Donald Trump’s Authoritarian Power-Grab: Due Process is For Wimps
There is a tendency among the punditocracy to dismiss President Trump's authoritarian rhetoric as nothing more than red meat for his worshipful base: passing Twitter tantrums or hyperbolic salesmanship. He's been doing it from the moment he announced his run for president, when he insulted Latino immigrants as rapists. It continued through the campaign as he endorsed torture, summary executions and banning Muslims from the country. His ongoing paeans to ruthless dictators from Russia's Vladimir Putin to the Philippines' Rodrigo Duterte to his recent love fest with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un appear to show a genuine admiration and respect for the most ruthless and violent tyrants on the planet.
Trump admires those men for their willingness and ability to mercilessly rule their countries with an iron fist. His most recent comment about Kim, for instance, even betrays a little envy:
Hey, he is the head of a country, and I mean he is the strong head. Don't let anyone think anything different. He speaks, and his people sit up at attention. I want my people to do the same.
He later said he was kidding, but it really didn't seem that way. He had absurdly stated a couple of days earlier that Kim's "country does love him, his people, you see the fervor. They have a great fervor." He was apparently unconcerned that the "fervor" is coerced under threat of imprisonment or death.
Trump plans to spend $30 million to try to create some of that fervor for himself next fall:
Trump was said to have loved North Korean state TV, commenting on how positive the female anchor was about Kim Jong-un. He told former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee last week that American media criticism of his summit meeting with Kim was "almost treasonous." That's not the first time he has suggested that failing to praise him adequately amounts to treason. When Democrats did not applaud his alleged achievements during the State of the Union address, he asked a rally crowd, "Can we call that treason? Why not?They certainly didn't seem to love our country very much."
This is a man who insisted that everyone always call him "Mr. Trump" when he was in business and always demanded strict formality, even among his family members. As president he routinely gathers his cabinet and other members of the government to sit around the big table and robotically extol his virtues. Recall this little pageant from his first cabinet meeting:
Then there's the downright bizarre order to create a new branch of government called the "Space Force" (against the advice and opinion of every one of his military advisers) and single-handedly upending the international order with a fatuous "philosophy" that the U.S. is running a protection racket and must be paid an ever-increasing ransom by countries who've been our allies since World War II. In these cases and many others, Trump is making unilateral moves without regard to any previous understandings or agreements, whether informal or subject to domestic and international law.
Over the last few months he has cast off anyone in the White House who might have attempted to rein in his worst impulses and is making decisions entirely by the seat of his pants. His authoritarian instincts are no longer just confined to the photo-ops. People around him who share those instincts are growing in influence, particularly senior adviser Stephen Miller, who drafted Trump's first executive order banning travelers from majority Muslim countries. Recall what Miller told John Dickerson on "Face the Nation" in February of 2017, when asked whether the White House had learned anything from the experience:
Well, I think that it's been an important reminder to all Americans that we have a judiciary that has taken far too much power and become, in many cases, a supreme branch of government. One unelected judge in Seattle cannot remake laws for the entire country. I mean this is just crazy, John, the idea that you have a judge in Seattle say that a foreign national living in Libya has an effective right to enter the United States is -- is -- is beyond anything we've ever seen before.
The end result of this, though, is that our opponents, the media and the whole world will soon see as we begin to take further actions, that the powers of the president to protect our country are very substantial and will not be questioned.
That too was laughed off at the time. He sounded like a North Korean general. No American could possibly take that seriously, right?
But after all the drama, all the turnover and all the Sturm und Drang of the past year and half, Miller is still there at the right hand of the president. He was obviously instrumental, along with his old boss Jeff Sessions and White House chief of staff John Kelly, in crafting the "zero-tolerance" border policy with all that has stemmed from it. And he's obviously whispering sweet somethings about unfettered presidential power in Trump's ears.
On Sunday the president tweeted this, sending shock waves though the media and the political system:
All this is more thought out than it seems. More than a month ago, Trump was telling Brian Kilmeade on "Fox & Friends" that he wanted to eliminate due process at the border:
How do you hire thousands of people to be a judge? So it's ridiculous, we're going to change the system. We have no choice for the good of our country. Other countries have what's called security people. People who stand there and say, "You can't come in." We have thousands of judges and they need thousands of more judges. The whole system is corrupt. It's horrible. ... Whoever heard of a system where you put people through trials? Where do these judges come from?
There is the U.S. Constitution, of course. And laws and international treaties and basic human decency. But Donald Trump does not respect of those things. He is essentially proposing that the Border Patrol and ICE should be allowed to deport anyone they want, since the whole reason for due process is to adjudicate the government's assertion of guilt. If there's no due process there's no way of knowing whether these "people who stand there and say you can't come in" are following the law themselves. Harvard professor Laurence Tribe, a scholar of constitutional law, told the New York Times:
Trump is making the tyrannical claim that he has the right to serve as prosecutor, judge and jury with respect to all those who enter our country. That is a breathtaking assertion of unbounded power — power without any plausible limit.
That's what Kim Jong-un has. Trump would like to have that too. Stephen Miller believes he already does, and that we will all soon see that "it will not be questioned." I don't think anyone should be laughing anymore. They aren't joking.