Draining the Swamp or Trashing the Constitution?

Alan Zendell, February 1, 2018

Populist candidates for president often like to cast themselves as outsiders who will ride in on a white horse and clean up the Washington swamp. Donald Trump did it, and he managed to energize the anger of enough people frustrated by lobbyists and Congressional gridlock to win the election. Portraying himself as an outsider is probably the only thing he’s said since announcing his candidacy that was consistently true.

The problem is that he also described himself as a Conservative. Unfortunately, the meanings of political ideologies have blurred over time, and the definition of a Conservative depends on whom you ask.  Disciples of Barry Goldwater like Jeff Flake will tell you a Conservative believes in the Constitution, has a sound moral center, and respects truth and integrity.

Definitions of Conservatism in English language dictionaries vary but have a few things in common: traditional values, stability, preserving and strengthening established institutions, and resistance to abrupt changes. Trump has repeatedly demonstrated that he believes in none of those things. The only aspects of Conservatism he subscribes to are keeping taxes on business as low as possible and allowing private enterprise to operate free of government regulations. Might those views be influenced by the millions of dollars in profits they represent for him and his family?

Perhaps the most disturbing thing about the first year of Trump’s presidency is his lack of respect for our basic institutions, things like bipartisanship, an independent Justice Department, a co-equal Judiciary, and law enforcement agencies that operate with integrity. Once again he appears to be using the Nixonian playbook of attempting to subvert legitimate investigations by both Congress and federal law enforcement authorities, and undermining our courts.

As horrifying as that sounds to real Conservatives, it’s also perplexing. That approach led Nixon down the road to certain impeachment which he only avoided by resigning the presidency in disgrace. Yet, despite opposition from many in his own party and the thundering outcries from legal professionals everywhere, Trump thinks he can win these battles. He’s been labeled narcissistic and arrogant, but he’s not stupid. Does he think a new Phoenix will arise from the ashes left when he has shattered the pillars of our justice system?

In the 1970s, some Nixon loyalists claimed his only fault was not fighting his enemies to the death. I don’t know what goes on the snake pit of our current president’s mind, but it would be consistent with everything he’s said and done to assume that he thinks Nixon would have survived if only he’d acted more like he does. It can’t be a coincidence that one of Trump’s key political advisers is former Nixon loyalist, Roger Stone. Stone was famously outed by columnist Jack Anderson as one of Nixon’s chief “dirty tricksters,” a label Stone was extremely proud of. It’s also no coincidence that one of Stone’s heroes is Trump mentor Roy Cohn. With Steve Bannon out, is Stone the new voice of the Grim Reaper in Trump’s ear, urging him to fight on and take no quarter until the end?

Trump appears undaunted by claims that he’s headed for a constitutional crisis that will rival the Saturday Night Massacre of 1972. He seems unconcerned that his hand-picked choice to head the FBI, Christopher Wray may be driven to resign in protest if he orders the release of the Nunes memo, but the political firestorm that’s brewing involves more than Wray. It affects the morale of the entire FBI, and is also seen as an indirect attack on Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. Might he resign in protest too? Might Trump fire him to get at Robert Mueller? And where will Attorney General Sessions come down on all this when he can no longer hide behind silence?

The current furor is about the four-page memo written by Devin Nunes, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. Nunes is a political hack of the first order who has already been forced to step out of his role in the investigation of Russia’s interference in our election because of his obvious bias. But it’s not only Nunes. The idea of releasing a memo critical of the FBI by the majority party is a tactic that on its own represents nothing more than political hardball. But preventing the minority report from being released as well changes the game and truly threatens the integrity of Congress.

When the Supreme Court releases a majority decision, it is often accompanied by a dissenting minority opinion. If no one ever tries to suppress the view of the minority in the highest court of the land, how can the Congress justify this decision? I blame Paul Ryan for this mess. Ryan claims to be an honest Conservative (there’s that word again) who stands for what’s best for the American people. He could stop this in a second by deciding to release both memos and let the public decide who they believe.

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