Trump’s presidency has exposed the weakness of the legal checks and balances meant to keep the president accountable, for many of them are simply norms with little legal force behind them.
Be it life, sports or politics, when one nears the end of the final spell, one thinks of the legacy, for the last stretch leaves a lasting impression in the public memory. President Donald Trump, however, cares just as much about legacy as he cared about propriety during his term. Probably he knows he would be remembered just as much for a graceless exit from the office as his egomaniacal rants; packing of the oversight offices with loyalists; divisive dog whistles to white supremacists; instigating racial unrest; and an utterly unpresidential presidency, infested with corrupt practices blatantly serving the personal and financial interests of the president. Not only has Trump’s presidency proved that a person completely unworthy of the office can become the President of the United States, but has also laid bare weaknesses that lay undetected only because the past presidents were far more presidential than Trump had the inclination to be, as he once admitted rather casually.
An utterly unpresidential presidency, infested with corrupt practices blatantly serving the personal and financial interests of the president.
Deliberate Tax Opacity
Jimmy Carter onwards, all presidents have kept their businesses and assets separate from the business of governing the country so that impartiality and public service was reflected in the functions of their office. Not Trump. He made his presidency a money-minting machine that coughed up over $2.5 million in expenses to his businesses. Not only does it seem grossly inappropriate, but also smacks of illegality. However, despite being against all presidential norms, it is way short of illegal because presidents are exempt from the rules pertaining to conflict of interest that govern other federal officials though all previous presidents have acted as though the rules governed them just as well as other federal personnel. Trump, on the other hand, cared little for the illegal, let alone inappropriate, and much less “unpresidential”.
But then, when did President Trump ever want to be presidential in the least? ““I always said, it’s much easier to be ‘presidential’ than to do what I do…. I’m more presidential if I wanted to be, but I got to get things done,” he said. “I don’t have enough time…. I can be more presidential than any president in our history — with the possible exception of Abraham Lincoln when he wore the hat. That was tough to beat,” Trump had said in his characteristic way steeped in vainglorious flamboyance. Trump kept enriching himself with taxpayers’ money just because it had crossed nobody’s mind that there could be a president as shameless and of as light a moral constitution as to take commercial advantage of his or her presidency. In short, no imagination could conjure up as morally wanting a President as America’s 45th. Does that excuse not having a legal and constitutional safeguard against having such a president? No.
Since Richard Nixon’s public disclosure of his tax returns in 1974 in his defense against allegations of tax evasion in 1973 with respect to the tax returns filed by Nixon between 1968 and 1972, every president barring Trump — and only Trump — has made public his tax returns for anybody to see in the interest of transparency. “People have got to know whether or not their President is a crook. Well, I am not a crook,” Nixon had said in relation to the tax scandal, which relation is generally but erroneously thought to have been with regard to the Watergate scandal. Trump obviously did not agree with Nixon on that, for he refused to disclose his tax details citing the on-going audit despite that an audit places no such bar.
Trump has considered himself an unlimited president with absolute power and no checks. “When somebody is the President of the United States, the authority is total,” said Trump with total certainty. The concept of checks and balances made no sense to him. He took the “pleasure of the President” literally and stretched it as much and as far as he could manage. Trump dismissed as many as five inspector generals in a short span, compromising the crucial post-Watergate reform introduced in 1978 to keep a tab on fraud, waste and abuse at the highest level of the government.
Watch: Trump says “When somebody is president of the United States, the authority is total
Trump has had no tolerance for checks of any kind, and to keep a check was the primary function of the watchdog offices, creating a ready conflict. So whenever any of the inspector generals did anything to displease the president, it resulted in the irritant official’s departure, resulting in the removal or firing of the greatest number of inspector generals by any president. Mostly, the officials invited presidential ire for acting competently rather than incompetently or wrongfully.
Trump has had no tolerance for checks of any kind, and to keep a check was the primary function of the watchdog offices, creating a ready conflict.
For instance Michael Atkinson, inspector general for the intelligence community, was removed for his handling of a whistleblower’s complaint regarding Trump’s suspicious dealings with Ukraine, the resultant inquiry into which led to the initiation of impeachment proceedings against Trump. Atkinson was fired because Trump “no longer” had the “fullest confidence” in him, and had the “absolute right” to remove Atkinson. It was clearly a retaliation, as was the removal of Chrisi Grimm, the acting inspector general for Health and Human Services, after she reported “severe” shortage of testing supplies and “widespread shortages of PPE” in the hospitals dealing with coronavirus cases.
The removal of the watchdogs that are supposed to keep the possible excesses of the presidency in check, and the replacement of the uncomfortable officials with Trump loyalists with barely sufficient credentials to credibly hold the positions displayed Trump’s desire to lord over unquestioned, like an absolute monarch, but it also exposed a major flaw in the system of accountability. If the ones tasked to keep the president in line are appointed and removed by the president, how reliably can they perform their task anyway? Trump’s being a shameless abuser of power is not the only problem here; not even the one requiring a solution as urgently as the problem of the prisoners controlling the guards, as it were.
Meddling With The Department Of Justice
Trump has rarely — if ever, or in the least — cared for the independence of the institutions, or propriety. To his mind, if he thought someone was not guilty, he or she wasn’t; and if he thought the investigation was not needed, it wasn’t, even if it was only because an inquiry could reveal inconvenient truths about Trump himself. Trump did not even care much about looking above board, let alone being, which came hurtling into plain view when he started meddling with the Department of Justice (DOJ) in respect of the on-going investigations.
Trump forced Attorney General Jeff Sessions to resign when Sessions recused himself from an inquiry into the alleged Russian interference in the 2016 presidential elections. “Dear Mr President, at your request I am submitting my resignation,” he had written in a letter to the president, making it known that he had not chosen to resign. That Trump was not happy with his recusal was also just as plain, for Trump had himself said in an interview with the New York Times in 2017, “Sessions should have never recused himself, and if he was going to recuse himself, he should have told me before he took the job and I would have picked somebody else.”
If Trump had nothing to hide, and an investigation into the Russia connection was nothing but “the greatest political witch hunt in history”, as he had repeatedly called it, how did it matter who conducted the inquiry, or who was the Attorney General? Why would the president pick “somebody else”, if the first choice was prepared to recuse himself or herself on the grounds of conflict of interest so as to keep the inquiry above board? Would the president rather want his handpicked to be in a position of influence with regard to an inquiry in which the president himself was an interested party? Trump hardly left any doubt that he would gladly have all allegations of impropriety swept under the carpet or summarily rejected by his appointees, even if a visibly biased investigation leaves its credibility in tatters. What’s scary is that he did not have much in his way, legally speaking.
Trump’s presidency has exposed the weakness of the legal checks and balances meant to keep the president accountable, for many of them are simply norms with little legal force behind them, or semi-autonomous institutions, and can be easily ignored by a president with such autocratic tendencies as Trump’s. It might be a good time to seal the loopholes before another Trump walks in to throw his weight around.