An hour and a half into his record-long speech at this year's Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), President Trump turned his roving attention to the upcoming Senate vote to block his emergency declaration to obtain funding for border wall construction. The measure has already passed the Democrat-controlled House, and the Senate is required to take it up by March 15.
Trump's case for getting his way was simple: Democrats will abuse executive power if given the chance, so he should get to do it too. And judging from the likely fate of the suspension resolution — passage in the Senate, mortal wounding by veto, death in the House — this is a case most congressional Republicans accept.
Everyone is corrupt, their vote for Trump's emergency tacitly declares, so why shouldn't Republicans do what they can to get theirs? "The fate of the fool will overtake me also," they say with the disillusioned thinker of Ecclesiastes. "What then do I gain by being wise?"
It's not an easy question to answer compellingly. Procedural stickling pales into grayscale in the face of a fantastical policy win, and delayed gratification is no small request in Washington. But however alluring taking Trump's easy road may be, this blatant rejection of the rule of law is shortsighted, petty, and wrong. If not stymied in the courts, it will play out in developments to which GOP lawmakers will rightfully object, but — as these things usually go — they will not be the ones bearing the brunt of those consequences.
For Trump and his backers in Congress are correct, of course, that Democrats will abuse executive power when they can. As I wrote during the Obama years, before a Trump presidency was a twinkle in his golden rat's nest, there is no partisan monopoly on corruption, no R or D stamp of guarantee to ensure power, once acquired, will not be misused. Former President Barack Obama's hypocrisy on this point was particularly galling after his emphatic campaign-trail condemnations of executive overreach and constitutional abrogation — just as Republicans' newly open embrace of the unfettered presidency is pathetic and embarrassing after their years of complaining about Obama's imperium.
Contrary Trump, recognition of Democrats' past and probable future failings here is no argument for Republicans making matters worse. It is the very opposite, a blaring caution that each expansion of power one party seizes for itself will in due course be exploited and escalated by the other in an endless cycle of increasing lawlessness and decreasing accountability to the public.
Yes, this is a difficult lesson. Yes, sticking to this stuff means you don't get your exciting policy agenda enshrined in law without delay or compromise. Yes, you'll miss opportunities to pass bills and build walls you may sincerely believe are the shrewd and ethical choice. But rule of law is worth it anyway. A "government of laws and not of men" is not sexy, but it's miles better than the alternative.
Perhaps the most troubling thing about all this is it's not as if we have no Cassandra. Warnings about the dangerous precedent Trump's emergency will set are plentiful — indeed, the president acknowledged as much in his comments at CPAC. "A lot of people talk about precedent," he said. "That if we do this, the Democrats will use national emergency powers for something that we don't want." Trump continued:
They're going to do that anyway, folks. The best way to stop that is to make sure that I win the election. That's the best way to stop that. They're going to do it anyway. They'll do it anyway. I watch good people — they're friends of mine — [say,] "We're very concerned with setting precedent." […] I'm very concerned with having murderers and drug traffickers, and drugs and drug cartels, pouring into our country. That's what I'm concerned about. And the Democrats, they're going to do whatever they do if they get into power, and it won't have a damn thing to do with whether or not we approve our national emergency. [President Trump]
Trump must have known, when he spoke at CPAC, that the resolution to block his emergency will pass in the Senate with several Republicans — as of this writing, Sens. Susan Collins (Maine), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), Rand Paul (Ky.), and Thom Tillis (N.C.) — voting against the president's plan. That leaves up to 49 other GOP senators plus 182 of 197 House Republicans whose endorsement of the emergency is an implicit endorsement of Trump's myopic imprudence.
But as Paul argued in an op-ed explaining his vote, "the only way to be an honest officeholder is to stand up for the same principles no matter who is in power." That Democrats are "going to do it anyway" is no excuse for Republicans to make it easier for them. And re-electing Trump, supposing that's something you want, is no mitigating factor. Four more years is not a long time. Even the most enthusiastic Trump supporter cannot imagine Obama will be the last Democrat to sit in the Oval Office.
The warning about rule of law which Trump & co. reject here is not new. It is not particularly difficult to realize. That does not make it any less correct.