Donald Trump’s campaign of lies about his loss in the 2020 election took an even darker turn recently when the former president called for the “termination of all rules, regulations, and articles, even those found in the Constitution” in a bid to reclaim power. This latest statement—a literal call for an end to the rule of law—is a clear rejection of the key classical liberal principles of the American founding, and worse than the excesses of the current administration (or Trump’s own).

It’s impossible to reconcile the idea of governments “instituted among Men,” to protect “unalienable Rights [of] Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” with the idea that the Constitution should be suspended to accomplish a particular goal. There’s just no case for moral equivalency between Trump’s recent statements and other presidential acts of dubious legal character.

While almost every president since George Washington has been accused of violating the “rule of law,” these violations have rarely, if ever, gone to the lengths Trump proposes. Current President Joe Biden, for example, has pursued a number of policies that may well be illegal. It seems difficult to believe that the president should have the unilateral power to forgive billions of dollars in student loans, continue a nationwide eviction moratorium (started under the Trump administration) or grant legal status to masses of undocumented individuals without a specific act of Congress. Trump himself can plausibly be accused of illegality for his administration’s threatening to withhold aid from Ukraine (which led to his first impeachment), impose unilateral steel tariffs and attempt to divert money from the Pentagon to build a wall along the border of Mexico. And this leaves aside the post-presidency investigations into Trump’s businesses and his handling of classified information.

But all of these actions, from Biden, Trump or any other president in recent memory, had an arguable basis in statute or precedent. Courts can find that the words written on a page have impacts different than those their drafters intended. As Trump-appointed Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch has observed, “[w]hen the express terms of a statute give us one answer and extratextual considerations suggest another, it’s no contest. Only the written word is the law, and all persons are entitled to its benefit.”  

Presidents may have stretched the law in various ways, and even said that certain laws don’t apply to them—which is sometimes correct under the longstanding doctrines of executive privilege. Furthermore, quite often in recent history Congress has ceded an unwise amount of power to the executive branch. But Trump goes much further in suggesting that the written law shouldn’t apply to him at all.

As a private citizen and candidate for office, of course, Trump has the right to say anything he wants; this includes his opinion that he should be allowed to overthrow the constitutional system. Yet, those who care about classical liberal principles should keep these statements in mind as Trump again seeks the presidency and to take an oath to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States”. 

Image credit: Evan El-Amin/Shutterstock

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