Witcover: Trump follows Nixon to the courts, then blinks

Nearly half a century ago, President Richard Nixon blundered his way toward political destruction by depending on the Supreme Court to save his hide in the Watergate fiasco. It ruled against him in ordering the release of the White House tapes that confirmed his corruption and forced his resignation.

On Friday, President Donald Trump contemplated the same route to safety by counting on the court. He threatened to declare a national emergency and order construction of a southern wall despite the fact that Congress holds the power of the purse. But now he says, not yet.


There is no certainty that the Supreme Court would support him if he does invoke emergency powers on the border wall. The stakes involved are huge, with the court cast as the arbiter of such a basic clash between the executive and legislative branches.

A cloudy prospect exists, notwithstanding the fact that Mr. Trump hand-picked the newest two justices, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh.


Still, Mr. Trump may feel his best chance to extricate himself from the trap he finds himself in. Not only has he categorically promised to build the wall, but he also shut down a vast swath of the federal government as a bargaining chip with House Democrats. This has cost 800,000 federal workers their regular paychecks, a situation for which most blame Mr. Trump.

Whatever the outcome of the wall dispute, the entirely botched episode has shown Mr. Trump to be an incompetent chief executive.

If there is one case about which the current Supreme Court is likely to be held to the highest scrutiny within the legal and judicial community, it is this one. It considers whether the executive branch has the right to seize for itself powers explicitly assigned in the Constitution to Congress.

Can there be any other issue more reasonably on which voters should expect bipartisan support among Republicans and Democrats in Congress than defending their own power of the purse? Whether or not the GOP leaders in both chambers are moved to buck their president would be revealed by their votes on this issue.

Donald Trump's inability in his own mind to separate campaigning and governing may be at the heart of our current political dilemma. The first he loves; that latter he dodges.

Most distressing is the word from the White House that administration lawyers are exploring plans to seize up to $13.9 billion voted by Congress for the Army Corps of Engineers for past hurricane and other national disaster relief and divert it to erecting the new border wall and make-shift relief for furloughed workers.

In other words, Mr. Trump's White House is busy seeking to cope with the political backlash of his insistence on breaching the constitutional requirement that Congress, not the president, decides how taxpayer money is spent. Is there is any more explicit expression of the rule of law than this one, especially in the eyes of Supreme Court justices?

Here we have a chief executive who, either out of simple ignorance or blatant disregard of the law, still weighs his grasp of authoritarian power, in violation of the most basic concepts of democratic self-government. The once Grand Old Party collectively stands by in acquiescence or agreement as its reputation as a steward of that rule of law withers in Trump's hands.


If ever there was a circumstance where the nine appointed guardians of American justice and the law have been in an imperative position to defend the Constitution, here it is, in rejecting Mr. Trump's naked grab for executive power at the expense of Congress, and of the people they represent.

In 1974, the Supreme court said “no” to Richard Nixon on his effort to block release of the Watergate tapes that forced his resignation. Now it must stand firm against would-be dictator Donald Trump, whatever the political consequences to him and to the country, if he ever tries to push an emergency order for a border wall.

The rest will depend on the findings of Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigations into Trump's presidency. At stake is not only Trump's own reputation but that of the nation as well, as his deeds and words have shattered both.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power" (Smithsonian Books). His email is