If you thought Donald Trump could not sink lower, think again. The Washington Post and The New York Times report that he has promised pardons to government officials who break the law by building his border wall without permission of land owners required to do the job.
Aides hastened to insist he was "just joking," as if there could be anything remotely funny about a president threatening to reward illegality and corruption.
Furthermore, the Constitution via the separation of powers among the executive, legislative and judicial branches flatly assigns the appropriations function to Congress.
If anything is laughable, it’s the notion that the presidential power to pardon can be used to sanction personal corruption in pursuit of an overt political objective. Mr. Trump’s pledge to his followers to build that wall reeks of contempt not only for the Constitution but for the intelligence of his faithful.
It makes a further mockery of his initial assurance that Mexico would pay for the wall, along with his flat-out lie that it was already being built. In fact, the most that can be claimed is a modest replacing of temporary barriers in isolated places.
In planning to divert authorized Pentagon funds for military purposes to this political objective, Mr. Trump seeks to induce open criminality from his everyday loyalists with the lure of the presidential pardon. Can there be any more crassly contemptible notion from a public official, let alone a sitting president?
He also is demanding that his long wall on our southern border be painted heat-inducing black with sharply pointed spikes as a detriment to climbers in their attempt to enter this country illegally. It smacks more of sadism than of simple law enforcement.
It's hard to imagine a more deplorable challenge to the long-held American attitude toward the "huddled masses yearning to breathe free" -- in this case, those trying to escape the brutal political and physical repression of their Central American home countries.
Once again, Mr. Trump has demonstrated his abysmal ignorance or disregard of even the most basic concepts of civil discourse and respect for the rule of law in a democratic society. He seems more inspired by the tenets and principles of Don Corleone and Gordon Gekko than those of the founding fathers.
Like those fictional characters, Mr. Trump as private citizen surrounded himself with unsavory characters from the get-rich-quick universe of New York real estate and banking, and then continued the practice as president with such legal henchmen as lawyer Michael Cohen and loyal hangers-on blind to his own corruption, or complicit with it.
Corruption in American politics was not invented by Donald Trump, of course. Throughout our history, political "bosses" from Roscoe Conkling and Mark Hanna to Tom Pendergast and Frank Hague were said to strike odious deals.
When Vice President Theodore Roosevelt took office in 1900, Hanna was so fearful of his notions that he wrote to President William McKinley: "Your duty to the country is to live" -- that is, through his term -- but he was cut down by an assassin while still in office.
In 1973, Vice President Spiro Agnew was forced to resign for accepting bribes from Maryland contractors as governor, and a year later President Richard Nixon did the same for his coverup of the Watergate scandal, after publicly insisting, "I'm not a crook."
But seldom if ever have White House aides reported that their president was saying he would pardon members of his administration if they agreed to collaborate in the illegal seizure of private property to carry out a clearly political scheme to enhance his prospects for re-election.
Mr. Trump may well weather this latest allegation of proposed presidential corruption by dismissing it as a joke, rather than as a measure of his lack of responsibility as leader of the greatest principled democracy. Such is the state of public toleration of this White House occupant so blatantly unfit to govern it.
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 email@example.com.