency declaration is invalid.”
Other evidence suggests that the pushback against Trump’s anti-democratic impulses is gathering steam. Also on Thursday, the House in a stunning 420-to-0 vote demanded that the full final report by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III be released. The New York Times reported, “Though the resolution is nonbinding, Democrats who put it on the House floor are trying to build public pressure on Attorney General William P. Barr before the investigation’s anticipated conclusion. Far from standing in the way, Republicans joined Democrats en masse. On the 420-to-0 vote, four Republicans voted present.” At her weekly news conference, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said with obvious pride, “In the House, we voted to protect the truth for the American people. Overwhelmingly, I think over 400 votes — four voted present — everyone else voted for the Mueller resolution, which would ensure that the American people get the truth.” (Alas, in the Senate, Trump toady Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) prevented it from going to the floor, evidence that the majority of the GOP Senate has lost its spine and its commitment to democratic norms.)
Despite the Senate, the pressure will be intense on Mueller and Barr to ensure that the findings are not covered up and that voters can assess Trump’s conduct for themselves. The institutional norms of the Justice Department, which Barr certainly internalized over decades, combined with the political pressure of the “people’s house,” may be a powerful antidote to Trump’s delusional ambition to quash the inquiry and remain in office at all costs.