For the best part of 2-3 years, Trump has been accused of being authoritarian, of mimicking a banana republic dictator, and idolising the prominent “strong men” in world politics. He makes no secret of his respect for leaders like Putin, Chinese President Xi Jinping, and Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan.
He frequently discredits and dismisses the news media if they refuse to agree with them, has mused on Twitter about revoking licenses (although this is admittedly rather vague), and has openly declared that any negative news about himself or his administration is ‘fake news’.
He proposed a registry of immigrants in the country, asked Congress for a military parade to celebrate his achievements after pumping more money into the military budget, and almost provoked an international incident on Twitter by promising ‘fire and fury’.
He gave away intelligence secrets to the Russian President in a closed meeting and discussed America having a ‘President for life’ in a press conference with the Chinese President.
He flat out refuses to do solo press conferences, has fired unprecedented numbers of senior staff in his own administration, appointed judges with little to no experience, and cabinet members who have given hundreds of millions of dollars to the Republican Party (see Betsy Devos).
Now for a country that often considers itself to be the greatest democracy in the world, the greatest democratic experiment seen in history (and the most successful one), these are troubling moments.
However, until now, there was a shred of doubt remaining as to whether Trump saw himself as the true king of America. A leaked memo written by Trump’s legal team and a rather scary tweet have lifted the veil that seemed to be hiding Trump’s most authoritarian thoughts to date.
Trump’s newest addition to his legal team, Rudy Giuliani, told ABC News’s “This Week” that the president “probably” does have the power to issue himself a pardon, but warned that it would spark political backlash.
“I think the political ramifications of that would be tough. Pardoning other people is one thing. Pardoning yourself is another,” Giuliani said.
But these comments were quickly expanded upon by Trump, declaring his right to pardon himself, even though he has done nothing wrong.
Bloomberg reporter Steven Dennis pointed out, that wasn’t the case during President Richard Nixon’s time in office. “Under the fundamental rule that no one may be a judge in his own case, the president cannot pardon himself,” the Department of Justice declared in 1974. The DOJ spelled it out just four days before Nixon resigned, explaining that the president’s pardoning power “does not extend to the president himself.”
His legal team argued in a leaked memo to the special counsel Robert Mueller, that as President of the United States, Trump is the head of any and all investigations by the federal government or related bodies and thus has the power to shut any investigation down at any point he wishes. The memo reads:
“Indeed, the President not only has unfettered statutory and Constitutional authority to terminate the FBI Director, he also has Constitutional authority to direct the Justice Department to open or close an investigation, and, of course, the power to pardon any person before, during, or after an investigation and/or conviction. Put simply, the Constitution leaves no question that the President has exclusive authority over the ultimate conduct and disposition of all criminal investigations and over those executive branch officials responsible for conducting those investigations.”
The framers had just escaped the monarchy of King George III when writing the constitution and they were keen to avoid any US leader echoing the power of a king they fought to oppose. George Mason outlined one of the key concepts of Constitution, that no man be above the law:
“Shall any man be above Justice? Shall any man be above Justice? Above all shall that man be above it, who can commit the most extensive injustice?”
This is the very thing that Trump is now attempting to ensure – that he is above justice and investigation. He is, at the behest of his legal team, avoiding any interview with Robert Mueller as they fear he may say something incriminating or be trapped into making false or contradictory statements.
By Trump’s own argument, not only could he now shoot someone in the middle of 5th Avenue and not lose any supporters, he could also avoid being investigated or prosecuted for it. That is terrifying.