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After the completion of the Senate impeachment trial of President Donald J. Trump, Susan Collins opined that surely Trump learned something from the ordeal. Speaking to Norah O’Donnell of CBS News, Collins said, “I believe that the president has learned from this case.” After O’Donnell asked what Trump had learned, Collins replied, “The president has been impeached. That’s a pretty big lesson.”
Nearly seven months later, it’s worth asking if Trump learned any lesson at all and, if so, what it was.
Trump has acted as if his party would not hold him accountable, that he could break norms and laws and that Republican office-holders would, as a group, do nothing to stop him.
We saw Trump breaking the law just last week at the Republican National Convention. The White House, other government facilities and taxpayer compensated staff were used to promote Trump’s reelection, violating the Hatch Act.
According to an account in The New York Times, Trump’s response to valid criticisms of this law-breaking was glee. According to the news story, “Mr. Trump’s aides said he enjoyed the frustration and anger he caused by holding a political event on the South Lawn of the White House, shattering conventional norms and raising questions about ethics law violations. He relished the fact that no one could do anything to stop him, said the aides, who spoke anonymously to discuss internal conversations.”
Recently Miles Taylor, a high-level Trump appointee at the Department of Homeland Security who worked on Trump’s 2016 campaign, revealed that when Trump was told what he wanted to do was illegal, he replied that he would just pardon the law-breakers. Promising pardons for illegal acts is not only corrupt, but shows a contempt for the rule of the law.
If elected to a second term, Trump would be further unbound, and Republicans no more inclined to limit him.
Yet, rather than ensuring he stay within the law, the Republican Party has overtly become the party of Trump. Instead of developing a platform laying out a set of ideas and policies, the Republican National Committee issued a one-page document stating its fealty to Trump.
But putting so much power in the hands of one person is not the system our founders designed. The American revolutionaries had chafed under a monarchy and the drafters of the Constitution recognized that, due to human nature, those in power would seek more power.
To stop any branch or person becoming too powerful, the Constitution was devised to limit each. As James Madison wrote, the constitutional system’s “constant aim is to divide and arrange the several offices in such a manner as that each may be a check on the other.” Legislators would check the president.
Trump’s presidential law-breaking also conflicts with the oath of office to follow the Constitution, which requires the president “take care that the laws be faithfully executed.”
As Sen. Mitt Romney proclaimed in explaining why he voted to remove Trump from office, Trump committed “a flagrant assault on our electoral rights, our natural security interests, and our fundamental values.” Said Romney, “Corrupting an election to keep oneself in office is perhaps the most abusive and destructive violation of one’s oath of office that I can imagine.”
Since then Trump has undermined our electoral rights by trying to delegitimize absentee voting and underfunding the Postal Service.
When Mainers look at how Trump thumbs his nose at the law, breaks his constitutional oath of office and enjoys doing so, a question they should ask is: “Did Susan Collins ensure Trump learned any lesson?”
No doubt Collins hoped Trump would respect laws and traditions. But, unfortunately, the lesson Collins taught Trump is that she, along with nearly all Republicans in Congress, will not stop his law-breaking and corruption and therefore fail to do their jobs in our constitutional system of checks and balances.
Amy Fried is chair of the Department of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views are her own and do not represent those of any group with which she is affiliated.