He has shown that we need new laws to constrain a president who seeks unchecked power.

By Susan E. Rice

Ms. Rice is a former national security adviser.

President Trump at the White House last week.
President Trump at the White House last week.Credit…Anna Moneymaker for The New York Times

Desperate to salvage his presidency, Donald Trump is incitingracial violence by encouraging armed vigilantes to confront protesters angry over the killing and maiming of unarmed Black people by the police. The president is stoking civil conflict to distract voters from his failed leadership and strengthen his electoral prospects.

Deadly as it is, Mr. Trump’s latest tactic reflects his view of the presidency as the tool of one man. Rather than serve the people, Mr. Trump is trying to extend his time in office while undermining any constraints on his power.

Across the executive branch, Mr. Trump and his appointees have flouted long-honored norms and violated laws with relative impunity. They have succeeded largely because Senate Republicans have sacrificed oversight and accountability on the altar of subservience to this president so long as it preserves their majority control.

Under Donald Trump, the abuses have touched almost every corner of government, suggesting the president views democracy itself as his opponent.

Throughout the Republican National Convention, the president and senior officials blatantly violated the Hatch Act, which prohibits government officials from engaging in political activities on the job. From holding the event on White House grounds with cheering uniformed federal law enforcement officers in attendance, and staging a naturalization ceremony as a campaign event with participants used as unwitting political props, to his secretary of state violating departmental rules by delivering a campaign speech from Jerusalem, Mr. Trump has defiled the presidency for political gain.

Disdainful of the human consequences of the pandemic, Mr. Trump has demanded less testing, while the White House coronavirus task force recently pressured the C.D.C. to discourage testing asymptomatic persons exposed to the virus and to stop directly gathering critical data on Covid-related hospitalizations. Mr. Trump similarly bullied the F.D.A. administrator into hyping the benefits of convalescent plasma treatment and, potentially, rushing a European vaccine into use before completing standard Phase 3 trials in the United States.

Meanwhile, the State Department and numerous federal agencies routinely defy congressional subpoenas. Five departmental watchdogs have been fired for investigating accusations of administration malfeasance, while whistle-blowers like the Purple Heart recipient Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman and his brother have been harassed and denied promotions.

The commander in chief intervenes improperly in military justice, redeeming war criminals at the expense of discipline and unit cohesion. Mr. Trump’s Commerce Department has curtailed the census amid a pandemic in an apparent attempt to undercount poor and minority communities. His crony managers have kneecapped the Post Office to undermine mail-in voting.

The president has also corrupted the sacred powers designed to protect the American people and our national security.

Attorney General William Barr coordinated the deployment of federal forces to violently disperse peaceful protesters in Washington. The Department of Homeland Security sent armed forces to Portland, Ore., and other cities over the objections of local officials under the guise of maintaining law and order. Their actions predictably provoked heightened violence.

These abuses of federal authority are so extreme that Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, rightly felt compelled to pledge that the military will play no role in the election or its aftermath.

To bolster Mr. Trump’s false narrative that Russia did not interfere on his behalf in the 2016 election and is not doing so now, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence misleadingly conflated the role of Russia with that of China and Iran and has refused to provide further oral briefings on election issues to congressional intelligence committees.

In the same vein, the intelligence community has been preventedfrom providing to Congress the annual worldwide threats briefing after Mr. Trump objected to some of its elements in prior years.

Mr. Trump has used the Justice Department to spare convicted associates like Michael Flynn and Roger Stone and to concoct a labyrinth of lies accusing the Obama administration of committing “treason” by “spying” on the Trump campaign.

From 2016 to the present, he has repeatedly solicited foreign electoral interference from Russia, Ukraine and China to harm his opponents, and sought to conceal his actions.

Mr. Trump’s pervasive efforts to turn the state into his personal protectorate not only reek of autocracy, they are also deeply corrosive to America’s democracy and national unity.

The last time America had a president who grossly abused his office, Richard Nixon, the people responded by electing overwhelming majorities of the opposing party to both the House and Senate, in 1974. That Congress enacted sweeping reforms to curtail executive power, mandate transparency and constrain potential corruption of the presidency.

Many of the norms and laws that Mr. Trump has shown contempt for were born of that era. His fresh abuses underscore both the insufficiency of existing law and the failure to enforce adequately those rules that remain on the books.

The country needs a president and a Congress committed to enacting far-reaching reforms to plug the gaps in Watergate-era legislation. New laws must ensure that the coequal branches of government effectively constrain a president who seeks unchecked power. Enforcement cannot remain dependent on the executive branch policing itself or vulnerable to the complicity of the president’s party in Congress.

As a lifelong Democrat and a senior official in the Obama administration, naturally I’d like to see a Democrat in the White House. But far more is at stake in this election than political party.

The last four years have revealed the fragility of our democratic institutions and our overreliance on norms rather than enforceable law. If American democracy is to endure, we need to strip a future demagogue of the power to abuse the presidency.

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