Over the past few years, I’ve watched the vast majority of the Republican Party rally around President Trump. As the 2020 election heats up, I’ve even seen many staunch opponents of the president come over to endorse Trump for 2020, sometimes reluctantly and sometimes enthusiastically. This is something that I have a hard time understanding because the Donald Trump who is a candidate in 2020 is much worse than the Donald Trump who ran in 2016.
I confess that I wavered on my opposition to President Trump as well. During the first year of his presidency, he governed reasonably well even though I found plenty to disagree with, such as his decision to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Even though his focus seemed to be on Twitter rather than legislative competence, his heart often seemed to be in the right place. I appreciated his regulatory reform (courtesy of Mick Mulvaney), his pro-life Executive Orders, and his appointment of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. Even though he ultimately failed at repealing and reforming Obamacare, Republicans were able to pass much-needed corporate tax reform. At the same time, Trump’s worst instincts were tempered by advisors who were from a traditional Republican background, who persuaded him not to abandon NAFTA and NATO, for example, or the courts, which rejected the first versions of his “Muslim ban” Executive Order. Things were looking much better under Trump than I thought they would.
Then came 2018.
In 2018, Trump came into his own and his Administration’s policy became more inconsistent as Trump began to second-guess and push back against the advisors who had helped him, if not succeed then at least not fail, the previous year. Sometimes the traditional Republicans won, such as when the president was persuaded not to cut and run in Syria. Sometimes Trump won, as was the case when he launched a trade war on multiple fronts and embraced North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un with almost nothing to show for it. 2018 saw Trump attack America’s allies while siding with Vladimir Putin over the American intelligence community.
The nadir of Trump’s presidency (to date) occurred in the summer of 2018 with the policy of intentionally separating immigrant children from their parents, including families of legal asylum-seekers. The policy was so unpopular, even among Republicans, that Trump quickly issued an Executive Order reversing the practice, which had been implemented as a zero-tolerance policy by then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions in April. Despite the Executive Order, there are disturbing indications that family separations are still taking place on a smaller scale and some families still have not been reunited. Interestingly, CBS News reported that 80 percent of reunited families were released rather than deported, begging the question of why the separations were necessary in the first place.
Immigration also figured heavily in the 2018 elections. After the battle over Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court, the midterm election suddenly looked winnable for Republicans. Rather than focusing on the economy or Democratic extremism, however, President Trump chose to make the Republican final appeal to voters a somewhat xenophobic argument against migrant caravans and illegal immigration. The strategy resulted in the loss of the House of Representatives, but Republicans managed to increase their margin in the Senate thanks to a favorable map in which many red state Democrats were up for re-election. Nevertheless, Republicans lost several winnable Senate races and saw the erosion of their support in suburbs around the country.
2018 was also the year in which the men who had restrained President Trump in his first year all fell by the wayside. After the departure of such underwhelming appointees as Mike Flynn and Steve Bannon in 2017, the seasoned experts were sent packing in 2018. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was first to go in March, later tacitly confirming reports that he had called the president a “moron.”
In an interview with Bob Schieffer, Tillerson described Trump as someone who is “pretty undisciplined, doesn’t like to read, doesn’t read briefing reports, doesn’t like to get into the details of a lot of things, but rather just kind of says, ‘This is what I believe.’”
“So often, the president would say, ‘Here's what I want to do and here's how I want to do it.’ And I would have to say to him, ‘Mr. President, I understand what you want to do, but you can't do it that way. It violates the law,’” Tillerson added. This is a troubling insight into the mind of a president who is increasingly ignoring his advisors to follow his own instincts.
Before the end of the year, two more of President Trump’s most senior and respected advisors were shown the door. Both Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Chief of Staff John Kelly, once proudly referred to by Trump as “my generals,” left the Trump Administration in December 2018. Mattis’ made public his resignation letter, a polite yet blistering document that excoriated Trump’s foreign policy worldview. The Atlantic recently reported that Mattis’ closing words to the president were, “You’re going to have to get the next secretary of defense to lose to ISIS. I’m not going to do it.”
However, it has been 2019 that has so far been the worst for conservatives who respect the rule of law. This year was ushered in with the government shutdown that began in December 2018. Unlike previous government shutdowns, the Trump shutdown was not intended to cut spending; it was intended to increase the federal budget as President Trump demanded that Congress appropriate money for his border wall. However, as with previous shutdowns, the Trump shutdown also ended ignominiously. At 35 days, the shutdown was the longest in US government history and achieved precisely nothing except embarrassment for the Administration.
The president’s capitulation on the shutdown led directly to his next affront to the rule of law: the national emergency on the border. President Trump’s declaration of a national emergency was a blatant attempt to bypass Congress rather than attempting to compromise with the opposition party. After passing up at least three border deals with Democrats, the president decided to use the emergency declaration to force his will on the legislature.
No constitutionalist should back such as obvious ploy to subvert the role of Congress. David French ably pointed out the legal flaws to the plan, but there are logical flaws as well. Almost two decades have passed since September 11, 2001, with no firm evidence that Islamic terrorists have ever tried to cross the porous southern border. At the time of the national emergency declaration, illegal border crossings from Mexico were at a 50-year low. Despite Trump Administration claims, there was also no epidemic of violence from immigrants, either legal or illegal. Immigrants, even the illegal ones, are statistically less likely to commit violent crimes than native-born Americans and border counties had some of the lowest crime rates in the country. Six times as many suspected terrorists were captured crossing the border from Canada than from Mexico.
There is also the matter of the Mueller report. While Mr. Mueller did not find a criminal conspiracy involving President Trump, he did find evidence of attempted obstruction of justice by the president. Mr. Trump’s defenders ignore the fact that Mueller specifically cited the Justice Department policy that the president cannot be indicted in deciding not to make a judgment as to whether Trump broke the law.
In claiming “no obstruction,” President Trump’s defenders also gloss over the fact that the president was saved from successfully obstructing justice by subordinates who ignored his orders. The Mueller report cited ten instances where President Trump ordered members of his administration to obstruct the Russia investigation. Fortunately, Mr. Trump’s appointees were more trustworthy than the president himself. Unfortunately, as we inch toward a possible second Trump Administration, many of those trusted officials are no longer in the White House.
It is the revelations of 2019 that truly disqualify Trump and even make impeachment a legitimate course of action. While Trump has engaged in bad policies such as the one-sided détente with North Korea or the trade war against the rest of the world or the looming trillion-dollar deficit, it is his subversion of the Constitutional role of Congress and his general untrustworthiness with power as revealed by the Mueller report that are the most serious marks against the president. Since successful impeachment is politically impossible with Republicans in control of the Senate, it is up to voters send a message that President Trump’s abuses of executive power and lack of respect for the law will not be tolerated.
President Trump’s worst excesses relate to his abuses of executive power and the failure of Republicans in Congress to hold him accountable. President Trump’s statement in July 2019 that, “I have an Article 2, where I have the right to do whatever I want as president,” should strike terror into the hearts of conservatives and libertarians. This is especially true as White House officials with the strength to say “no” become increasingly rare.
The abuses of a second-term Trump would be worse. As we’ve seen, many of the responsible members of the Trump Administration have been shown the exit and the president, more confident after three years in office, is less likely to listen to those who remain. If Donald Trump is rewarded with a second-term, his behavior will be even more reminiscent of Barack Obama, who famously whispered to then-Russian President Dmitri Medvedev that he would have “more flexibility” after winning his second election. The prospect of President Trump, who has already surpassed President Obama’s abuses of executive authority, with more flexibility should be disquieting to any constitutionalist. This is especially true in light of the president’s increasingly unhinged behavior over the past few weeks.
There are many reasons that I can’t support President Trump’s reelection effort. As a conservative, I disagree with much of his policy, particularly with respect to the trade war and international relations. I don’t like Trump’s divisive politics or his tendency to embrace top-down, big-government solutions. Further, I have the same concerns about Trump’s mental and moral fitness to lead that I had four years ago.
But, by far, the worst part is the president’s disregard for the rule of law. In his first term, we learned that Donald Trump has no qualms about issuing illegal orders or violating the constitutional order. If he is re-elected after having suffered no meaningful consequences for his abuses of power and with Republicans standing staunchly behind him, Mr. Trump will return to the well of executive overreach again and again over the next four years. Conservatives should act to stop him before he does.
Originally posted on The Resurgent