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Donald Trump: Caligula, not Caesar

President Donald Trump addresses the Economic Club of New York on November 12 in New York City.
President Donald Trump addresses the Economic Club of New York on November 12 in New York City. (Seth Wenig/AP)

Randy Robbins’ argument that we are experiencing “a sea change in government, an abandonment of ethics and values on a scale very possibly not seen since Caesar’s rise to power” refutes itself (“Ancient Rome’s lesson for Washington as impeachment inquiry progresses,” Nov. 18). Mr. Robbins says President Bill Clinton’s misconduct a generation ago — which included the crime of perjury and the sexual exploitation of a young intern in the Oval Office — was merely “a moral transgression previously committed by numerous presidents and one made laughable by Trumpian standards.”

So even if a reader accepts Mr. Robbins’ moral condemnation of President Trump, by his own admission this behavior represents a difference in degree, not in kind, from “numerous presidents” whose conduct was impeachable. A better analogy from “Rome’s fateful slide from republic to empire” lies in Emperor Caligula and the Praetorian Guard. The Praetorian Guard was an elite class permanently settled in the suburbs of Rome. Originally purposed to serve the emperor, they grew to thousands in number and became so entrenched in government they dictated terms to the emperor, not vice versa. Caligula was the first of many emperors killed by the Praetorian Guard.

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Professor Donald L. Wasson writes that Caligula was a builder and gladiatorial entertainer who turned unpopular. Caligula developed a reputation for insanity and hedonistic excess. Historians disagree whether this was true or else exaggerated to de-legitimize him following his combative relationship with other leaders. In any case, after less than four years in office, the Guard assassinated Caligula. Subsequent emperors learned they had to appease the Guard with financial awards and formal privileges or else they, too, would be assassinated. Rome became ungovernable.

Mr. Robbins says “the oft-cited Department of Justice [DOJ] policy against indicting a sitting president contradicts both America’s ethos and sheer common sense” and “our tri-branched government, devised precisely for safeguarding the nation from a power-hungry chief executive, is rendered moot if Congress declines its duty.” But DOJ is not a congressional office. It is an executive agency. In “our tri-branched government,” DOJ answers to the president. It “contradicts common sense” for an executive agency to unseat, let alone imprison, the chief executive. That would be a coup d'état. The president is the only person in the executive branch in whom the U.S. Constitution vests executive power. He and the vice president are the only people in the executive branch elected to their office.

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It is unconstitutional for unelected subordinates to remove the chief executive. But it is not unprecedented. Mr. Robbins correctly warns “a rude awakening awaits those who think America will return to normalcy once Donald Trump departs the political stage.”

Lew Olowski, Dayton

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