President Trump promised in 2016 that he would protect the Constitution’s “Article I, Article II, Article XII.” (There is no Article XII.) Instead, he has shown how fragile the constitutional order can be when a president does not respect the rule of law. He has not grown into the office; instead, he has learned how to more effectively abuse its powers. The damage of a second term might be irreparable.
A president’s core responsibility is to use the awesome power of his office fairly and with neutrality. Mr. Trump has shown that he has a different understanding: The law is a weapon with which to reward loyalists, punish enemies and frighten everyone else to fall in line.
His distortion of the criminal justice system began within months of his inauguration. When FBI Director James B. Comey tried to explain the proper relationship between the president and the FBI, Mr. Trump demanded loyalty and asked the FBI director to go easy on his former national security adviser Michael Flynn. Mr. Comey declined to promise the former or do the latter, and the president fired him.
The tumult that Mr. Comey’s dismissal elicited might have taught a lesson to a more sensible person: There is substance and expectation behind the presidential oath’s pledge to faithfully execute the laws. Mr. Trump did not learn that lesson. His pick for attorney general, Jeff Sessions, properly recused himself from the federal investigation into Russia’s attack on the 2016 U.S. presidential election — and any coordination with the Trump campaign — leading to the appointment of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III. So Mr. Trump viciously attacked Mr. Sessions, and then fired him, too.
In part because the president’s staff more effectively restrained him back then, the special counsel was allowed to complete his investigation relatively unhindered. But Mr. Trump had no patience for standard Justice Department procedure — recusal when conflicts of interests may exist, special care to avoid even the appearance of impropriety. He reportedly complained that he needed a “Roy Cohn” at the Justice Department — that is, an aggressive protector of his personal interests. So, after firing Mr. Sessions, he hired an attorney general with no apparent concern about the appearance or reality of impropriety, William P. Barr.
Whether out of ideological fervor or fear of Mr. Trump’s wrath, Mr. Barr has aided the president’s friends, hurt his enemies and vociferously attacked anyone who has found these actions untoward. Mr. Barr sicced handpicked prosecutors on the Russia probe, despite independent investigations concluding it was warranted. Then Mr. Barr intervened to lessen the charging recommendation for Trump friend and convicted felon Roger Stone. Mr. Barr also ordered charges against Mr. Flynn, the admitted felon whom Mr. Trump had asked Mr. Comey to help, to be dropped. Yet another Justice Department official, FBI General Counsel Dana Boente, was fired after he opposed cooperating with the plot to clear Mr. Flynn.
Mr. Trump waited until after Senate Republicans voted to dismiss articles of impeachment in February to do more of his own dirty work. His White House already had issued illegal orders to prevent current or former executive branch officers from turning over documents or giving testimony to Congress, betting correctly that lawmakers would not be able to litigate the issue in time for the information they sought to matter. Free of the threat of removal, he committed revenge firings of impeachment witnesses who had only done their jobs and followed the law, including patriots such as Army Lt. Col. Alexander S. Vindman — and, for good measure, Mr. Vindman’s brother, who had nothing to do with impeachment.
Mr. Trump fired intelligence community inspector general Michael Atkinson for forwarding to Congress a whistleblower complaint that had implicated the president in his scheme to use public funds to extract political help from a foreign government. The message was clear: The lawful performance of one’s duties is secondary to protecting the president.
Mr. Trump commuted Mr. Stone’s sentence so that his friend would not have to serve one day, mocking the notion of equal justice before the law. He fired the inspector general tapped to monitor the administration’s coronavirus response programs, for reasons that are unclear, beyond his aversion to authentic oversight. The White House has inquisitors dedicated to rooting out federal staff who are insufficiently loyal to Mr. Trump, and they appear to be planning a broader purge after the November election.
Because the courts move slowly, the president discovered that he can sustain even the most egregious stonewalling and violations for years. The remaining checks would be Congress, but Republicans have almost uniformly chosen subservience to Mr. Trump over fealty to the Constitution, and the executive branch, but Mr. Trump has sought to fire or cow anyone who would stand in the way of his lawlessness.
Last month brought two bright warning signs that the president feels ever-less inhibited. The Government Accountability Office found that Chad Wolf’s appointment as acting director of the Department of Homeland Security is illegal, yet Mr. Wolf is still there, overseeing a department that assisted in Mr. Trump’s alarming overreaction to protesters in Portland, Ore. Mr. Trump then used the White House for his Republican National Convention acceptance speech, which almost certainly resulted in violations of a law that prohibits federal resources from being used for political purposes. The New York Times reported that Mr. Trump “relished the fact that no one could do anything to stop him.”
Americans have long been taught that the U.S. political system has effective checks and balances. But in the past years, a frightening truth has emerged. Much of that balance has depended on the good character of the president, and there are surprisingly few ways to check a malign president from abusing the enormous powers of his office. Mr. Trump is committed to using those powers for his own personal ends, and he has slowly but surely chipped away at any limitations. How many would remain after four more years?