(Bloomberg Opinion) -- By commuting the prison sentence of Roger Stone, President Donald Trump has made his contempt for the rule of law plain for all to see. Clemency for a crony convicted of interfering with an investigation of presidential malfeasance is a flagrant abuse of power. President Richard Nixon wasn’t willing to pardon the Watergate criminals who broke into Democratic Party offices in the run-up to the 1972 presidential campaign because he knew how bad it would look; the evidence that Nixon hinted at clemency for his convicted associates was part of the reason he was eventually forced to resign or face certain impeachment by the House of Representatives and conviction and removal by the Senate.
Stone, Trump’s friend and a longtime Republican political operative, was sentenced to more than three years in prison for lying to congressional investigators and witness tampering in matters related to inquiries about Russian interference in the 2016 campaign. The investigation by Robert Mueller, the special counsel who conducted the probe of Russia’s activities, concluded not only that Stone had behaved improperly, but that Trump’s public actions praising him were part of what amounted to obstruction of justice.(1) The decision Friday night to commute Stone’s sentence comes after other presidential actions taken after the impeachment acquittal by the Senate that include the firing of several inspectors general, retaliation against officials who testified truthfully to Congress, and of course Trump’s continuing refusal to submit to normal oversight by Congress. All were abuses of presidential power, exactly what the impeachment and removal power of Congress is designed for.
No more investigations are needed to establish that fact. Trump simply has given up on even the pretense of respecting the rule of law and honoring his oath of office. Rather than follow his oath to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States,” Trump is trampling on that document and all it means.
The only question is what to do about it.
And that comes down to Republicans.
The oddity of the situation is that the Stone clemency gives them a last chance that they don’t deserve. At this late date, with people starting to vote in the 2020 election in only a couple of months, the incentives for the party to stand behind their leader are extremely strong. Harsh criticism of a president from highly visible members of his own party would make the president less popular, and given high levels of partisan polarization, that would hurt House and Senate candidates given that ticket-splitting is rare. So however outlandish Trump’s words and deeds, whether he’s suggesting that it might be a good idea for people to inject bleach to cure a coronavirus infection, or attacking a popular Black Nascar driver who found a noose being used as a garage pull, or excusing any number of corrupt actions taken on his behalf, it’s hard for them to criticize the top of their ticket.
But if Republicans wanted an escape hatch — and they should, given how he’s dragging down the party and is apparently unable to do much these days other than feel sorry for himself — now they have one. As we saw during the winter, there’s no strict protocol for impeachment, meaning that if both parties are on board, it could happen very quickly. Indeed, if Republican and Democratic leaders wanted to cooperate, they could do the whole thing in a week or two. Republicans would of course be stuck with Trump attempting to avenge himself through November, but if they stuck together, and if Republican-aligned media backed them, a twice-impeached and once-removed president with a Twitter account and scant institutional support might turn out to be a mild nuisance at most. Republicans would be left with a relatively unblemished President Mike Pence, who might even manage to win some popularity just by showing normal human empathy for those who have been stricken with the coronavirus and others whose lives have been upended.
Will that happen? Of course not. South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham has already spoken in favor of the president’s action. No doubt other Republicans will follow, and the rest will avoid reporters until the news cycle moves on and nobody asks them about Stone anymore. There are no leaders among Republican senators and within the Republican Party overall both willing and able to solve the collective action problem they have. Opposing Trump and getting rid of him at this point can only work if they’re all in it together; but if only some of them speak out, then they will all suffer.
A united Republican Party finally ending this lawless presidency would be the best thing for the nation and for the party. It isn’t going to happen, and chances are that the failure will be punished harshly in November.
(1) Here's how Quinta Jurecic put it in herreport in Lawfare last week about the release of the unredacted Mueller report: "Trump had direct knowledge of Roger Stone’s outreach to WikiLeaks, according to multiple witnesses interviewed by Mueller. He encouraged that outreach and asked his campaign chairman to pursue it further, those witnesses said. And Mueller’s office appears to have strongly suspected, without putting it in so many words, that Trump lied to the special counsel in his written answers to Mueller’s questions about the Stone affair."
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
For more articles like this, please visit us at bloomberg.com/opinion
Subscribe now to stay ahead with the most trusted business news source.
©2020 Bloomberg L.P.