The Acquittal of Donald Trump Reflects the Unchecked Power of the Executive Branch
What a strangely ironic scene — a pompous Donald J. Trump presiding over his Feb. 4 State of the Union Reality Show Address in the same Senate chamber in which he had been tried for impeachment! The next day in that same Senate chamber, the Republicans acquitted him of all charges. Because the US Senate and the Republican Party are dominated by Trump sycophants, his acquittal was preordained. Any trial in which the defendant has complete control cannot result in a fair outcome. But the acquittal of Trump is also related to the unchecked growth of power in the executive branch that started after 9/11.
Despite the valiant and often eloquent arguments of the House managers, particularly team leader Rep. Adam Schiff, Trump’s impeachment trial was a sham from start to finish. Before the entire country, the president blatantly used the power of the executive branch to obstruct the Democratic process, thereby confirming the second Article of Impeachment on obstruction of Congress. Trump defied House subpoenas, refusing to allow witnesses or documents, including testimony from former National Security Adviser John Bolton, who in his soon to be released book describes first-hand evidence of Trump’s criminal behavior. According to Philip Bump of the Washington Post, “Bolton will describe how Trump did precisely what House Democrats allege: withholding aid to Ukraine until he got assistance with investigations that would benefit him politically.”
“‘You cannot be acquitted if you don’t have a trial. You don’t have a trial if you don’t have witnesses and documentation,’” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) tweeted Jan. 30, according to Jennifer Rubin of the Post. “‘If Republican Senators choose a cover-up, the American people and history will judge it with the harshness it deserves.’”
While some members of Trump’s legal defense team went for the full cover-up, others opted to at least partly acknowledge the president’s guilt. However, they argued that his actions did not reach the standard of impeachable behavior. In the most shocking defense, attorney Alan Dershowitz said Trump could do just about anything and not be impeached if he thought his action was in the public interest. “If a president does something which he believes will help him get elected, in the public interest, that cannot be the kind of quid pro quo that results in impeachment,” Dershowitz said, according to Matthew Daly, AP for the Washington Post. Dershowitz later claimed that the press had misinterpreted his remarks.
But Dershowitz and two Republicans who could have provided the votes to allow witnesses that might have led to the conviction of Trump, Sens. Lamar Alexander and Lisa Murkowski, believe that the behavior Alexander called “inappropriate” was not enough to remove Trump from office. To be clear, the Republicans defended Trump’s actions: his withholding of congressionally mandated military aid from Ukraine (an allied country at war with Russia) to pressure the Ukrainian president to investigate the Bidens, an action that would have benefited Trump’s reelection campaign. The Washington Post reported that according to OMB, withholding the aid violated the Impoundment Control Act, which is a crime.
A review of the president’s history as a businessman shows that criminal activity is business as usual for Trump. Jason Sattler of USA Today summarized numerous corrupt actions by Trump. He was even forced to “shut down his [“charitable”] foundation after New York state filed a lawsuit charging ‘extensive and persistent’ illegal conduct.”
In their new book, A Very Stable Genius, Donald J. Trump’s Testing of America, Pulitzer Prize winning reporters Philip Rucker and Carol Leonnig describe how Trump brought his corrupt practices into the White House. For example, during a 2017 conversation with several aides, Trump ordered then Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to “get rid of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.”
“‘It’s just so unfair that American companies aren’t allowed to pay bribes to get business overseas,’ Trump told the group. ‘We’re going to change that.’” Aides finally convinced Trump that it couldn’t happen.
However, up to now the corruption of Trump and his family members has paled in comparison to the crimes committed under the George W. Bush administration. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney ruthlessly and lawlessly expanded the war powers of the administration amidst the post-Sept. 11 hysteria gripping the country. Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and New York Times correspondent Charlie Savage describes their offenses in Power Wars, the Relentless Rise of Presidential Authority and Secrecy. The Bush-Cheney administration authorized CIA “interrogators to torture detainees in secret overseas prisons.” The Bush-Cheney White House also “declared that the Geneva Conventions did not protect wartime prisoners captured in Afghanistan, some of whom it held without trial at the American navy base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. It directed the National Security Agency to wiretap on domestic soil without court orders required by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.”
According to Savage, Bush and Cheney were “pushing in the direction of limiting the power of Congress and the courts, increasing government secrecy, and … concentrating more unchecked power in the upper levels of the executive branch.” But arguably the worst failing of the Bush-Cheney administration involved starting a war with Iraq based on lies and faulty intelligence, such as the notions that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, posed an imminent threat to the US, and had a connection with Al Qaeda, none of which were true. The war resulted in the deaths of thousands of US troops and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi soldiers and civilians. The war in Afghanistan and US occupation of that country were equally misguided.
But neither Bush nor Cheney were ever held accountable for what many considered to be war crimes. Why? Because in his first year in office, President Barack Obama denied calls for an investigation, which could have served as an important tool in revealing the truth.
Obama rejected “calls for a ‘truth commission’ to investigate Bush-era torture and surveillance programs, saying the country should look forward and not back.” Additionally, Obama’s Attorney General Erik Holder “declined to launch a criminal investigation into CIA torture techniques that the Bush Justice Department had approved as legal,” Savage reported.
Although Obama was a sharp critic of Bush and vowed to reverse the trend of increasing executive branch power, the United States was at war with terrorism in the forms of Al Qaeda and ISIS. Obama moved to stop violations of civil liberties that had happened under Bush, but he inherited a “vast expanse of presidential power” and had to figure out how to use it, Savage said.
“With a few notable exceptions, such as trying to close the door on torture, the Obama team did not end up dismantling the Bush-Cheney counter-terrorism architecture,” Savage reported. “Instead, they smoothed down its rougher edges and completed the process…of legalizing, normalizing, and thereby entrenching much of what Bush and Cheney had created lawlessly.”
In some areas, such as the “‘targeted killing’ operations with drone strikes, the Obama administration …went further than its predecessor.” ACLU Executive Director Anthony D. Romero complained to Savage that Obama had ‘“missed an opportunity’ to fundamentally reject the sort of policies and powers that the Bush administration put in place after 9/11.”
‘“Obama’s failure to rein in George Bush’s national security policies hands Donald Trump a fully loaded weapon,’” Romero told Savage. Into this milieu of greatly expanded executive power strode Trump, a man whose temperament, open admiration for despotism, & raw lust for power, posed a threat to the US & its standing in the world. Obama had a “respect for the judiciary” even when it disagreed with him and for the “rule of law.” Savage noted that “Trump displayed no such impulses.”
Like the giant people-eating plant in the Little Shop of Horrors, the executive branch has grown into a monster, and Donald Trump is more than ready to feed it, and his base, all the red meat they can handle. Now that the acquittal is a done deal, it’s up to us to defeat Trump in the 2020 election. It’s up to us to select a president that will be willing to curb the expansion of executive power and revive our badly wounded democracy.