'Absolute' power? Not in the United States

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IF YOU live long enough, and I have, you come to comprehend what the old sayings mean: "The more things change, the more they stay the same," and, maybe, "What goes around, comes around" ... again and again.

When I began my career as a newspaperman Richard Nixon was in the White House fighting to keep his grip on power in the midst of the Watergate investigation. Increasingly, it became obvious the American system of government was at a crisis point. And, increasingly, concerns over Nixon's desperation led other government leaders and institutions - including military brass - to take steps to guard against his ability to do something truly unhinged.

Which brings my thoughts to the present moment.

FROM THE Twitter account of President Trump: "As has been stated by numerous legal scholars, I have the absolute right to PARDON myself, but why would I do that when I have done nothing wrong? In the meantime, the never ending Witch Hunt, led by 13 very Angry and Conflicted Democrats (& others) continues into the mid-terms!"

That was followed by, "The appointment of the Special Councel [sic] is totally UNCONSTITUTIONAL! Despite that, we play the game because I, unlike the Democrats, have done nothing wrong!"

And on that topic of "absolute" presidential power, Trump's lawyer Rudolph Giuliani weighed in during an interview with HuffPost:

"In no case can he be subpoenaed or indicted" while in office ... "I don't know how you can indict while he's in office, no matter what it is ..." and "If he shot James Comey, he'd be impeached the next day. Impeach him, and then you can do whatever you want to do to him."

THESE ARE the kind of arguments that essentially hold a sitting president above the law, subject to none of the normal restraints governing each and every American.

The words are stunning.

And wrong.

In the United States, from the beginning, there's no such thing as "absolute" or unquestioned executive power. Article II, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution grants the president broad pardon authority, but the sense that anything is absolute and beyond challenge is largely untested. If a sitting president decided to pardon himself for breaking some law, it is a very safe assumption that would be tested immediately in the courts.

And let us pause to acknowledge House Speaker Paul Ryan of Janesville, who (finally) pushed back by saying Trump "shouldn't" pardon himself because "no man is above the law."

Likewise, the idea a special counsel appointment is unconstitutional runs contrary to historical precedent and federal law. Apparently, from arguments put forth by Giuliani, the claim rests on a concept the president as chief executive is in charge of all agencies and personnel of the government and is not subject to investigations or consquences unless he chooses to allow it.

As for the notion a sitting president could commit felonious crimes while in office but not be subject to subpoena or indictment, there is broad disagreement among legal scholars on both sides.

SO LET history be our guide.

Go back to the beginning. The Founders fought a war to rid themselves of absolute power vested in an executive - in that case, a monarch.

In 1787 a Constitution was delivered, establishing a central government comprised of three branches and limiting the authority of each through a series of ingenious checks and balances. There was clearly no intent to tolerate an all-powerful executive.

In practice, none other than George Washington set the standard. Popular respect and adulation for Washington was such that he likely could have become a king or emperor, had he so desired. But Washington not only sought and accepted limited authority, he set the precedent for generations by voluntarily surrendering the office after two terms.

In doing all this the Founders bequeathed to the nation a government of laws, not men. All people - rich or poor, powerful or weak, of high office or low station - are accountable and answer to the same set of governing principles.

AS A young journalist I intensely followed the Watergate investigation. In the end, the rule of law stood the test. Several of Nixon's aides and enablers were convicted and served time. Nixon himself resigned in disgrace and may have faced criminal charges but for the pardon granted by his successor, President Gerald Ford.

A powerful argument can be made that America emerged stronger, because the center held and the Founders' institutions were tested and found capable to the task.

The nation is being tested again. Mind you, I say that with no knowledge of whether President Trump ultimately will be found to have done anything wrong or illegal.

Rather, my thoughts revolve around these assertions that any American president could exert "absolute" executive authority to protect himself - or anyone else - from being investigated or held accountable under the laws of the nation.

If that outcome ever takes root - and executive tyranny supersedes legal process - we will no longer live in the America our Founders intended.

T.S. Eliot wrote, "This is the way the world ends. Not with a bang but a whimper."

As liberty would end if Americans allow anyone to hold themselves above the law.

FINAL NOTE: As current controversies revive early memories of the Watergate era, I'm reminded of the small part the Beloit Daily News played in the after-drama. Then-staffer Steve Snider and I scored an exclusive interview in 1979 - how that happened is a story in itself - in a Chicago hotel room with John Ehrlichman, recently released after serving a federal sentence related to his Watergate misdeeds while he was Nixon's right-hand man for domestic policy. In the course of the interview Ehrlichman responded to a question and confirmed a secret deal had been in place, with Nixon agreeing to resign only after assurances Ford would grant him a pardon for all crimes. To that date, no one in a position to know had confirmed the existence of an arrangement. Our story went out on national news wires and the paper won a national Associated Press award. Kind of a cool piece of Beloit's journalism history.

William Barth is the Editor of the Beloit Daily News.

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