When Donald Trump Is the Law

Guess who benefits?

Credit…Illustration by Michael Houtz; Photographs by Getty Images


“I’m actually, I guess, the chief law enforcement officer of the country,” President Trump said on Tuesday.

The alarming thing is that he’s right. The nation’s founders put the president in charge of the executive branch, which is tasked with enforcing the law. That is a remarkably broad power, and it can be easily abused. So it’s worth asking: What does Donald Trump understand the law to be?

Well before the events of the past week, Mr. Trump supplied a pretty good idea: The law is something that applies to his adversaries, not to himself or his friends. He regularly turned to the courts to harass and intimidate employees, critics and contractors. But when it has come to his own perceived advantage — whether he was violating federal fair-housing laws to keep black renters out of his apartment buildings, playing shady games with his tax returns, sexually assaulting women, defrauding students of his “university,” raiding his own charity, buying the silence of alleged mistresses on the eve of an election, running his global business empire out of the White House, or thwarting the will of Congress by using foreign aid to advance his re-election — Mr. Trump has always seen the law as just another set of rules to be bent, if not broken.

Americans, meet your chief law enforcement officer.

Richard Nixon infamously declared, “When the president does it, that means that it is not illegal.”


Nixon’s attempts to take the law into his own hands proved too much for the Republic to bear, and after he was driven from office, subsequent presidents embraced laws and practices intended to honor the principle of justice for all by insulating federal law enforcement from political pressure. Those checks have largely worked, until now. President Trump, abetted by supine Republicans in Congress, is now undermining the fair application of justice as Nixon did, in similar, and in some cases, more egregious ways.

Mr. Trump has claimed that the Constitution gives him “the right to do whatever I want.” His lawyers have argued in a federal case involving his tax returns that a sitting president cannot even be investigated. They have also, in a head-spinning assertion of executive authority, dismissed any efforts by Congress to hold the president and the executive branch accountable — even in an impeachment inquiry — as “constitutionally invalid.”

On Tuesday, the president granted clemency to a rogues’ gallery of, well, rogues — including the former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich (extorting a children’s hospital and trying to sell a Senate seat), the disgraced junk-bond trader Michael Milken (multiple counts of tax and securities fraud) and the former New York City police commissioner Bernard Kerik (tax fraud and lying to the government).

The White House claimed that Mr. Trump’s mercy reflected his deep concern with excessive criminal sentences. If so, he has an interesting way of showing it. The American justice system is rife with examples of inequity, but being too tough on white-collar criminals is not among them.

This air of monarchical impunity has colored many of Mr. Trump’s actions as president, but especially in the last several days. Before his grants of clemency, he brazenly tried to interfere in the criminal sentencing of his longtime crony and fixer, Roger Stone, who was convicted last year of lying to Congress, obstructing justice and intimidating a witness. After federal prosecutors sought a sentence of seven to nine years, which was within the sentencing guidelines’ range, Mr. Trump demanded that Mr. Stone receive a lighter sentence — which Attorney General William Barr then requested. Mr. Trump has since personally attacked the prosecutors, the federal judge and the jury forewoman on the case.

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