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For all the distraction and damage it is causing, “Russiagate” has had one invigorating side effect — Americans are reading and debating the Constitution again.
What would the Founding Fathers say about our situation? How would they adjudicate a showdown in which President Donald Trump sacks special counsel Robert Mueller? Would their opinion depend on whether he did so directly or replaced Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to the same end?
Short of a séance, we cannot know for sure. But I tend to think our forefathers would urge us in a different direction, lest we erode the essential limits on power that protect “We the People” from our government.
James Madison, after whom my institution is named, was greatly concerned about such dangers. One of his most famous quotations finds “more instances of the abridgment of freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments by those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations.”
Although it’s unlikely Trump would ever operate in silence, at least on Twitter, we should take these words to heart. Anyone dismayed by former President Barack Obama’s use of his pen to circumvent Congress must also worry at any successor who interprets the powers vested in the president as providing a loophole putting him or her above the law.
What safeguards would the American people enjoy if their elected leader can dismiss on a whim any investigation into his or her own actions? One can imagine a short jump from there to tyranny. Unabridged power is not something we want for any leader of either political party. In fact, as a nation, we have a revered history of checks and balances.
But there are those who would argue the issue differently, citing Article II of the Constitution, which puts no limit on the president’s power over the executive branch. It is even possible the line of reasoning could win before the Supreme Court, although I believe it unlikely today. But at what cost to our freedoms?
Whether or not Trump has the authority to dismiss Mueller or Rosenstein is an open legal question, but one best left to the law school coffee houses. The fact is he is beholden to his constituents, and we should dissuade him from such rash and harmful action.
To some whose defense of limited federalist government has led them to favor the Republican Party, it will feel like taking a few lumps on this one. But these are lumps that must be taken. Constitution aside, we must even look at the future political and even policy consequences such hostile action could generate.
Politically, the ramifications of misguided movement against the special counsel and deputy attorney general would be extensive in the wrong direction. Such action likely would give those who favor the Democratic Party the motivation and munition to mobilize in advance of this fall’s midterm elections.
Independent supporters, too, would likely lose critical enthusiasm for the president and Republican Party found among voters in 2016. This year’s midterm outcomes are likely to influence Trump’s own bid for re-election in another two years, as well.
However, allowing the investigation to run its course will have the added benefit of driving much-needed closure to the argument and revert focus back on a policy agenda the president or Congress may have.
And, while “justice” often grinds more slowly than we prefer, the alternative — injustice — is worse. We cannot invite the latter by focusing on what we perceive to be politically advantageous right now. We must defend our American values and our constitutional norms at all costs, if not for ourselves then for future generations.
The James Madison Institute is a nonpartisan, free-market think tank based in Tallahassee devoted to research and education on public policy issues.