Back when Donald Trump was running for president in 2016, Republican leaders claimed to believe that, as president, Mr. Trump would respect the rule of law. “I still believe we have the institutions of government that would restrain someone who seeks to exceed their constitutional obligations,” Senator John McCain said. “We have a Congress. We have the Supreme Court. We’re not Romania.”
Romania is looking pretty good these days. Freedom House, an organization that monitors political freedoms in countries around the world, has downgraded the United States to a score of 86 out of 100, just three points higher than Romania, and far below America’s erstwhile democratic peers like Britain and Germany. (The United States received a score of 94 in 2010.) Mr. Trump has both benefited from, and contributed to, this alarming decline.
But to give Mr. McCain his due, the president has not yet in a clear sense violated the laws or Constitution of the United States. He has blustered and threatened to break the law but always pulled back at the last minute in the most important cases. The president’s damage to the country has come through his poisoning of the public discourse with lies and insults; his efforts, largely unsuccessful, to direct criminal investigations against his enemies; his politically motivated manipulation of his office to enhance his standing at the expense of American foreign policy and the broader public interest; his appointment of hacks to high positions in government; and his terrible policy choices, including his neglect of the coronavirus pandemic. All of this was legal, alas, with the ambiguous exception of his (mostly unsuccessful) obstruction of criminal investigations of his aides.
All of which raises the question: What will happen if Mr. Trump is re-elected? John Bolton, hardly a member of the “Resistance,” has called his former boss a “danger for the republic” if re-elected. Will Mr. Trump in a second term finally burst the bounds of the Constitution as so many critics have predicted since he entered office in 2017?
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