The Many Constitutional Crises of the Trump Era

Critics of the 45th president warn constantly that the republic is in peril.

FILE - In this Sept. 16, 2003 file photo, guards stand next to the U.S. Constitution in the Rotunda of the National Archives in Washington.
AP Photo/Ron Edmonds
George E. Condon Jr.
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George E. Condon Jr.
Feb. 8, 2018, 8 p.m.

Donald Trump was still almost three hours away from taking the oath of office when the online news organization Rewire posted its shot across his bow. “Hey, America,” began the story. “We’ve got a constitutional crisis on our hands.” Others had been more cautious, though they, too, could not wait for his inauguration. The Los Angeles Times, a week earlier, had warned that “Trump may violate the Constitution on Day One.” And conservative website The Daily Caller had warned only days after the 2016 election that Trump’s victory “could trigger a constitutional crisis.”

Most presidents face similar allegations from inflamed foes. Critics said President Obama was not really born in the United States and had provoked constitutional crises by his appointment of “czars,” his protection of immigrants brought to the United States illegally as children, and his order to bomb sites in Libya. Federalists attacked Thomas Jefferson in 1803 for his “unconstitutional” purchase of the Louisiana Territory. Rutherford B. Hayes was known as “His Fraudulency” when a commission awarded him the presidency in 1877.

But not until Trump has there been such an incessant drumbeat of alleged constitutional infractions and such a stream of unending warnings of an impending “constitutional crisis.”

Here are 10 things that prompted such warnings:

Trump’s personal business dealings:

From the start, ethics officials have contended that Trump is in violation of the Emoluments Clause in Article I that bars public officials from gifts of value or benefiting from commercial dealings with foreign interests. That ranges from foreign governments taking their business to Trump hotels and resorts to the 45 trademark applications he had pending in China at the time of his inauguration. The issue has yet to be settled in court but the unease is clear, peaking when he goes out of his way to promote his properties as he did in Hawaii; or when he spends 100 days at golf clubs, all but one of them owned by him; or when he marks his 12th visit and 52nd day at his Florida resort.

Release of the Nunes memo:

Leon Panetta, former CIA director and Defense secretary, was troubled when Trump ignored the warnings of the FBI and the intelligence community and released Rep. Devin Nunes’s memo. “When the president says, ‘I’m going to release it no matter what the FBI says, or what the Justice Department says,’ then it creates what I consider a constitutional crisis,” he told NBC’s Chuck Todd.

Firing of FBI Director James Comey:

When Trump fired Comey in May, Sen. Brian Schatz was quick to declare, “We are in a full-fledged constitutional crisis.” David Cole, the ACLU’s national legal director, agreed. Arguing that anytime a president fires the person investigating his campaign and the potential undermining of American elections by a foreign power, “It’s a constitutional crisis.”

Potential firing of Special Counsel Robert Mueller:

Former CIA Director John Brennan has been the most outspoken whenever there are reports that the president may dismiss Mueller. “I think we are going to be in a very serious constitutional crisis,” Brennan said on MSNBC’s Morning Joe. He said such a firing would be “an obstruction of justice.”

Potential firing of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein:

There are lots of voices raised on this one. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin, and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer were among the loudest. A letter sent by Schumer, Pelosi, and the top Democrats on the Judiciary and Intelligence committees declared that “Firing Rod Rosenstein, [Justice Department] leadership, or Bob Mueller could result in a constitutional crisis of the kind not seen since the Saturday Night Massacre.”

Trump’s refusal to impose new sanctions on Russia:

In July, the House voted 419-3 and the Senate voted 98-2 to impose new sanctions on Russia as punishment for interfering in the U.S. presidential election. When the administration announced recently that it would not implement the law, the cries began. “Congress voted 517-5 to impose sanctions on Russia. The president decides to ignore that law,” tweeted Sen. Claire McCaskill on Jan. 30. “Folks that is a constitutional crisis. There should be outrage in every corner of this country.”

Trump’s pardon of Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio and hints he could pardon himself:

In August, the president pardoned Arpaio, the Maricopa County sheriff who had been found guilty of criminal contempt for disregarding a court order to stop racially profiling suspects. The pardon was unusual in many regards, including the fact that Arpaio had not yet been sentenced. Andy J. Semotiuk, an immigration lawyer writing in Forbes magazine, called it “a dangerous step in the direction of a constitutional crisis in the United States.” Others raised red flags when there were reports in July that Trump’s lawyers were researching the possibility of him pardoning himself and his family.

Trump not accepting the legitimacy of the Russia investigation:

Rep. Adam Schiff warned that “the norms and institutions protecting the Department of Justice from political interference … have been tested, but never before as they are under President Donald Trump.” He accused Trump of trying to “demolish” constitutional protections. That, said Durbin, would be “a constitutional crisis.” The cries are still being heard this week. On Monday, when there were reports that Trump’s lawyers want the president to refuse to talk to Mueller, former Obama White House aide Dan Pfeiffer tweeted, “Next stop: Constitutional Crisis.”

Undercutting the courts:

When a federal judge ruled against the president’s travel ban last February, the president tweeted that “the opinion of this so-called judge… is ridiculous …” HuffPost quickly quoted “legal experts” as warning that tweet “could lead to a constitutional crisis.”

Attacking the FBI and his own Justice Department:

When the president attacked the FBI and the Justice Department, Fox News anchor Shepard Smith said the attacks were “an affront to our system of government and a precursor of what could become a constitutional crisis.”

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