The Constitutional Crisis is Here

How a vital check-and-balance system has eroded under Trump, and what that means.

November 15, 2018


Much has been made of the revolving door within the Trump administration. So much, in fact, that The Atlantic recently introduced a “Cabinet Tracker” to take stock of Trump’s ever-evolving cabinet. The current Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, Kirstjen Nielsen, is reportedly set to be replaced soon. Heather Nauert, a State Department spokeswoman whose loyalty to Trump was the source of tension between her and former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, is the favorite to replace Nikki Haley as the United Nations Ambassador.

There is a current national conversation about an impending constitutional crisis, a perhaps not-too-distant future wherein the levers of constitutional power operate in synchronicity with an ideology, rather than American values. To think of this in future terms, however, is misguided. A crisis exists with this administration and its particular crop of cabinet appointees and judicial nominees, whose adherence to party ideology knows no limit and who come amid the gradual erosion of norms and institutions that have historically served as bulwarks to authoritarian impulses.

This administration’s disregard for norms manifested early on, in the form of Trump’s feud with the press. Last month, Trump referred to the “Fake News Media” as the “true Enemy of the People.” His adversarial relationship with media, particularly media criticism, culminated last week in a White House ban on CNN reporter Jim Acosta. The press holding elected officials accountable to the truth is as American a tradition as any other. In most cases, a working relationship between both parties has been maintained by a system responsive to the freedom of the press.

Now is a different case. Shortly after the administration issued its ban of Acosta, they used a doctored video to support its decision, while continuing attacks on assorted media. These decisions comport with their general stance toward the press, and betray a disregard for both the freedom of the press and those norms which have supported it.

Another crisis point consists in the troubling appointment of Matthew G. Whitaker to acting attorney general. Prior to leading the Justice Department, Whitaker built a reputation as a vocal critic of the Russia investigation, over which he will now directly preside. The likelihood that Whitaker acts on his veritable mandate to undercut the Russia investigation will, by dint of this crisis, go virtually unchecked.

Issues such as these have traditionally been met by an independent judiciary and a strong and functional Congress, both hallmarks of a strong check and balance system. Presently, however, a dysfunctional Congress has proven ill-equipped to keep the administration in check, while the Trump administration has stacked the federal courts with hard-right judges and installed an avowedly partisan Supreme Court justice.

The most marginalized among us stand to suffer the most from this current constitutional crisis. There are many issues in our country which need a meaningful address, and the undermining of foundational norms such as freedom of the press and executive oversight only undermines efforts to do so.

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