After Richard Nixon resigned from office in the wake of the Watergate scandal, the Congress set out to create numerous reforms designed to rein in future presidents. After all, Nixon had set forth a view of the presidency that was downright un-American: “If the president does it it’s not illegal,” essentially saying that no law can apply to the executive branch.
The legal system had worked, up to a point. Twenty-two members of the Nixon administration were convicted of crimes pertaining to Watergate. Most of them did time in prison, including the White House chief of staff and the attorney general. Nixon himself was guilty of numerous crimes but was never tried for any of them because he was pardoned by his successor, Gerald Ford. But much of what Nixon did wasn’t illegal. It was unethical, immoral and totally disrespectful of any and all norms of decent leadership. It turns out that those kinds of transgressions are even harder to check than rank criminality.
There were committee investigations, such as the Church Committee in the Senate and the Pike Committee in the House which delved deeply into the intelligence community’s abuses, resulting in the permanent select committees on intelligence in each chamber. Later reforms required the president to inform congressional leaders of both parties prior to major covert actions, and for leaders of the CIA to regularly brief the committees.
Unfortunately, those reforms were of limited utility. The Iran-Contra scandal and the pardons that followed mocked the idea of intelligence oversight. The CIA black sites and torture program program during the George W. Bush administration pretty much destroyed the illusion that Congress had any control over the intelligence services. Throughout this period, the War Powers Act, which was enacted over Nixon’s veto in the first place, has been a joke. As for campaign finance and ethics reforms, well, those were nice ideas. The Supreme Court took care of the first with the Citizens United ruling, and the second turns out to be almost entirely dependent on a sense of shame — a thing that turns out to be easily discarded.
And yet, for all of that, no one has come close to abusing the power of the presidency as Donald Trump has done. He didn’t do it on his own. Yes, his personal inclination has been to treat the government as his private fiefdom, demanding loyalty oaths, conducting purges and using the office for his personal profit. But people such as Attorney General Bill Barr and others in right-wing legal circles who were politically baptized by Nixon’s downfall have used Trump’s authoritarian instincts to institute the “imperial presidency” that Nixon once espoused.
When Trump says “I have an Article II that says I can do anything I want,” he didn’t get that idea from reading the Constitution. He has obviously never done that, and wouldn’t understand it anyway. He has been told this by people who believe very strongly in unaccountable presidential power: “If the president does it, it’s not illegal.” Barr’s covering for Trump’s obstruction of justice in the Mueller probe, the White House refusal to cooperate with Congress, the assertion of novel rationales that render oversight null and void and the Department of Justice claiming that personal cases against Trump come under the rubric of presidential immunity, among many other instances are not just exercises in Trumpian corruption. They are assertions of executive power way beyond anything that Nixon, Reagan or Bush ever thought of.
That’s not Trump. It’s a Republican power grab, and it’s just one of many we’ve seen coming from the right in recent years. This authoritarian strain of thought has been with us at least since the Nixon era and it’s metastasizing.
I wrote the other day that should the Democrats win the presidency and the Senate they must take the necessary step of expanding the Supreme Court. There has also been considerable discussion about getting rid of the Senate filibuster and granting statehood to Washington, D.C. These ideas and others are starting to make people nervous.
The Washington Post published an essay by Harvard historian and New Yorker staff writer Jill Lepore this past weekend in which she argues against one of the ideas percolating on the left: that a “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” is needed to examine what happened during the Trump administration. This idea stems from the suspicion that the law will not adequately deal with a corrupt former president and his accomplices. I suspect that many people believe that our system is so damaged at this point that Congress will be unable to properly handle the task of unraveling this disaster and putting it right. So something like a truth and reconciliation commission comes into play since that would make it possible for the truth to come out, even if no legal penalties for the abuses that took place are likely or possible. At least we would know.
Lepore doesn’t think the situation is grave enough for that. Trump can be dealt with by journalists and historians; Congress will carry on with passing legislation. But as you can see, we’ve been dealing with this for more than 40 years and it’s just getting worse and worse.
Donald Trump has turned 40% of the country into his private cult. The Republican Party has become radical, corrupt and power-mad and America is now seen as a rogue superpower around the world, unpredictable and dangerous. We’re being tested by foreign adversaries and we don’t seem to be able to respond. The nation’s economic situation is dire and nearly a quarter of a million people have died in the last eight months because our system is so broken. The racial injustice at the heart of our society has become too much to bear.
Journalism and history, in Lepore’s view, are going to keep us tethered to the truth? There is an entire right-wing information ecosystem based on lies and fantasy. We live in an age where tens of millions of people live in an alternate reality, believing that the Democratic Party is run by a Satanic pedophile cult and that John F. Kennedy Jr. is coming back from the dead to help Donald Trump save the children.
We are in very big trouble.
Our immediate survival depends upon electing new leadership — that much is true. Our democracy is under stress but it may not yet be so damaged that we can’t make that happen. But whether it’s a truth and reconciliation commission or a “presidential crimes commission” made up of independent prosecutors, as Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., has suggested, or some other mechanism by which we document what has happened and attempt to hold people accountable, we need something. Otherwise I’m afraid we’ll just let it all slide out into the ether as if nothing happened at all. Until it happens again.
For more than 40 years the U.S. has been heading down this path, sometimes pushed back by various institutions that were designed in the wake of Watergate to keep it from going too far. But those institutions have been failing for a while and I don’t think we can survive another onslaught, especially if someone smarter than Donald Trump comes along and picks up the the tools that Bill Barr and others have provided them. The Democrats must do their duty and deal with this now.