America’s capital is more on edge now than at perhaps any other time since the eve of the US Civil War in 1860. The city was tense during Watergate, of course. But as much as Richard Nixon tested the constitutional system as a lawyer who had served in government for decades, he recognized that there are limits that even a president dares not transgress. And now, with President Donald Trump, the first lady and a top aide among those testing positive for COVID-19, there is more uncertainty in Washington than at any time in living memory.
The nonmedical crisis now facing the United States is that Trump doesn’t recognize limits. There is scant indication that he even understands, let alone respects, America’s constitutional order, the survival of which depends on whether those to whom power has been entrusted exercise restraint.
Trump, recklessly breaking precedents and norms, has consistently attempted to disable any checks on his behavior. He insists that Article II of the Constitution “gives me the right to do whatever I want to do.” And he is buttressed in his view by Attorney General William Barr, who is the kind of fealty-first law enforcement chief that Trump has craved.
A critical part of Trump’s effort to undermine confidence in the election outcome, if it goes against him, is his attempt to discredit millions of ballots preemptively. The assumption is that, because of the COVID-19 pandemic that Trump has allowed to get out of hand, more Americans than ever before will vote by mail, and that most of those who do will be Democrats.
Earlier, misreading public opinion as he so often does, Trump sought to slow mail deliveries in order to disqualify millions of mail-in ballots. After a public backlash, these activities were supposedly suspended, yet mail delivery remains slower than before.
Then, in September, Trump started saying that the election aftermath will be peaceful as long as “we … get rid of the ballots” -- whatever that means. He and his campaign team are now casting about for more ways to shape or otherwise invalidate the election’s outcome if necessary.
Allies of Trump’s challenger Joe Biden are discussing how to forestall Republican meddling with the outcome, and force the president from the White House if he loses the election but refuses to leave. The need to take this astonishing possibility seriously is a sign of how far things have deteriorated.
And so, the legal guns are being readied. With luck, real weapons won’t be used. But Trump has been encouraging violence since he first ran for office, and he doesn’t convincingly eschew it now. His calling at the first presidential debate on the Proud Boys, a violent right-wing white supremacy group, to “stand back and stand by” has embroiled the White House in efforts to sanitize this ominous statement.
Meanwhile, the New York Times’ recent expose has made clear why Trump has frantically sought to keep his tax returns secret: He paid $750 in federal income taxes in both 2016 and 2017, and nothing for many years before that. The revelations about Trump’s dicey tax record and business dealings offers one explanation for his desperation to win another term in office. The Times’ reporting has scraped away Trump’s populist facade and revealed that the underlying rationale for his presidency -- that he was a savvy billionaire who would apply his amazing business acumen to running the country -- was entirely bogus.
The Times report also showed that, as was widely suspected, Trump had received financial help from authoritarian countries such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia. And Trump reportedly has voiced his own assumption that he has benefited from Russian oligarchs at the behest of Vladimir Putin. Numerous observers warn that Trump’s indebtedness to foreign countries makes him a national security threat. As it is, Trump owes over $400 million in debts that will come due in the next few years; there’s no knowing where he’ll find the money.
Trump’s performance in the first presidential debate was the latest demonstration of the threat he poses to democracy. His thuggish behavior -- serial interruptions, nasty wisecracks and blatant distortions -- were an extension of his persistent effort to destroy any means of holding him accountable. The debates are another democratic practice that Trump seeks to destroy. But despite all the lamentations over what a miserable event the debate was, the tens of millions of Americans who loathe him should celebrate his performance, displaying as it did the unvarnished Trump.
The “debate” didn’t ease Trump’s political predicament. He can scarcely afford to lose support at this point. His unwillingness to denounce white supremacists unambiguously, his apparent incitement of violence and his threats -- “This is not going to end well” -- were as alarming as they were norm-shattering. Even some of Trump’s Senate Republican lackeys openly expressed unease.
Though Biden provided some substance and obviously didn’t stoop to Trump’s level, he wasn’t at his best. He occasionally appeared thrown off by Trump’s behavior, and failed to convey the stature and sense of command that people desire in a president. By calling Trump a “clown” and telling him to “shut up,” Biden may have been trying to show that he, too, can play a tough guy. But is this how Americans want a president to talk?
Some semblance of a coherent argument could be glimpsed in Trump’s attempt to ram through the Republican-controlled Senate the nomination of the right-wing judge Amy Coney Barrett to fill the Supreme Court seat vacated by the death of liberal hero Ruth Bader Ginsburg. By trying to have her confirmed and seated in a few weeks, Trump is again going against democratic assumptions as well as public opinion. Trump openly states that he wants Barrett on the bench to improve his chances if a case involving the election outcome reaches the Court. Republican senators seem unwilling to insist that Barrett recuse herself to avoid such a flagrant conflict of interest.
Trump’s disinclination -- and perhaps inability -- to reach beyond his right-wing base, which is insufficient to elect him, also calls into question his political acumen, and is one of many reasons to doubt his basic intelligence (an issue on which he is quite sensitive). But one thing about the president is now clearer than ever: In order to perpetuate his hold on power, Trump is testing the constitution in unprecedented ways.
Elizabeth Drew is a Washington-based journalist and the author, most recently, of “Washington Journal: Reporting Watergate and Richard Nixon’s Downfall.” -- Ed.