You're tired of White House news — but the Constitution needs you to keep caring

You're tired of White House news — but the Constitution needs you to keep caring
© UPI Photo

America is exhausted, desensitized and even disinterested in hearing about the incessant tsunami of chaos coming from the top echelons of government. It’s overwhelming — not to mention scary — and the human brain prefers simplicity to complexity. But this is no time for complacency and surrender. 

This is not a partisan, blue-versus-red issue anymore. It’s about honoring those who fought and died for our freedoms and preserving those freedoms for our children.

Back in July, the New York Times published a handy graphic listing the 29 pending investigations of all-things-Trump, including over 10 federal criminal investigations, eight state and local investigations by attorneys general and state financial agencies, and 11 congressional investigations. 

ADVERTISEMENT

The increasing number of probes cover his businesses, his campaign and his presidency. Skeptics might call it all a “witch hunt,” but where there’s smoke there’s fire — particularly when it comes to investigations by a spectrum of career officials at all levels of government.

Which leads one to ask of President TrumpDonald John TrumpSenate gears up for battle over witnesses in impeachment trial Vulnerable Democrats tout legislative wins, not impeachment Trump appears to set personal record for tweets in a day MORE critics: Where’s the outrage? Where’s the oversight? Where are the protests in the streets? The latest — and potentially devastating — tidbit comes from President Trump’s own lawyer, Rudy GiulianiRudy GiulianiConservative group hits White House with billboard ads: 'What is Trump hiding?' Senate confirms Trump's Russia ambassador Prosecutors ask judge to revoke Giuliani associate Lev Parnas's bail MORE, who told CNN that “of course” he asked Ukraine to do opposition research on one of Trump’s competitors for the presidency, former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenSenate gears up for battle over witnesses in impeachment trial Conservative group hits White House with billboard ads: 'What is Trump hiding?' Democrat representing Pennsylvania district Trump carried plans to vote to impeach  MORE and his family.

To make matters worse, what began as a whistleblower complaint about a series of concerning episodes within the executive branch has turned into a full-scale separation of powers showdown.

The law is clear that Acting Director of National Intelligence (DNI) Joseph Maguire is compelled by a federal statute to share the complaint with Congress. In fact, the handoff should have happened seven days after Maguire received it. The law is unequivocal. Yet, he refused. 

The problem with tolerating such in-your-face tactics from agency bureaucrats is structural, not political. Rules like these are passed by Congress to keep everyday Americans safe and secure. Congress is how “We the People” govern ourselves.

ADVERTISEMENT

Congress decided, in this instance, that the DNI needs to keep it apprised of complaints of “urgent concern” — so it can react on behalf of the people. If that rule is not followed, there need to be consequences — or the rule itself becomes worthless.

In everyday life, we follow rules because we worry about consequences, but also because we respect norms. We stop at stop signs, we follow speed limits, we pay taxes, and we swipe all of our purchases through the automated check-out machines because that’s the way our ordered society works. Without rules that are followed and enforced, chaos would ensue. If people can steal with impunity — from me and from you — and nobody is there to make them stop, the rule against stealing becomes irrelevant.

Politicians — and the presidency — are regular people, too. So, it’s common sense that the consequences of a lawless government are dire.

Today, consequences of presidential bad deeds are hard to come by. The Department of Justice — as a matter of an internal norm — will not prosecute a president. So, no consequences for bad behavior in the White House can flow from the judicial branch of government. Congress is trying to do its oversight job — at least to some extent in the House of Representatives — but the White House is refusing to comply with the laws duly passed by that branch of government.

If Congress is allowed to lose the power of its oversight role, then we will have an unaccountable presidency with unlimited power on our hands. What the framers of the Constitution knew from experience with King George III is that unlimited power will inevitably be used arbitrarily. It’s human nature to amass, entrench and even abuse power. Under the United States Constitution, monarch-like power is checked by the judicial and legislative branches.

With those out of commission, it is not inconceivable that we could witness unlimited executive power exercised arbitrarily in very scary ways — and soon.

The reason this problem is not political is that the president’s power baton passes from one party and one person, to another. Inevitably, it will pass again — because inevitably, nobody lives forever. If we allow the office of the presidency to run roughshod over the law today, we can only blame ourselves if our precious democracy becomes but a footnote in a history book tomorrow. By then, it will be too late to go back.

If Trump gets a second term, we can probably kiss democracy as we know it goodbye. 

Kim Wehle is a former assistant U.S. attorney and a former associate independent counsel in the Whitewater investigation. Wehle is also a professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law. She is the author of “How to Read the Constitution and—Why.” Her next book, “What You Need to Know About Voting—and Why,” is forthcoming with HarperCollins in July 2020. Follow her on Twitter @kim_wehle.

This piece has been updated.