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Community Voices (Wack): Historically, as today, unrestrained power of a leader is dangerous

By unanimously acquitting President Trump (except for Sen. Romney’s vote on one count), Senate Republicans effectively neutered their institution by granting the President almost unlimited power, using legal arguments smashing through centuries of precedent, legal standards, and Constitutional law.

The president’s legal team argued: “If a president does something which he believes will help him get elected in the public interest, that cannot be the kind of quid pro quo that results in impeachment.”

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The unanimous ratification of this legal theory by Senate Republican sets an astonishing and ominous precedent, not just for future presidents, but also for the permissible conduct of this president.

The 17th century French king, Louis the XIV, known as the Sun King, is reputed to have said, “I am the state (L'état, c’est moi).” His conduct as king certainly was consistent with that sentiment. He was vain, overly sensitive to criticism, and militarily aggressive, waging multiple wars across Europe during his reign, almost always out of personal ambition and vanity. The conduct of government for all of France revolved around his personal whims, appetites, and moods.

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Despite all this, his long reign from 1643 to 1715 is regarded as the beginning of modern France, because of the concentration of government control in service of his personal vision. However, it was exactly this kind of consolidation of power around a single individual that six decades later inspired the authors of the U.S. Constitution to center our entire system of government on the checks and balances between the three branches of government.

On Jan. 30, 1933, Adolph Hitler was sworn in as chancellor of Germany. In the most recent election, his party, the National Socialists, won a third of the seats in the German parliament, called the Reichstag. Their bitter rivals, the Communists, held about half as many seats, but enough to prevent the Nazis from passing the legislation they wanted. The rivalry between the two groups included gang warfare and assassinations, resulting in hundreds of deaths in recent years.

Four weeks later on Feb. 27, an act of arson burned the Reichstag down, and the Nazis immediately blamed their Communist rivals. Using his new position and the fire as justification for emergency measures, Hitler persuaded and coerced the rest of the government to willingly give him more power, and within a month, he successfully banned all competing political parties, had all Communist elected officials removed from office, arrested opponents, and manipulated the legislature to grant him absolute authority, all through the existing political processes. When President Hindenburg died the following year, every government employee and member of the military had to swear an oath to serve Hitler personally.

Presently in the United States, government officials and the military swear an oath to support and defend the Constitution.

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President Richard Nixon resigned on Aug. 9, 1974, following the visit of a delegation of Republican politicians who informed him that, after 16 months of hearings, public examination of mountains of documents, and hundreds of hours of public witness testimony, there was enough evidence to ensure his impeachment and removal after a trial in the Senate.

Later, during a 1977 interview with David Frost, Nixon defended his actions with the famous statement about national security: “Well, when the president does it, that means that it is not illegal.” You can see how it’s not a big stretch to go from “national security” to “national interest,” as argued by President Trump’s legal team, and embraced wholeheartedly by Republican senators as the basis for their acquittal.

What’s going on today isn’t exactly like these historical examples. But the common theme is unrestrained power, and the dangers of unconstrained human nature. The Senate’s acquittal, without examining a single piece of evidence or hearing from a single witness, and using the cited legal arguments, throws the door open to unprecedented Presidential abuse of power.

Please, don’t take my word for it. One of the most conservative members of Congress, Justin Amash, says:

“This dangerous standard would permit the current president, or any president, without consequences, to engage in corrupt acts that violate the public trust. It would contravene the Constitution’s command that the president “shall take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed. It would mean the president’s power would go largely unchecked by Congress — transforming our constitutional republic into a virtual monarchy.”

The U.S. Senate just gave away the single most powerful tool granted to them by the Constitution for preventing the destruction of our democracy.

Some friends and neighbors who are less politically inclined might say, “Why get so worked up about this? It doesn’t affect us here in Carroll County.”

That may be so, for now; until it does, and then it will be too late.

Robert Wack writes from Westminster. He can be reached at Robert.p.wack@gmail.com.

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