Over the past year, Donald Trump has made clear that he has no respect for the rule of law or the separation of powers or the Constitution that every president is duty-bound to defend.
He has such little respect for the First Amendment that he has said that if he is president he’ll investigate Amazon, because its founder Jeff Bezos also owns The Washington Post and that paper has written critical stories about Trump. He’s now publicly attacking a federal judge, Gonzalo Curiel, who is presiding over a case in which Trump is a defendant and even intimated that Curiel should be investigated. And he said that as president, he’d go after the Professional Golf Association because it announced it will be moving a golf tournament from one of Trump’s golf courses.
This is one of many reasons why he is unqualified to be president, but what makes all this worse is that members of his own political party seem unbothered by it.
After all, the Republican Party portrays itself as a party that is the defender of the Constitution. In 2011, after taking over control of Congress, Republicans led the House of Representatives in reading the document from the floor of the House.
Over the past seven years, various Republican officeholders, including Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, have regularly accused the White House and President Obama of unconstitutional behavior for issuing executive orders on everything from immigration to gun control. Yet, even though Trump has said he’d get rid of Obama’s executive orders and then issue many of his own, (“I’m going to use them much better, and they’re going to serve a much better purpose than what he’s done,” says Trump), Ryan endorsed him last week.
These same Republicans introduced a resolution in the House to impeach the IRS commissioner over the alleged targeting of conservative non-profit groups — and regularly have attacked President Obama over the issue — but have little to say about Trump’s stated intentions to go after his political and business opponents.
Senator Marco Rubio said that Obama “systematically and habitually violates the Constitution” and yet made clear late last month that he intended to support Trump, who has pledged to habitually and systematically violate the Constitution.
Indeed, some prominent Republicans are not even trying to defend Trump. In a piece that quoted conservative legal scholars with their hair practically on fire about the possibility of President Trump, Senator John McCain tried to soothe their fears: “I still believe we have the institutions of government that would restrain someone who seeks to exceed their constitutional obligations,” McCain said. “We have a Congress. We have the Supreme Court. We’re not Romania. Our institutions, including the press, are still strong enough to prevent” unconstitutional acts, he said.
Putting aside McCain’s rather unfair attack on Romania, a NATO ally, what he’s suggesting here is that “sure Trump is awful, sure he might try to expand his powers in ways that violate the Constitution, but hey, we can hold him in check” — just like Republican leaders were able to prevent him from getting the nomination. One might think that if you are suggesting that the country is strong enough to constrain a potentially authoritarian leader, it might be a good idea not to elect that potentially authoritarian leader in the first place. If you were a member of a political party that claims to care so deeply about the Constitution, why would you put that sacred document at risk by endorsing for president a candidate who seems to have only contempt for it?
The answer, unfortunately, is not complicated. McCain is up for reelection — and he’s facing both a primary challenge and a tough general election fight in a state where Trump’s toxic anti-immigrant attitudes could mobilize Democratic-voting Hispanics. Faced with a choice between principle and his political future, McCain chose the latter.
Paul Ryan doesn’t want to tick off the Trump-supporting members of Congress, and he might want to run for president someday. You can’t really do that if you get on the wrong side of all those Republican Trump supporters. Same goes for Marco Rubio and pretty much every other Republican officeholder who hopes to run for office ever again.
To call all of this breathtaking hypocrisy doesn’t do justice to the cravenness of what Republican leaders are doing — putting their narrow political ambitions ahead of the national interest, ahead of their ideological beliefs, and ahead of the Constitution they claim to revere.
Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.