As we move toward the end of the transition to a new President, it becomes harder and harder not to succumb to what I think of as the numbing effect of repeated actions on our measurement of what is, and what is not, acceptable. The numbing effect takes place when your personal sense of what feels right or wrong is slowly changed by, not some large major event, but rather by slow, incremental pressure created by a constant flow of events which build up to become the norm, or at least more acceptable, as they are incessantly piled on top of your judgement. Rather like the infamous water torture, no one individual drop of water drives you over the brink, but rather the slow steady drip, drip, drip does you in.
What happened during the campaign and continues to occur in the Presidential transition is the constant revelation of actions that are ethically dubious at best, and for some, perhaps criminal. Should the President elect’s children auction off access to the President for a half million dollars a pop? Should the President have his own, private Praetorian Guard that is not subject to the standards and rules of the Secret Service? Should the staff of the President elect make a phone call to a foreign embassy in Washington, D.C. to suggest an embassy holiday event be moved from one hotel location in Washington to another location that is owned by a company controlled by the President? How is it that a Presidential transition team thought that there was no problem in demanding that the Department of Energy provide them with the names of each federal employee who had done any kind of work in the area of climate control? Why do they need such information anyway, unless it is to instigate personal retaliation against individual government employees who were only doing their job.
As these stories and many more like them keep coming out every few days it becomes more and more likely that people will begin to just shrug their shoulders and think, oh yes, another story about Trump being Trump. The drip, drip, drip of ethically challenged and legally dubious actions makes the actions feel less concerning, less appalling. For most of us it is very hard to maintain a continuing burn of outrage or even concern as these events simply continue to pile up. This is a very dangerous position for a democracy to be in.
Every President must be held to a very high and strict standard of probity. No President, simply because he or she is wealthy and has multiple business interests, should be able or allowed to ignore the emoluments language in the U.S. Constitution. No President can be allowed to simply ignore laws and regulations in U.S government contracts limiting federal employees from benefiting directly or indirectly from programs under federal control. No President, no member of a Presidential family, no appointed member of the White House staff or the Cabinet can simply assert that long standing conflict of interest laws don’t apply to them simply because they say so. Every President has the obligation to enforce the laws of the country and to live by and within those laws. There are no exceptions. There are no self declared and self defined “outs”.
At some point there must come a reckoning. If the Trump White House does not seriously start backing away from some of the constitutional and statutory boundaries they have crossed, or appear prepared to ignore as the new President and his team legally take charge, then the Legislative and Judicial Branches of our government will have to deal with an unprecedented constitutional crisis.
There is one very important element to keep in mind in this discussion. We are not talking about policy differences here. I am very confident that the new administration will undertake numerous policy initiatives and changes that I will find appalling, dangerous and/or just hurtful but that is what they were elected to do, or at least they can reasonably believe that is the case. This probable avalanche of policy changes, whether it be rolling back EPA environmental regulations, opening up huge tracks of public land for multiple types of private development, eviscerating enforcement of civil rights laws or cozening up to Vladimir Putin, create their own numbing effect on us and must be contested. Still, the most important impact of the numbing effect is on instances of violation of existing laws or attempting to ignore clear Constitutional or statutory language that defines Presidential, White House Staff and Cabinet Officer activities. This is where the proverbial hits the proverbial and where we cannot allow some cumulative numbing effect to stop our public outcry. We cannot and must not become numb to Presidential violations of Constitutional standards and established United States law. There be dragons there.
(Re-posting of 12/23/16 blog)