I couldn’t fall back asleep Sunday night after waking up at 1 am. I stayed awake for four hours. I kept thinking about a “CBS Sunday Morning” piece by Ted Koppel I had watched that evening about the unlimited executive power a president could assert in a self-declared emergency. A president could, for all intents and purposes, shred the Constitution.
A president could declare martial law, dismiss Congress, suspend Habeas Corpus, and indefinitely jail any dissenters, including elected senators and representatives, journalists and late night TV comedians who have made a cottage industry out of haranguing those in power, even if they have not committed any crime. Elections could be shelved.
In effect, a president could install him- or herself as a dictator for life (https://www.cbs.com/shows/cbs-sunday-morning/video/c2GTT9IUfgKZj_7k4XvnuMpj193vK1Y_/limits-of-power-/).
Developed first in the 1950s during the Eisenhower administration as a rapid response format in case of nuclear war, the content and scope of executive emergency authority directives, known as Presidential Emergency Action Documents, are not widely known. They are periodically updated by administrations and their Justice Departments. Conjecture about them breeds uncertainty and apprehension. In the hands and mind of the wrong president and his or her cabal they could destroy our democratic republic.
And it would be entirely legal.
Several times Donald Trump has hinted at the extraordinary powers a stroke of his pen could grant him. On March 12 he declared, “I have the right to do a lot of things that people don’t even know about.” Earlier, on January 9, he said, “I have the absolute right to declare a national emergency.”
So far, Trump has invoked seven national emergencies. All he needed was approval from the Justice Department. He has a pliant and enabling attorney general.
Sadly, under pretext of restoring civil order, Trump could unleash federal forces throughout the land. He has had his dry run in Portland, Seattle, Chicago and Washington, DC, along with his border patrol agents and their detention centers.
Few have seen the scope and text of emergency executive power authorizations. Leaders of Congress haven’t. Presumably, the four living ex-presidents—Carter, Clinton, Bush and Obama—have, so why haven’t they issued warnings about their substance and potential abuse?
COVID-19 and racial unrest are not existential threats to the republic, but then again, it is Trump who would make the determination. Losing an election—even holding an election—could be perceived by him as an existential threat to his continued rule. He has joked about being president beyond the constitutional limit of two terms.
The question of his voluntarily leaving office if he loses the election is no longer a parlor game of possibilities. He could void the results. And if he wins he could remain “president” for life if he so chose. All perfectly legal.
It is generally assumed Trump’s supporters revere the Constitution. What will they do if he suspends it? Is their patriotism a sham, or will they finally revolt against his rule? Keep on mind that some estimates place two-thirds of all legal guns in the hands of Trump supporters. Would the ultimate irony be Trump’s disarming the membership of the National Rifle Association?
The playbook for would-be dictators is well known: Get yourself elected to lead a government and then purge it of all dissent as you strip away any potential challenge to your absolute rule while setting up laws, including removal of all weapons, that you and your like-minded judges ruthlessly enforce.
Eisenhower defeated Hitler and Mussolini but the emergency powers he put into place have provided a legal umbrella to shield Trump on his mission of total empowerment. It is no comfort to know that the foreign leaders Trump most often praises are Putin, Duterte, Erdogan, Kim Jong-un, Bolsonaro and even Xi.
Foretold is forewarned. The results of the election November 3, if there is an election, could be far different from our expected reality, our tradition of a peaceful transition of power. Remember, even if he loses in a landslide Trump would remain president for 77-1/2 days, more than enough time to proclaim an emergency to invoke absolute authority, forever.
I’m sorry in advance if you cannot stay asleep tonight. But don’t blame me. I am merely the messenger.