Column: Signs of lawlessness that should concern us all

  • Steve Nelson

For the Valley News
Published: 4/12/2019 10:30:22 PM

My mother recently died at age 98. Among the memories I cherish, a certain coming-of-age moment came to mind and elicited what might be my greatest concern at this troubling time in our history.

The coming-of-age moment was not what you might be thinking. It was when I was 8 or 9. Like most, if not all, young boys, my impulses were stronger than my frontal lobe. My parents were not stern disciplinarians. I can remember only one spanking, but I was wary of incurring mom’s wrath and generally followed the rules.

I remember the moment with clarity, all these years later. I did something in the backyard that riled her up and she headed my way. I somewhat playfully ran away and suddenly realized she couldn’t catch me. She tried. I prevailed. The power rush was intoxicating. She couldn’t catch me! I was free! Fortunately, I was not a “What are you going to do if I don’t?” or “You can’t make me!” sort of kid, so the euphoria was quickly tempered by reality. My freedom didn’t extend to escaping my own conscience or the reasonable limits placed on my behavior.

This seems the most dangerous aspect of the moment of history we face in America. We are on the edge of a “What are you going to do if I don’t?” precipice. There are alarming signs of lawlessness that we should heed.

This is not a partisan concern. It is an American concern. Perhaps the best-known test of the law is President Donald Trump’s declaration of an emergency on the southern border so as to appropriate funds for “his” wall. The courts will ultimately decide whether this declaration violates the Constitution’s delegation to Congress of spending authority. But it is deeply troubling that Congress lacked the will to override Trump’s veto of the legislation canceling his order. It was a political capitulation to Trump’s bold, arguably unconstitutional, defiance of the rule of law.

Several congressional committees have requested a significant number of documents related to matters under investigation. Among the matters is casual and dangerous White House behavior in granting top-secret security clearances to individuals, including family members, who were deemed security risks by career intelligence officials. The White House has neither provided the requested information nor even given the courtesy of a response.

The House Judiciary Committee has requested documents from the White House on other matters under investigation and been told by Trump’s lawyers that they will turn over no documents at all.

At a recent PR visit to the border with Mexico, Trump was overheard telling border agents to break the law.

One of the main reasons for the dismissal of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen is that she refused to take some illegal actions. Apparently Trump believes the next appointee will follow orders, legal or not.

Attorney General William Barr appeared before Congress last week and refused to answer some questions, including whether he had shared the Mueller report with the White House. His affect betrayed irritation and impatience at the impudence of Congress for questioning him at all. He was completely evasive about his unilateral choice to exonerate Trump of any obstruction charges, even while acknowledging that the Mueller report did not exonerate the president.

Both the president and America’s chief law enforcement officer seem to believe they are above the law.

There are many other examples of the Trump administration not only flouting convention, but also the rule of law itself. Trump’s use and promise of pardons is clear indication that he intends to override the judgment of prosecutors, judges and juries when it serves his interests.

So far, the rule of law has held, albeit tenuously and inconsistently. A judge blocked Trump’s illegal order to return asylum seekers to Mexico, as well as a handful of other illegal executive orders. But many other acts of executive branch defiance have gone unchecked. There are many indications that Trump and his associates see Congress as a nuisance, not as an equal branch of the government. So far, they seem willing to defy congressional authority with a smug sense of impunity.

It may seem alarmist, but many people, including Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen, worry that Trump might not leave office even if impeached or defeated in 2020. Who will enforce the will of Congress or the results of the democratic process when the power resides with those who defy the rule of law so flagrantly?

In 1974, the rule of law prevailed when President Richard Nixon and a group of corrupt cronies believed they were above the law. I see few signs of similar nonpartisan political courage in the current situation. In the face of far more serious allegations, stonewalling and the refusal to comply with Congress should frighten every citizen. Trump may or may not be guilty of any particular offense, but a line must be drawn when it comes to deference to legitimate authority and compliance with legal processes. When we lose that, we lose everything.

When I was 8 or 9 I found that I could run away from authority. But even at that age, my not-yet-fully-formed conscience knew better.

Do we know better? Do we have a national conscience? This may be the greatest test in our history.

Steve Nelson lives in Boulder, Colo., and Sharon. He can be reached at

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