NEW YORK ― Donald Trump won the White House on promises: Deporting millions. Banning and surveilling Muslims. Bringing back waterboarding. Making it easier to sue the press. Imprisoning your political adversaries.
If implemented, there’s little doubt that every one of these proposals and policies would crash head-on with the Constitution.
And yet around noon on Friday, as the same founding document mandates, President-elect Donald Trump is set to become President Donald Trump — by sheer virtue of a promise he’s never made before: a solemn oath to protect, preserve and defend the Constitution of the United States.
With Chief Justice John Roberts and the world as witnesses, Trump will be vowing to stand up not for his interests, his ego, his Twitter account. But rather for a document that he’s likely never read, let alone had the time or interest to reflect on how its guarantees of equality, due process of law and many freedoms put a check on government and the power of the president.
Can the public even hold to his word a president for whom truth appears to carry almost no weight?
“What does it mean to have a bullshit artist as President of the United States — a leader both responsible for and constrained by the rule of law?” pondered a post-election essay by Quinta Jurecic, a writer at the Brookings Institution who has studied political theory.
It’s a question that boggles the mind and for which Americans have no answer, in part because Americans have never handed their highest office to a businessman with no experience in public service and such little regard toward the rule of law, the judges who look after it and a system of government that depends as much on written laws as on unwritten norms that keep it together.
If President Barack Obama, a mindful student of the Constitution and the courts, thought it prudent to ask his Office of Legal Counsel for guidance on whether the Emoluments Clause barred his acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize his first year in office, Trump has shown no such prudence.
“The law’s totally on my side ― meaning, the president can’t have a conflict of interest,” Trump has said, dismissing warnings from a government ethics watchdog and experts with experience under Republican and Democratic presidents who have charged that his business entanglements will find him in violation of his oath from the very moment he takes it.
It is possible, as UCLA law professor Richard Re has written, for a public official to feel the moral weight of his oath and his office as soon as he takes on its powers and responsibilities. And in that sense, Trump could very well become a different man as the burdens of the job become more real to him.
“I think that no one who takes an oath to the Constitution is fully aware of all the complexities of law,” Re told The Huffington Post back in November. “Part of what the oath means is making an effort to understand what the Constitution requires as events unfold.”
Campaign promises can be broken, and for that a politician may pay a political price. But a presidential oath is wholly independent of those promises, carrying its own set of obligations. Under its terms, Trump can only be held to his promise to “faithfully” execute his office and to safeguard the Constitution.
In the final case of the Obama administration before the Supreme Court earlier this week — a dispute over Bush-era civil rights abuses, no less — Justice Stephen Breyer seemed to put these duties in perspective, and portend the courts’ role in the coming years.
“There’s no blank check, even for the president. And if there’s no blank check, that means sometimes they can go too far. And if they have gone too far, it is our job to say that,” he said in open court.
Because Trump is such an unprecedented figure in American history, that admonition really extends to everyone — the public, Congress, the courts — regardless of political persuasion. As he takes the oath Friday, the Constitution itself may depend on it.
“As citizens of a country that purports to live under the rule of law, we have a duty to insist that words have meaning,” Jurecic wrote in her essay, “even when the President swears an oath he doesn’t even understand.”
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