The anniversary of Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination has long served as a stark reminder of all that was lost on that day in 1968, and of what American politics might have become had the New York senator survived that turbulent year. Wednesday’s 50th anniversary of the tragedy saw a deluge of tributes remembering a man both haunted by history and driven by the vision of an America redeemed.
Esquire’s Charles Pierce this week describes Kennedy as a man uniquely capable of standing against the “foul gales” that were then rising in American politics. Pierce believes, as do I, that Kennedy’s election to the presidency could have healed a nation pushed to a breaking point by a cacophony of cultural tremors. Despite campaigning against the bleak backdrop of Vietnam, torched American cities, heightened racial tensions and political assassinations, RFK would have stitched together the shredded fabric of American culture and healed the soul of a country that remains, as Pierce writes, “perpetually redeemable.”
In a new book, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Jon Meacham reminds readers of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s belief that for all of this country’s failings, the trend of American civilization is forever upward. That is an invaluable reminder during a time when the president proclaims his power unrestrained by Madisonian checks and balances, including ignoring federal subpoenas, killing Justice Department investigations, obstructing justice to protect his personal interests and even pardoning himself. The president’s hapless lawyers seem to have convinced Donald Trump, like Richard M. Nixon before him, that “when the president does it, that means that it is not illegal.”
But that twisted interpretation of presidential authority is dead wrong. Even in President Trump’s America, no man is above the law.
It may come as little relief to those unsettled by the commander in chief’s autocratic impulses that this president will likely face the same fate as Nixon if he acts upon his lawyers’ ignorant legal opinions. But perhaps take comfort from Meacham’s insight in “The Soul of America” that “to know what has come before is to be armed against despair.”
History does, in fact, show that a president cannot pardon himself. Days before Nixon resigned in 1974, the Justice Department issued an opinion that echoed centuries of American and English law by declaring, “Under the fundamental rule that no one may be a judge in his own case, the president cannot pardon himself.“
The history of Bill Clinton’s presidency also undermines recent claims from Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani that Trump is legally entitled as president to ignore a subpoena from Robert S. Mueller III. But do not take my word for it. Read instead Giuliani’s own words from 1998. “You gotta do it. I mean, you don’t have a choice,” the former U.S. attorney said of Clinton’s legal options if he received a federal subpoena to testify to Whitewater investigators.
Other claims of unchecked presidential authority by Trump and his lawyers are so preposterous that they warrant little discussion here. What Time magazine describes as the White House’s “increasingly broad claims of presidential impunity” would likely be struck down in a unanimous opinion by the Supreme Court. And even Trump’s most timid quislings on Capitol Hill would never suggest (like Giuliani) that Trump could have murdered former FBI director James B. Comey and escape indictment as long as he was in office. Perhaps there are constitutional excesses that even Trump apologists will not yield to in their unending efforts to defend Trump.
On the same day Americans marked a half-century since Kennedy’s death, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) defended the FBI investigation into Trump’s campaign and told reporters that no man is above the law. Ryan’s performance may have met only the bare-minimum standard for political courage. But as one who still sees America as perpetually redeemable, forgive me for believing this president’s worst instincts will be checked, our country’s rule of law will be preserved and the upward arc of American civilization that FDR once spoke of will again be restored.