BIDLACK | Weathering a president who thinks he’s above the law

Author: Hal Bidlack - August 28, 2018 - Updated: August 28, 2018

Hal Bidlack
Hal Bidlack

Let’s talk about respect. A few months ago, a dear friend asked me a powerful question – how do we respect an office when we have no respect for the occupant therein? What can we say about those who hold public office and fail to live up to the honor and dignity we presume goes along with raising one’s hand and taking the oath? Being an American is all about challenging authority and standing up for what we think is right. But what happens when those in authority are, well, not worthy in our view?

I’m guessing it’s not too hard to figure out of whom I am speaking. But before we leap into that morass, let’s briefly look at the other side of the coin, shall we? I previously mentioned the easy respect, even while disagreeing on occasion, I had for “The Bill’s” – Owens and Ritter. Both these governors, one Democrat and the other Republican, served the people of Colorado with dignity and honor. I agreed with Gov. Ritter more often than I did with Gov. Owens, but I never had a moment when I felt either had treated their high office with disrespect. I had the honor of working for Sen. Bennet for four years, and in addition to agreeing with him mostly, I saw the remarkable and principled man he was and is. I feel the same way about President Bush (HW for sure, and W a bit less), even when I felt they erred on policy. Such situations therefore do not really test one’s ability to respect both the office and the occupant. By and large, during my many years in Colorado, I have felt we were represented by good men and women – with a few exceptions – and that has been a blessing for our wonderful state.

Which brings us, of course, to Mr. Trump, who is not, thankfully, from Colorado. Or, oft times, it seems, Earth. This week we saw Mr. Trump again take to Twitter to denounce a jury finding against his former campaign chairman, and to offer his odd thought that cooperating with the government – which he called flipping – is somehow evil and should be criminalized. Think about that for a moment. Our president was saying that when the government seeks to ferret out corruption and hold guilty parties accountable, anyone who cooperates is, as he colorfully put it, “a rat.” We expect that kind of talk from mob bosses, but not our president.

Even if you are a strong Trump supporter, this last week should have given you pause. He said he had the authority to run the Mueller investigation himself – thus saying essentially that he is above the law. He called a former “we only hire the best” staffer a dog. And he made the false claim that the money paid to hush up two women was not a crime, because it was his own money, and not campaign funds. Lots to unpack there. Go ahead, I’ll wait at the start of the next paragraph.

Everybody ready? Good.

And so, how do you respect the office when you feel the occupant is unworthy of respect? A sense of history helps. From our first president to our current, our nation has weathered many storms. While Mr. Trump is giving them a run for their money in terms of corruption, we’ve had truly corrupt presidents before. Some, like Grant, may have been honorable men who hired and trusted the wrong people. Others, like Buchanan and Harding, may have been corrupt or perhaps just too dim to actually understand what was going on around them. And we made it through Mr. Nixon and Watergate. So, I have no doubt that our nation survives.

I do posit, however, that Mr. Trump presents an entirely new conundrum regarding high office. And this new view of power and authority challenges the historic view proposed above. Even Mr. Nixon respected the ultimate role of the president. When a unanimous Supreme Court ordered him to turn over the tapes (google it kids, it’s amazing), he did so. Mr. Trump, on the other hand, has espoused a view of broad presidential powers heretofore unseen and unanticipated. His connection to the honesty is tentative, his lawyer said the truth isn’t the truth, and we all recall alternate facts.

Thus, we have a president who challenges us to respect an office whose occupant seems utterly devoid of honor. A new challenge to be sure. I think our nation is up to the task. We survived Andrew Johnson, we can survive Donald Trump.

Hal Bidlack

Hal Bidlack

Hal Bidlack is a retired professor of political science and a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who taught more than 17 years at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.