It was John Dalberg-Acton, 1st Baron Acton, who is responsible for the first quote that comes to mind this week. The baron died more than a hundred years ago, but one person will come to many minds as you read his words:
“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority, still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority.
We have a president who exercises both authority and power, absolute power if you read his tweets this week, not to mention his super-lawyer Rudy Giuliani’s comments about the hypothetical murder of former FBI Director James Comey. (Yes, the lawyer and much-celebrated former mayor of New York City remarked about the president’s power being so unlimited that he could literally get away with murder.)
Republicans were tripping over themselves to find some context for the suicidal statements emanating from the president and his lawyer, especially given the president’s careless timing of his tweets — the day before primary elections in much of America. His defenders alternately pointed out that it would indeed be political suicide for any president to pardon himself and that the president’s statement should be considered purely hypothetical, since of course he has done nothing for which he would need a pardon.
Help me here: If you’re not at any risk of needing a pardon, why in the world would you and your lawyer be out there talking about it? They raised the issue, not the press or the Democrats.
If Chuck Schumer, the Democratic leader in the Senate, had actually come out and said that this president considers himself above the law, with the right to pardon himself, Schumer would be bashed nonstop by the conservative talking heads for putting words in the president’s mouth.
Because who would ever actually say such things?
The answer, the obvious one, is that the only person who would say such things is a president who, thinking only of himself, is worried about possible criminal liability; and, it goes almost without saying, has no respect for the Constitution, the separation of powers or, most importantly, the rule of law.
Because if you believe in the rule of law, if you applaud the miracle of our constitutional democracy, then you cannot, even for a minute, buy into the notion that the president is above the law.
How many times have we learned this? Wasn’t Watergate (not just the break-in but the scandal-ridden operation of the Committee to Re-elect the President and its clear corruption through cash contributions) enough to make that clear? Wasn’t “the Saturday Night Massacre” (the night that Richard Nixon tried to fire special prosecutor Archibald Cox) enough to teach his successor that there is nothing that a special prosecutor can do that will be worse than what happens if you fire him?
The law, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes famously wrote, exists not to tell the good man what to do (the good man already knows) but to tell the bad man what he must not do, at the risk of punishment. Morality is not the issue; it is the prospect of punishment that deters the bad man, or the bad man in all of us, from breaking the law. If you really thought you could get away with murder, you might, in extreme situations, be tempted.
And what does it say about the president’s hatred (for it must be hatred) of James Comey that his lawyer would choose that example? A little too much, I fear.
Of course, a different kind of president wouldn’t be complaining to the Russians about the FBI director, wouldn’t be in war footing to try to discredit the FBI, would not show the contempt for the rule of law that this president wakes up with and takes to Twitter to express, unfiltered. It is terrible that this is how our president feels; and it is downright frightening that he sees no reason not to say it, loud and clear, on the day before an election.
What is he thinking? What is terrifying is that we know the answer. He thinks he has absolute power.