One of our Founding Fathers, John Adams, (the second president) believed it important that America should have “a government of laws, not of men.” This ideal became part of the Massachusetts Constitution and was repeated subsequently at various times by attorneys and statesmen. At one point, it might have been a maxim for American exceptionalism, but now there are many democratic nations trying to adhere to that standard. What it meant was that the laws of the land were more powerful than any individual or group, and would keep people in check who tried to be above the law or disregard it, taking actions that would benefit them. In addition to written laws, there are also traditions that have taken hold over the years regulating the conduct of men and women in all three branches of the federal government. State and local governments also have officeholders follow certain patterns of behavior that have become ingrained and expected whether or not they have been written down. (Examples- Standing when a judge enters the courtroom. Having the Senate Majority Leader schedule the Senate’s agenda.)
The question now is whether the nation’s government is being run according to the laws and traditions established over the years or whether they are being superseded by the actions of powerful men. There is little question that President Trump ignores the laws and customary traditions of the presidency, following his own instincts to do as he pleases. In terms of his actions and lack of actions, his presidency is different than any one that preceded it even though he has been in office only five months.
However, the overturning of unwritten traditions occurred in the Senate even before Trump was elected. In November of 2013, Democrats in the Senate with Harry Reid as the Majority Leader eliminated the filibuster for the confirmation of judges and executive officials by a 52 to 48 vote, changing approval to a simple majority. This occurred after Republicans had continuously obstructed nominees sent to the Senate by Obama for lower court and executive positions. It was understood however, that the filibuster would remain in place when Supreme Court nominees came up for confirmation.
In 2014, the Senate majority changed from the Democrats to the GOP, with Senator Mitch McConnell elected by Republicans as Majority Leader. When Merrick Garland, with centrist credentials, was sent to the Senate for confirmation for a Supreme Court position in 2016, the Republicans upended Senate traditions by refusing to have him questioned by the judicial committee or voted on by the full Senate. McConnell insisted that Senate would wait until after the presidential election for the new president to make the choice because it was Obama’s last year in office. This had never been an issue previously when a vacancy opened up on the Court in the last year of a president’s term.
Garland was never confirmed and President Trump nominated Neil Gorsuch for the Supreme Court position earlier this year. When the Democrats filibustered Gorsuch’s confirmation because of the way the GOP had treated Garland, McConnell used what was called the ‘nuclear option,’ having a simple majority of the Senate confirm Gorsuch. Thus within a short period of times, Senate traditions were eliminated by the actions of both parties.
Of course, Trump is a person who cares little for traditions or the law. His narcissism and self-regard drives his behavior without consideration for precedents. The way he handled his campaign with name-calling and personal derogation of his opponents in the primary contests and general election had never occurred before. His refusal to release his taxes to scrutiny was contrary to forty years of accepted and expected behavior by presidential candidates. Though on several occasions he promised to show his taxes, it has still not happened though the majority of the country would like them made public. The conflict of interest with his businesses and the office of the president is also something that had not previously taken place, which does not seem to move the president. It is possible the special investigator, Bob Mueller, may ask to see his taxes to get some answers, if Trump doesn’t find a way to remove him from office beforehand.
Trump’s firing of the FBI head, James Comey, in the midst of the investigation of Russia’s interference in the presidential election and the Trump campaign’s involvement with the Russians, is another first for the president who confirmed this was his reason for dispensing with Comey. More of the country trusts Comey’s description of events than Trump’s.
The public would also like the president to stop his tweeting, as would his associates, but you can’t keep a good man away from his Twitter. Maybe if he stopped tweeting, he’d have time to make more sub-cabinet appointments, with most departments and agencies of the government still working with inadequate personnel. These include DOD, State, Treasury, Homeland Security, and so forth, necessary to run the government efficiently. And defying tradition, Trump’s last cabinet meeting was open to television cameras to record the members of the cabinet praising Trump for all of his accomplishments and allowing them to be part of his team. It would have been more appropriate in North Korea than America.
Whether there was collusion by Trump campaign officials with the Russians remains to be seen as does the possibility of obstruction of justice in his interactions with Comey and the subsequent firing. But Trump and his administration act as if they are not constrained by traditions or laws, creating their own playbook as they go along. It is a government of men and not laws. John Adams must be turning over in his grave, though it is unlikely Trump even knows who Adams was.
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