No, the following headline is not from the Onion. “In court hearing, Trump lawyer argues a sitting president would be immune from prosecution even if he were to shoot someone,” The Post reported Wednesday. This is an even more shocking assertion of executive impunity than it initially seems.
The hearing involved Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr.’s attempt to obtain President Donald Trump’s financial records from Trump’s accounting firm, Mazars USA. The president’s personal lawyer William Consovoy argued that Trump should be shielded from investigation and prosecution on the part of federal and state authorities for the duration of his presidency, calling this principle “temporary presidential immunity.”
The Post reported:
“Judge Denny Chin pressed Consovoy about the hypothetical shooting in the middle of Manhattan.
” ‘Local authorities couldn’t investigate? They couldn’t do anything about it?’ he asked, adding, ‘Nothing could be done? That is your position?’
” ‘That is correct,’ Consovoy answered emphasizing that the immunity applied only while Trump is in office.”
Implicitly or explicitly, lawyers who make arguments such as these rely on the notion that there is another, proper way to punish a criminal president: impeachment and removal from office. But Trump himself rejects the legitimacy of impeachment. He has called the Democrats’ exercise of their authority to conduct impeachment proceedings — a power the Constitution plainly grants the House – a “coup,” “crap” and a “lynching,” declaring Monday that “it’s so illegitimate. This cannot be the way our great founders meant this to be.”
This is not just Trump freelancing before the cameras. Bloomberg reported Wednesday that the president approved a plan among ultra-partisan House Republicans to storm a secure impeachment hearing, which they did on Wednesday, stopping the testimony of a Pentagon official. In a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, White House counsel Pat Cipollone declared earlier this month that the executive branch would not cooperate with the House impeachment inquiry because “the President cannot allow your constitutionally illegitimate proceedings to distract him and those in the Executive Branch.” Cipollone argued that the president’s actions have been so “completely appropriate” that the House could have no legitimate reason to conduct an impeachment inquiry.
So the president’s position, as described by his and his administration’s lawyers, is that law enforcement at all levels of government may not investigate or prosecute him and that the president gets to decide when impeachment proceedings against him are constitutional. In other words, there are no checks on presidential behavior between elections every four years.
Then again, Trump has also joked about seeking an illegal third term. So who knows what he would say if he lost the 2020 election. He has effectively declared that the United States has an elected king. He is not far off from claiming that he gets to decide whether an election result is legitimate — or the product of “fake news” and massive, invisible voter fraud.
On the bright side, there are still some in government — those the president’s shameless press secretary Stephanie Grisham denigrated as “radical unelected bureaucrats waging war on the Constitution” — who see the conduct of national affairs as more than a partisan battle, a personality cult or a vanity project. Key executive branch witnesses, decorated and devoted civil servants, in the last two weeks defied Trump’s insistence that no one testify before congressional investigators. Their accounts depicted a president who used the leverage of U.S. foreign policy to pressure a desperate allied country to fabricate a scandal about former vice president Joe Biden, one of the president’s political rivals.
Assuming that Trump does not, in fact, destroy the Republic, when he is gone and his toadies are swept from power, these “radical unelected bureaucrats,” such as former Ukraine envoy William Taylor, will be remembered as heroes — and the lawyers who tried to assign dictatorial powers to a vile man will be remembered for what they are: collaborators.
Stephen Stromberg is a Washington Post editorial writer. He specializes in U.S. policy and politics.