But as Trump’s behavior this week demonstrates, the moniker fits for another reason as well. It reflects Trump’s desire to escape constraints — in particular, legal constraints. That Kong-like urge was illustrated by two developments: the president’s latest executive clemency spree and his continued attacks against the federal judiciary.
Trump revels in issuing pardons, because that power is essentially absolute. The Constitution sets out no standards for granting pardons. They require no consent from Congress, and courts can’t second-guess them.
They also offer instant gratification to a president who desperately craves it. As one source close to Trump told Axios last year: “What he enjoys most about this job is finding things he has absolute power over,” which is why he gets “a kick out of pardons,” and the fact that “he could pardon anybody he wants and people would come to him to court him and beg him.”
Trump’s specific invocations of the pardon power, moreover, appear unwedded to any notion of mercy or public good; they are not guided by the ordinary process of careful review. Rather, they are impulsive expressions of Trumpian spite and self-interest.
His commutation of the sentence of former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich, for example, seemed intended to wound former FBI director James B. Comey. “Another Comey and gang deal!” Trump tweeted Wednesday about the Blagojevich prosecution. The fired FBI director is represented by Patrick Fitzgerald, who prosecuted Blagojevich.
If exercising the pardon power reflects Trump’s delight in flexing unbounded presidential muscle, his attacks against federal judges underscore his fury at the most significant remaining potential legal constraint Trump now faces — the judiciary.
He lashed out at the judiciary again last week when he disgracefully — and, in trademark fashion, falsely — called out U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson, for supposedly having put Trump’s criminal former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, in solitary confinement. (It wasn’t her decision.)
He followed up with tweets this week quoting Fox News legal analyst Andrew Napolitano, asserting that it was “pretty obvious” that another of Trump’s criminal associates, Roger Stone, should receive a new trial over questions about the jury forewoman’s impartiality and that “almost any judge in the country” would order one.
Trump’s ostensible purpose was to intimidate Jackson into going easy on Stone, over whose sentencing she will preside. Yet Trump’s beef has always been not merely with individual federal judges who don’t bend to his will, but with the idea of an independent judiciary generally. According to the book “A Warning,” billed as having been written by an anonymous administration official, Trump doesn’t really see why Article III judges should exist: In the wake of litigation losses his administration suffered in 2017, he asked aides, “Can we just get rid of the judges?”
The president has good reason to ask. The courts hold the power potentially to force disclosure of Trump’s tax returns and other financial information, to require him to rely on actual appropriations to build the border wall, and to otherwise conform his conduct to the law.
Trump’s attacks against the judiciary reflect his view that only he should be able to decide what he can and cannot do. That’s what he really meant when, as part of his response to Attorney General William P. Barr’s efforts to curb him, he pointed out that, “I’m actually, I guess, the chief law enforcement officer of the country.”
Some people were taken aback by Trump’s assertion, but he was technically correct: As president, he sits at the apex of the federal law enforcement apparatus, and bears ultimate constitutional responsibility for it. The problem is that Trump’s understanding of what it means to be the chief law enforcement officer, like his view of his office generally, is flawed and corrupt. The president’s oath is to “faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States,” and to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” His job, says Article II, is to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed.”
With those words, the Constitution endows a president with the right and obligation to enforce the laws. It doesn’t grant him the power to do whatever he wants. And it doesn’t mean that Trump must be allowed to rampage through the legal landscape like King Kong, dangerously unchecked and unbound.