Donald Trump and his management of the rule of law

This bellicosity has given rise to the narrative that Trump is not just lawless, but a dictator.

A PROTESTER holds a sign outside the US Supreme Court in Washington last Wednesday. (photo credit: JONATHAN ERNST / REUTERS)
A PROTESTER holds a sign outside the US Supreme Court in Washington last Wednesday.
(photo credit: JONATHAN ERNST / REUTERS)
The Supreme Court ruled last week that a New York prosecutor may seek President Trump’s personal financial documents. The decision was a resounding affirmation that this president – like all presidents before him – is not above the law. But this president, in particular, has a uniquely dysfunctional relationship with the rule of law.
Let’s start with his lack of understanding. When it comes to the rule of law, Trump simply does not know the rules. Take his assertion that his “authority” over state governments to address the coronavirus “is total.” This, of course, turns the most basic rule of federalism – that states have central authority over their citizens’ health and safety – on its head.
That’s not to say he’s unfamiliar with the legal system. To the contrary, his companies have been the subject of extensive litigation, he has been divorced twice, and he has gone bankrupt numerous times. When it comes to how the executive branch fits into the rest of our constitutional system, however, Trump was essentially starting from scratch the day he was inaugurated.
And it showed.
One of his first acts as president was to issue the blatantly unconstitutional Executive Order 13769 (the “travel ban”), seeking to prevent millions of Muslims from entering the country. After public outrage and internal protest at the Department of Justice – culminating in Trump firing then-acting attorney-general Sally Yates – Trump abruptly replaced the travel ban with a revised version.
It was downhill from there. The Trump team has since been mired in one legal trouble after another, including the Mueller investigation, numerous indictments, the convictions of Trump’s personal lawyer Michael Cohen, campaign chairman Paul Manafort, and longtime political adviser Roger Stone – to name a few – and ultimately Trump’s own impeachment.
Trump has, moreover, cast aside basic norms governing presidential communications about legal matters. For example, he has used Twitter to belittle his own attorney-general, weigh in on ongoing federal court cases, make baseless accusations of criminal behavior, advocate for prosecutions of his political rivals, criticize the DOJ’s line prosecutors, and intimidate witnesses in active matters.
This bellicosity has given rise to the narrative that Trump is not just lawless, but a dictator who has hijacked our constitutional system. As Rep. Jerry Nadler put it, “He is a dictator” and “Only his will goes.”
According to Kurt Bardella, a USA Today columnist, Trump has turned “the presidency into a dictatorship” and “stripped away the levers of independent oversight until there’s nothing left.”
Even Nobel laureate Paul Krugman recently warned that “authoritarian rule may be just around the corner.”
While rooted in legitimate concern, this narrative is confused. Trump is no dictator. For a president to seize power in our zero-sum constitutional system, he must outwit those who currently have it – namely, the other two branches of the federal government and the states. The opposite occurs with Trump: Federal judges repeatedly rule against him; John McCain destroyed his healthcare ambitions; Nancy Pelosi blocked his legislative agenda; Adam Schiff had him impeached. Even Trump’s own executive branch subjected him to the multi-year Mueller investigation.
State and local governments likewise do not bend to Trump’s will. He quickly rescinded his claim of total authority over the states regarding the coronavirus – after strong public pushback from numerous governors – and retreated back to offering states advisory guidelines. Even local mayors routinely defy his executive orders regarding sanctuary cities.
These things don’t happen to dictators. Real dictators consolidate power and effectively craft and utilize the rule of law to advance considered aims. In striking contrast, Donald Trump’s goals consistently get blocked by virtually every instrumentally of his own government. Yesterday’s Supreme Court opinion is just the latest example.

The writer is an American attorney and syndicated columnist who opines on American politics and has written for The Wall Street Journal, Baltimore Sun, New York Daily News, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, USA Today and dozens of other newspapers.