When the president does it, that means that it’s not illegal.
Like most Americans, I’m familiar with this infamous quote, from a Nixon interview with David Frost in 1977. I always considered it an example of the maniacal hubris of Richard Nixon.
The thing is, I’ve come to understand that, at least from an functional standpoint, it is basically true.
What happens if the president breaks the law? Well, he might use his executive powers to direct law enforcement not to pursue it. But if he didn’t, presumably, he could be brought up on charges and a court could find him guilty. If it were a federal crime, he could just pardon himself, but if not, I guess he could even go to jail.
But, can he lose the presidency over a crime?
It seems, not directly. As far as I can tell — and I hope legal types will educate me — the Constitution contains precisely two ways to get rid of a president:
- an election
Both of these are obviously political processes. There’s certainly nothing there saying that if you commit a crime of type “X”, you’re out.
Conventional wisdom expects that if the president does something even moderately unsavory, political pressure will force the House of Representatives to impeach him. I would have taken comfort in that up until a few months ago, but now … not so much.
Today’s House of Representatives is highly polarized, and the party in power (by a ratio of 240 / 193) is poised to make great strides towards realizing its long-held agenda. Would they let a little unlawful presidential activity get in the way of that? I don’t think so.
What if their own constituents don’t care about a president breaking some laws that they think are pointless or unjust? Let’s say Trump’s tax returns show up on Wikileaks, and forensic accountants come up with evidence of tax fraud. Are we sure voters will not see that as a mark of genius?
Congress will move to impeach if and when the pressure from that activity gets in the way of their agenda, and not before. That time could, in theory, never come.
I’m afraid that people holding their breath for an impeachment based on the emoluments clause may pass out waiting.
Donald Trump once said this:
Also, probably one of DT’s more truthful statements. (Though my legal team informs me that murder is not a federal crime, so he would not be able to self-pardon.)