The Barron Trump deflection
The House Judiciary Committee's impeachment hearing Wednesday invited four legal experts to make cases for and against impeaching President Trump. To hear many of the president's allies tell it, however, they mostly convened to bully his youngest son, 13-year-old Barron Trump.
"When you invoke the president's son's name here," declared Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) during the hearing, "that does not lend credibility to your argument. It makes you look mean." The White House condemned the mention of Barron as a "classless" invasion of the boy's privacy which used him as a "punchline." House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) called it an "absolutely disgraceful" attack, and Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.) declared it "gross and shameful." Barron's mother, first lady Melania Trump, rushed to her son's defense, tweeting that the witness who mentioned him "should be ashamed of [her] very angry and obviously biased public pandering, and using a child to do it."
What monstrous remark — what unusual cruelty — provoked such a backlash? Simply this: "Contrary to what President Trump has said, Article 2 [of the Constitution] does not give him the power to do anything he wants," said Stanford law professor Pamela Karlan. "I'll just give you one example that shows you the difference between him and a king, which is, the Constitution says there can be no titles of nobility, so while the president can name his son Barron, he can't make him a baron."
Huh. It's almost like Trump's defenders are focusing on a harmless joke to deflect the substance of Karlan's entirely valid criticism. It's almost like, after decades of Republican rhetoric about the necessity of small government and the rule of law, they're desperate to distract from their embrace of a president who hasn't a whit of use for either.
It is a matter of broad consensus in American politics that politicians' minor children are off-limits, whatever one thinks of their parents. A similar prohibition often extends to adult family members, provided they are not public figures or suspected of criminal behavior, and it includes swipes at spouses' appearances, too. This is a good thing. The Bush and Obama daughters deserved protection from the animosity directed at their fathers, and Barron Trump deserves the same. (Trump's older children — Donald Jr., Ivanka, and Eric — have deliberately entered public life, including government service in Ivanka's case, and thus are not afforded the same shield. Tiffany Trump, though an adult, is to my mind better kept closer to Barron's status than that of her older siblings.)
All that is to say: Had Karlan actually put a mean and classless attack on Barron Trump in the House record, I would share this GOP outrage. Had she actually made him a punchline, it would indeed be disgraceful. But what Karlan said was barely a joke, and certainly not one at Barron's expense. I imagine Karlan anticipated it would be received as a mildly amusing but otherwise anodyne illustration of an argument about the constitutional scope of executive power. And I imagine that because that is what it was.
Karlan later apologized for her remark, which was gracious but unnecessary. Her point on presidential authority cannot be made too much, whether about Trump in particular or the imperial presidency more broadly.
"I have an Article 2, where I have to the right to do whatever I want as president," Trump said this past summer in the speech Karlan referenced. This is false. So far from granting the president the right to do whatever he wants, Article 2 describes a limited administrative position which would be unrecognizable to the Constitution's framers in its modern form — or, I should say, would be recognizable as something far closer to an absolute monarch, the king of Karlan's comments, than the role they attempted to create.
Trump's presidency has exposed anew the dangers of a too-powerful executive, but the problem is not unique to his presidency. What is unique is the extent to which the Republican Party has openly abandoned decades of self-description as the faction of limited, constitutional government in its enthusiasm for Trump.
In Washington, short-sighted GOP lawmakers are unwilling to constrain the president on the grounds that, as Trump himself put it earlier this year, Democrats are "going to do whatever they do if they get into power" (almost certainly correct), so Republicans may as well get theirs while they can (wrong and reprehensible). Likewise, among Republican voters, Pew Research finds spiking support for the notion that the president could more easily solve the country's problems if he "didn't have to worry so much about Congress and the courts." Congress is already so toothless it is troubling to imagine what kind of unfettered ruler they'd prefer.
"Contrary to what President Trump has said, Article 2 does not give him the power to do anything he wants." That, not a bland aside about Barron Trump, was the point of Karlan's remark — and the point both sides of the aisle desperately need to hear. The Republican reaction demonstrates they aren't interested in listening.
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