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The irony of Donald Trump: The system works

REUTERS/Carlos Barria
Trump and the Republicans’ overreach and ineptness will produce electoral results that will hold him accountable — or at least check him.

schultz portrait

David Schultz

Perhaps one of the most overused phrases in the news and among commentators is the phrase “constitutional crisis,” especially as it applies to a cluster of issues surrounding the Donald Trump presidency — including whether he can be indicted or if, as an anonymous New York Times op-ed asserts, administration officials are part of a resistance to limit his action. I am not sure what the term means, but there is no constitutional crisis when it comes to Donald Trump; the “system” is working.

A constitutional crisis means a situation where the Constitution and the laws cannot handle or address a specific situation and we are left totally with non-constitutional solutions to address a problem. I do not see that here.

When Trump was first elected, I began giving a series of talks that continue to today. In those first talks I said that there was something remarkable the day after the election – there were no tanks in the streets or troops on the corner. I said that what would largely happen is that the Trump administration would confront this nasty thing called the Constitution and the Bill of Rights and both will largely do their job. Lacking government experience and an inclination to want to learn, Trump would face the checks and balances and separation of powers limits that the Constitution imposes. Moreover, for Trump to get anything done he and his administration needed to secure the assistance of the 3,000 or so members of the Senior Executive Service – SES – the careerists who really run the federal government. Finally, were Trump to exceed the political boundaries of what Americans could tolerate, elections would be the final remedy. Largely, all of this is happening now.

Now, 18 months later, legal investigations are tightening the noose around Trump. His and the Republican overreach and ineptness will produce electoral results that will hold him accountable, or at least check him, and the complex system of administrative law and members of the SES or the bureaucracy also are checking the president. All of this is consistent with the Constitution and its design.

The prospect of criminal charges

Additionally, as the special prosecutor finishes his investigation, we may soon find Trump and others facing criminal charges. If a sitting president can be indicted for federal crimes, then the criminal justice process will render a final verdict. If a sitting president cannot be indicted – and we do not have a clear answer to that question – then possible impeachment or simply voter retribution against him or Republicans may occur. Trump, of course, can pardon those accused of committing federal crimes, but he cannot issue pardons for impeachment, civil action, or state crimes. It is also unlikely anyone would seriously argue that the president can pardon himself.

Even if Trump were to fire the special prosecutor, he cannot remove the federal career prosecutor in New York who went after Michael Cohen, and even if he does fire the special prosecutor, Trump cannot fire the Manhattan Borough district attorney or the New York State attorney general who are investigating charges against Trump and his foundation. It is also an open legal question regarding whether a sitting president could prevent facing state criminal charges. And the Supreme Court has already ruled that a sitting president can face civil law suits. Federal courts have already ruled against Trump on many key issues, and more adverse decisions will come. Overall, Trump will face monumental legal challenges that have already checked much of his behavior.

Even if the legal process breaks down, the final verdict lies with the people. Former President Barack Obama said it well in his Sept. 7 speech when he said, “Because there is actually only one real check on bad policy and abuses of power, and that’s you. You and your vote.” Elections are the ultimate check on abuses of power, and they are provided for in the Constitution. Trump’s overreach appears to be producing renewed interest to vote and perhaps will yield significant Democrat Party turnout that will correct and check the worst of the abuses. 2020 may too be another verdict.

A process document

The Constitution is proving to be able to address or anticipate many of the problems we are seeing. I do not see a constitutional crisis. Maybe there is a political crisis, but not a constitutional one. The Constitution is mostly a process document, not one of substantive public policy.

Yes Trump and Congress have enacted many ugly policies that hurt people. When I say the system works, I do not mean it produces the policy outcomes that I want or that liberals may desire. The system is working for many of the ways it was designed to work. The Electoral College is by today’s standards undemocratic, but it may be working the way it is supposed in the sense that it checks populism. Moreover, as Sandy Levinson makes clear in his book “Our Undemocratic Constitution,” the Constitution was not designed to “work” in ways that produce real majority rule.

The Constitution may be working in ways it was supposed to; it is just not the way many of us like.

David Schultz is a Hamline University professor of political science. His latest book is “Presidential Swing States: Why Only Ten Matter.” He blogs at Schultz’s Take, where this commentary originally appeared.


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Comments (10)

  1. Submitted by Curtis Senker on 09/13/2018 - 01:29 pm.

    One of the side benefits of the Trump administration that I particularly appreciate is the de-cloaking of heretofore closeted leftists in academia, science, media and business.

    Of course there was never any doubt as to Prof Shultz’s political leanings, but until recently one could always *say* his prognostication was strictly evidence based.

    There’s no going back now, no matter who is operating the levers of government, and we are all much better equipped to weight the opinions coming from those directions appropriately.

  2. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 09/13/2018 - 01:36 pm.

    “Yes Trump and Congress have enacted many ugly policies that hurt people.” D.S.

    For example? (I am aware that I am providing another opportunity for the author and readers to rip Trump)

    • Submitted by Curtis Senker on 09/13/2018 - 07:08 pm.

      Trump’s ugly policies have caused massive suffering among ISIS command and control. They’ve lost 4 commanders in 2 years.

  3. Submitted by Rick Prescott on 09/13/2018 - 02:09 pm.

    I disagree with Mr. Schultz. It is much too soon to claim that “the system works.” While there are certainly signs that it will ultimately work, that is far from assured right now.

    Unless the “system” can somehow overcome increasing partisan gerrymandering, and voter suppression/disenfranchisement/apathy, we will most assuredly see a genuine Constitutional crisis sooner rather than later.

    • Submitted by Ray J Wallin on 09/13/2018 - 05:37 pm.

      The system is working. The increase in partisan gerrymandering is being tamed.

      In many states there has been a renewed push for reform. Also, in states like PA, FL, and NC, courts have declared redistricting plans gerrymandered, requiring that the plans be redrawn more fairly.

      In addition, there is much more awareness of gerrymandering than there was a decade ago.

  4. Submitted by joe smith on 09/13/2018 - 03:42 pm.

    The system has always worked. We saw in 2010 the system work when the American people voted out the Democratic stranglehold, after Obama had both Houses. We saw the rise of the TEA party (even with Lois Lerner do8ng her best to stop them) and the GOP take 1,000 State and Federal seats from 2010-18, not to mention multiple Governorships. So yes, the system works, it’s called voting.

  5. Submitted by Joel Stegner on 09/13/2018 - 11:30 pm.

    From the perspective of high income white guys (which so many commentators are), the system is working. Of course, they are way too far away from the action. People are going to lose their health insurance and may lose their preexisting condition coverage. With the lift of the methane regulations, we are burning of fossil fuel for no purpose. So many small injuries to our country will never be reversed. Of course, the personal impact of much of this will be negligible, but our children and grandchildren will pay for our acceptance.

  6. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 09/14/2018 - 10:01 am.

    The system “holds” so far, but by the skin of its teeth!

    Trump and Friends (the supine GOP) have been making systematic attacks on the fairness of our courts–not just the Supreme Court by any means–and freedom of the press, and they have dismissed or forced into retirement/resignation thousands upon thousands of the erstwhile career government experts in the various federal departments and agencies. State, for example, was eviscerated by Trump, and the EPA. Expertise of any sort is despised by Trump and his crew.

    Corruption is rampant in Trump’s whole administration (I give you Wilbur Ross, for example, or Scott Pruitt or Steve Mnuchin,m or Trump himself) and the GOP-controlled Congress refuses even to investigate known abuses by these guys. Or the ineptitude of people like Betsy De Vos, who is upending decades of intelligent advances in education. There are some real losers among Truimp’s appointees, if you’ve been paying attention.

    Trump’s ignorance and his refusal to learn anything about the system he runs is dangerous when one considers the environment and foreign policy and the military. Insiders are “controlling” the worst of Trump’s instincts, maybe (what in Heaven’s name did he say to Putin in Helsinki?). But when we consider that Trey Goudy spent four years investigating the 2009-2013 Secretary of State for some imagined responsibility for the Benghazi tragedy, the fact that there has not been a real Congressional investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election is a stunning failure of our system.

    We might hope that Prof. Schultz is right. But I’m less optimistic that the system can prevent a real Trumpian disaster: we’re already at the FINAL remedy! What if the Democrats don’t take the House of Representatives this fall? And, what will the lame-duck GOP do between November and January, even if they do?

  7. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 09/14/2018 - 10:21 am.

    Well, systems always “work”… until they don’t. We have a fascist in the White House, he doesn’t yet run a fascist government, but he is the POTUS and as long as that the case, we’re not out of the woods. The system’s being tested in an historical way, we’ll see if the we can pass that test.

    In may ways we’ve already failed, and succeeded, but the system can only hold out for so long.

  8. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 09/21/2018 - 06:30 am.

    I think the constitutional crisis is the fact that in this century we have put two presidents in the White House who lost the popular vote. And nothing changes.

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