It should have been a surprise.
It should have been a shock.
It should have been unifying — galvanizing, even.
But Donald Trump’s decision to commute the justly earned sentence of Roger Stone — the latest in a long line of his criminal cronies — was instead predictable. It generated outrage or defense along political lines for a few days, and then was shrugged off as just another Trump Thing.
That is, of course, a problem. The more a bad actor gets away with, the more bad acts he or she will commit. Using your power to help a criminal sidestep his punishment because he did not roll on you during an investigation is the definition of corruption, not just another Tuesday.
It seems we used to understand that. In 1973, when Richard Nixon ordered the dismissal of the special prosecutor (Archibald Cox) who was investigating the Watergate burglary, he soon found himself under threat of impeachment. The men he ordered to fire Cox resigned rather than carry out Nixon’s obviously self-serving order; Nixon then found another person to fire Cox and sent agents to close down the office of special prosecutor, attorney general and deputy attorney general.
Forty-seven years ago, those actions were not shrugged away. The corrupt president who undertook those actions was forced from office, resigning rather than go through impeachment.
Today? Today, despite naked corruption on full display, few Republicans in Congress said anything, let alone condemned Trump for essentially writing off Stone’s seven-count conviction related to witness tampering and lying to investigators.
Sen. Mitt Romney called Trump’s conduct precisely what it is: “Unprecedented, historic corruption: an American president commutes the sentence of a person convicted by a jury of lying to shield that very president.”
Sen. Pat Toomey offered the far more tepid statement that the commutation had been “a mistake.”
I admit that although I had expected Trump to win in 2016, I had also expected Congress to use its authority to curb his excesses and force the man to learn he is bound by rules, law, decorum and common decency. I assumed that, once confronted with the reality of a functioning government of a functioning republic, Trump would either toe the line or quit because it wasn’t “fun” for him.
That was a mistake.
The Republican majority in the Senate instead has amplified his toxic messages; bolstered his flawed policies, and far from flexing muscle as a coequal branch of government, has bowed before an overgrown, clownish, cowardly brat out of political expedience.
They didn’t care when Trump was recorded blatantly asking Ukraine to dish dirt on Hunter Biden and implied that U.S. aid hinged on Ukraine opening an investigation.
And they appear not to care now that Trump has out-Nixoned Nixon by using his authority to commute the sentence of the man who lied for him.
Meanwhile, through its continued support, a good chunk of the electorate proves daily that Trump can, in fact, gaslight some of the people all of the time.
They give him a pass for his delayed response to the novel coronavirus, while castigating states’ governors who have had to implement unpopular orders to deal with a disease that the federal government failed to adequately address at the start.
They are OK with him using force to clear peaceful protesters from the street so he can walk down it and pose in front of a church with a Bible he doesn’t even know how to hold, let alone read.
As for reports that federal agents, without identifying themselves, swept the streets of Portland around a federal courthouse and hauled off people without probable cause?
Well, they’re OK with that, too. And they’re OK with reports that some of the agents pointed guns at journalists and observers, who had every right to stand in a public place, observe and record.
The notion that federal agents could be deployed against protesters on the basis that some people were rioting and damaging property, and that they could round up even passersby, used to be one of the things that would have galvanized people across the political spectrum. Instead, some argue that the feds had to do something about the “lawlessness” and property damage, so what do you expect?
It is possible to hold the view that arson, vandalism and assaulting officers is plainly wrong, but to also understand that a federal police force should not be deployed against the citizenry at large, sweeping up whomever they please, due process be damned.
But that nuance seems lost on a distressingly large number of people, who appear to believe that you either support the police universally and without question, or you support lawbreakers universally and without question. They are OK with a reality that not so long ago was a fever nightmare of conservatives — that “the government” would seize them for exercising their rights.
Today, people are defending similar actions on the basis that the protesters deserve it, or even such lunacy as that Democratic leaders in Portland and other cities allowed things to get out of control on purpose, to force Trump’s hand and make him look bad.
They are OK with Trump continuing to hold migrant children in detention camps (not concentration camps; detention camps) despite court orders.
They are OK with Trump lashing out every time life doesn’t go his way.
They believe him when he projects onto others his own lawlessness: “It is the other side that are criminals, including Biden and Obama, who spied on my campaign – AND GOT CAUGHT!” he tweeted, falsely, while complaining that Stone should never have been targeted. (There you have it: no investigation; no crime!)
Lost in the shuffle of continued egregious conduct by Trump is the question as to whether he knew about allegations Russia was paying Taliban fighters to kill our troops. Russia and the Taliban deny the existence of the bounty arrangement; Trump has said he was not briefed on the matter.
We can probably dispense with any notion that Russia and the Taliban are honest. But if Trump was not briefed on the matter, why not? (Keep in mind, this is the man who allegedly does not read his morning briefings.)
U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney’s meaningful questions were lost in the hubbub about her disagreeing with Trump on a few things, then being attacked by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy for insufficient loyalty. Here they are: “Why weren’t the president or vice president briefed? Who did know and when? What has been done in response to protect our forces and hold Putin accountable?” In a saner America, we would be demanding answers to Cheney’s questions.
To think — most of the abuses recounted here happened in just one month in 2020. And many of us are just fine with it all.
Those of us who are not fine with it surely recognize the need to curb executive power.
A constitutional amendment would be a lengthy process, and a battle, given the makeup and critical lack of will in the Senate. The House’s recent noises concerning legislation that would curtail presidential pardon powers will, of course, go nowhere.
That doesn’t make it any less critical to act, and act quickly.
We, the People, have over the past several decades allowed executive power to grow, a little here, a little there, and now are confronted with a man who has no regard for even the limits on his position that are occasionally enforced.
Failing to act while there is still time only sets us up for more overreach, whether by Trump or another autocrat. The end result will be many things — dire, dismal, the death of our republic — but, like Stone escaping justice, it will not be a surprise.
Katharhynn Heidelberg is an award-winning journalist in Montrose, Colo.