DONALD TRUMP is boiling the proverbial frog, turning up the heat gradually so we get accustomed to rising temperatures and tread water till it’s too late. The pot of water is the president’s bottomless prevarication, and we are the desensitized frogs being boiled alive, along with our democratic norms.
Every day the wild revelations become more jaw-dropping, numbing us as the president declares himself above the law, and Congress fails to tell him he isn’t. The president and his lawyers change their story of what Trump knew or didn’t know, what he did or didn’t do: firing the FBI director because of “this Russia thing”; approving payoffs to a porn star; knowing whether his son sought “dirt” from Russians and aid from Arab princes and an Israeli social media manipulator.
A confidential 20-page letter to special counsel Robert Mueller from Trump’s lawyers, published Saturday, argues that whatever the president did is no business of Mueller’s anyway, because the president has the right to halt any investigation and pardon anyone, including himself. Even firing FBI Director James Comey, the letter argued, “could neither constitutionally nor legally constitute obstruction because that would amount to him obstructing himself.” The president “could, if he wished, terminate the inquiry, or even exercise his power to pardon if he so desired.” In other words, Trump can’t violate the law because he is the law, and he can fire Mueller or make legal findings disappear.
The argument sounds a lot like President Richard Nixon’s gripe, three years after he resigned, that “when the president does it, that means it’s not illegal,” and isn’t a far cry from absolute monarch Louis XIV’s boast, “L’état, c’est moi” (“I am the state”).
On NBC Sunday, Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani said there was no foul in firing Comey, because Trump has “very broad powers.” Even if the president had shot Comey, “in no case can [the president] be subpoenaed or indicted” unless he’s first impeached, Giuliani told Huffpost. Wait — what?!
The argument is extreme and outrageous, but Trump has been grooming us for years with the extreme and outrageous. He peddled the “birther” lie about President Obama. He boasted he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and not lose a single voter. He inflated his wealth to get onto the Forbes 400. He posed as an imaginary spokesman to brag about himself. All these facts are documented.
Trump has called Mueller’s probe a “witch hunt,” despite five guilty pleas from former Trump associates and 17 indictments so far. Trump’s objective is to discredit facts and make himself the only arbiter of an alternative reality.
His lawyers admit that despite denials, Trump dictated his son’s (false) statement about a Trump Tower meeting with a Russian lawyer. Giuliani said this proves the president shouldn’t testify because “our recollection keeps changing.”
The president “probably does” have the power to pardon himself, Giuliani told ABC. Trump has already exercised that right liberally to settle political scores. Last week he pardoned extreme-right anti-Obama conspiracy theorist Dinesh D’Souza, who pleaded guilty to campaign finance violations. Last year he pardoned former Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio, convicted of criminal contempt. Trump is considering pardons for disgraced former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich, serving 14 years for public corruption, and former “Apprentice” spin-off host Martha Stewart, convicted of conspiracy, obstruction, and false statements. In so doing, Trump normalizes the very crimes Mueller is investigating.
It’s the job of Congress to oversee the executive. Instead, the Republican-controlled House parrots Trump’s attacks on the Justice Department. House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy on Sunday echoed Trump like a Stepford wife: “There was no collusion.” The Republican party is now more loyal to one man than to democratic principles.
With every new outrage, Trump is “desensitizing the American people, Congress, even the press” to his “open defiance of the rule of law,” said Norman Eisen, chairman of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington and a former top White House ethics lawyer. “Trump is certainly boiling the frog. He just doesn’t know yet how he’s going to prepare it.” Will he fire Mueller, issue pardons, fight a subpoena? Every claim of absolute power makes it more plausible.
So what of the frog? In reality, a frog would sense hot water and leap out, saving himself. We need leaders of both parties to shake themselves out of their stupor before we’re cooked.
Indira A.R. Lakshmanan’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow her on Twitter @Indira_L.