The Classified Files scandal is the most deceptive scandal of all
The iron law of scandals involving Donald Trump is that they will always be stupid, and there will always be more. the Trump scandals—the Russia investigation; Trump’s first impeachment, for his efforts to blackmail Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky; the January 6 insurrection – have something else in common: all of these disasters resulted from Trump’s refusal to separate the presidential office and the good of the country from his personal desires.
Now, Trump’s apparent skimming over classified documents at Mar-a-Lago, and his outrage at the Justice Department’s investigation into this conduct, once again testify to his view of his own absolute authority. , even after his departure from the presidency. It is a view that places Trump himself, rather than the Constitution and the rule of law, as the only real source of legitimate political power.
Much remains unclear about the documents recovered from Mar-a-Lago, including why and how the material arrived at the estate in the first place instead of remaining in the custody of the National Archives, where it belonged. News reports, however, suggest Trump may have figured out that these documents — material that under the Presidential Archives Act belongs to the American people — were his, to do with as he pleased. “It’s not theirs; it’s mine,” Trump would have said several advisors about misplaced documents. A “Trump adviser” said The Washington Post that “the former president’s reluctance to abandon the archives stems from his belief that many objects created during his tenure…are now his personal property”. Another adviser to the former president told the Job“He didn’t give them the documents because he didn’t want to.”
This childish logic reflects Trump’s longstanding inability to distinguish between the individual president and the institutional presidency, a structure that existed before him and persists even after his involuntary departure from the White House. In his eyes, he is the presidency (which… is not what jurists generally mean when they speak of the “unitary executive”.) The same logic surfaces in the weird arguments made by Trump defenders that Trump somehow declassified all sensitive documents held at Mar-a-Lago before leaving office. Under the Constitution, the President has broad authority over the classification system. But as noted by expertsit makes no sense to imagine a president declassifying information without communicating that decision to the entire executive branch so that everyone knows he must treat the material in question as no longer classified – unless that, that is to say, you understand presidential power not as an institution of government, but as the projection onto the world of the all-powerful consciousness of one.
The approach of separating the presidency from the individual president has evolved for good reason: the inextricable man’s view of the office he holds is rapidly shifting into monarchy. Time and time again during his presidency, Trump has done his best to turn executive power into a resource from which he can profit personally. He has also sought to use this power to extend his term, either by seeking damaging information to harm an opponent’s political chances, as in the Ukraine scandal that led to his first impeachment, or by attempting to overturn an election on -field. January 6. This tendency to turn the institutional presidency into a reflection of one’s own desires has often taken the form of clashes between Trump and federal law enforcement, as officials attempt with varying success to resist Trump’s efforts to transform the Justice Department and the FBI into a Praetorian Guard tasked with take on the president’s political enemies and protect his friends.
The idea that law enforcement cannot and should not be the tool of the individual whims of the ruler is at the heart of the divide between the president and the institutional presidency, and thus of the idea of a “state of right “. The roots of the concept go back to the origins of liberal political theory: As John Locke wrote, governmental power “must be exercised by laws established and promulgated, that the people may know their duty and be safe within the limits of the law, and that rulers may also be kept within the bounds due to them”. Authority, according to this view, derives not from the person of the ruler, but from the larger structure of law and consent of the people.
In his terse public comments on the Mar-a-Lago search, Attorney General Merrick Garland underscored this understanding of law and power, which runs so counter to Trump’s. “Faithful adherence to the rule of law is the fundamental tenet of the Department of Justice and of our democracy,” Garland said during its August 11 press conference announcing that the department would unseal the Trump estate mandate. “Defending the rule of law means applying the law equally, without fear or favour.”
Trump, of course, disagrees with this characterization. In posts on his social media platform, Truth Social, he returned to familiar tropes, calling the search warrant and related investigation “prank,” a “scam” and one “witch hunt.” During his presidency, attacks like these on the Russia inquiry flowed naturally from his own understanding of absolute presidential power. After all, if the President’s authority is total and not bound by law, then how can the DOJ investigate him? Like Trump liked to say during his tenure, “I have an Article II, where I have the right to do whatever I want as president.”
The added twist to the Mar-a-Lago scandal, however, is that Trump now implicitly claims that total authority, even outside of office. If Trump was previously furious that special counsel Robert Mueller could investigate him even when he was president, he is now outraged that the DOJ is investigating him. even if he is Trump. Trump supporters exasperated by the Mar-a-Lago raid, writes Adam Serwer, “simply believe that Trump shouldn’t be subject to the law at all.”
Following the Mar-a-Lago raid, Trump’s Republican supporters in Congress called for “defund the FBI.” Meanwhile, the aggressive denunciation of the former president of the agency and the Department of Justice coincided with a flood of threats against law enforcement, including the investigating judge who approved the Mar-a-Lago mandate. A bulletin from the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security announcement that following the Mar-a-Lago raid, the agencies “observed an increase in violent threats posted on social media against federal officials and facilities.” Last week, a man attacked the FBI field office in Cincinnati; recent posts on Truth Social as the striker, Ricky Shiffer, had called so that people “get everything they need to be ready for battle” after the FBI arrives at Mar-a-Lago. On Monday, prosecutors filed a case against another man, Adam Bies, who posted threats against federal agents days after Trump’s property was searched.
Such threats reveal the disturbing logic behind GOP calls to defund the agency. The goal is not to criticize the overreach of law enforcement, but rather, as Zeeshan Aleem argue in MSNBC, to make the office “completely subordinate to the authoritarian political project”. And this project is authoritarian, because she assigns total power to one person, even, it seems, when she has been removed from office. This view of Trump’s authority sets up a parallel structure of political legitimacy that competes with the Constitution.
This is the logic of insurrection. “HEY FEDES”, Bies apparently written on the Gab social media platform two days after the Mar-a-Lago raid. “We the people can’t WAIT to water the trees of freedom with your blood.” Meanwhile, Rep. Bennie Thompson — the chairman of the House committee investigating the insurrection —warned that such apocalyptic comments “are chillingly similar to those we saw on the eve of the January 6 attack on the US Capitol”.
After all, if power derives not from structures of law and consent but from the will of a single person, then the measure of whether violence is justified and legitimate no longer depends on whether force is channeled through the appropriate processes of state authority. Rather, it boils down to one question: Is this violence being carried out in Trump’s name? Or against him?