Opinion writer

It’s no coincidence that President Trump’s on-again-off-again threats about closing the southern border, his decapitation of the top rank of officials at the Department of Homeland Security and his flip-flop on whether to present a bill to replace the Affordable Care Act (which he wants the courts to eradicate) comes at a time when the administration’s lawlessness has peaked. Chaos is an authoritarian’s best weapon, allowing him to distract some and to make others pine for “order.”

Contempt for the rule of law has been a mainstay of this administration, but consider what has happened of late:

First, special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s report, the product of a process designed to sideline Trump’s direct subordinates, was immediately subject to the attorney general’s exoneration, was kept from Congress and is being subjected to redaction that may leave the report looking like Swiss cheese. Other special prosecutor or independent counsel reports (e.g. the Starr report, the Watergate findings) had been transmitted in unredacted form to Congress and in, the case of Kenneth W. Starr’s report, made public. (Attorney General William P. Barr says he’ll produce the redacted version within a week, and says that Mueller declined the opportunity to review Barr’s letter — a letter over which Mueller had no control.)

Second, the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee requested Trump’s tax returns under a statute that says the Treasury Department “shall” make it available on request. White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney apparently translates “shall” as “shall not in a million years,” and contrary to the statute’s intent, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has consulted with the White House general counsel’s office about the potential release of Trump’s tax returns. (The Post notes, “The process is designed to be walled off from White House interference, in part because of corruption that took place during the Teapot Dome scandal in the 1920s.”) Trump and his administration stand in defiance of the law.

Finally, Trump reportedly lopped off heads at DHS because the now-fired secretary and others resisted orders that violated statutes and/or court orders. Axios reports, “President Trump has directed top officials to execute the most aggressive changes in immigration policy since his inauguration, sources tell Axios. Some officials consider the moves legally and politically dubious.” CNN reports that at an Oval Office meeting that discussed border security, Trump was “ranting and raving.” CNN further reports about a visit Trump made to Calexico, Calif.:

Behind the scenes, two sources told CNN, the President told border agents to not let migrants in. Tell them we don't have the capacity, he said. If judges give you trouble, say, "Sorry, judge, I can't do it. We don't have the room."

After the President left the room, agents sought further advice from their leaders, who told them they were not giving them that direction and if they did what the President said they would take on personal liability. You have to follow the law, they were told.

All of this conduct suggests we have a president whose primary tools of governance are lying and lawbreaking.

Some Senate Republicans who have indulged Trump every step of the way are now, reportedly, alarmed. Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) told The Post he is “very, very concerned.” Oh, mercy me. If only they had the power of oversight, the power to reject flunkies nominated to back-fill spaces and the power to remove a president after impeachment. Of course, the Senate has each of these powers and has shown it is willing to discard each of them to shield the president. These same Republicans voted against a resolution that would have reversed Trump’s power grab via a phony emergency declaration.

No one should pity Republicans. To the contrary, voters should be up in arms that an equal branch of government has aided and abetted Trump’s trouncing of the Constitution. They are responsible both for the chaos, which Trump uses to justify executive fiats and rev up his base, and for the abject lawlessness this administration exhibits. It would be hysterical if it were not so horrific that Republicans continue to justify support for Trump because he’ll appoint judges who follow the letter of the law.

The 2020 election is now a referendum on constitutional government. Democrats are for it, Republicans work to subvert it. Cast your ballots accordingly.

Read more:

Paul Waldman: Why are Republicans afraid of the full Mueller report?

Jennifer Rubin: Trump is getting worse. And Republicans’ rationalizations are getting weaker.

E.J. Dionne Jr.: History will mark how many Republicans shy from Trump’s extremism

James Downie: Republicans trapped by transparency