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Going “Full Dictator”? Trump Claims He Has Right to End Mueller Investigation or Pardon Himself

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As President Trump celebrated his 500th day in office Monday, many legal experts warned that the country could soon face a constitutional crisis as the president continues to attack special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation. On Monday, Trump tweeted, “The appointment of the Special Counsel is totally UNCONSTITUTIONAL!” He also tweeted, “As has been stated by numerous legal scholars, I have the absolute right to PARDON myself.” Over the weekend, The New York Times published a 20-page confidential letter written by Trump’s lawyers to special counsel Robert Mueller, in which his lawyers claim Trump is above the law and thus cannot have illegally obstructed the Mueller investigation. Trump’s attorneys also claim the Constitution gives the president power to terminate the Mueller probe. We speak to Philadelphia Daily News columnist Will Bunch in Philadelphia. His latest column is headlined “The week Trump went full dictator and no one tried to stop him.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Monday marked President Trump’s 500th day in office, and many legal experts warn the country could soon face a constitutional crisis as the president continues to attack special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation. On Monday, Trump tweeted, quote, “The appointment of the Special Counsel is totally UNCONSTITUTIONAL!” He also tweeted, “As has been stated by numerous legal scholars, I have the absolute right to PARDON myself.” Later on Monday, NBC’s White House reporter Peter Alexander questioned the White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders.

PETER ALEXANDER: Sarah, let me ask you, if I can: Does the president believe that he is above the law?

PRESS SECRETARY SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS: Certainly not. The president hasn’t done anything wrong.

PETER ALEXANDER: The question isn’t if he’s done anything wrong. I guess the question is: Does the president believe the framers envisioned a system where the president can pardon himself, where the president could be above the law?

PRESS SECRETARY SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS: Certainly, the Constitution very clearly lays out the law. And, once again, the president hasn’t done anything wrong, and we feel very comfortable in that front.

PETER ALEXANDER: I know, but you just, a moment ago, said it’s not—it’s not that clear. So, I guess, simply put: Does the president believe he is above the law?

PRESS SECRETARY SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS: Certainly, no one is above the law.

AMY GOODMAN: Over the weekend, The New York Times published a 20-page confidential letter written by Trump’s lawyers to special counsel Robert Mueller, in which his lawyers claim Trump is above the law and thus cannot have illegally obstructed the Mueller investigation. In the January 29 letter, they claim, quote, “It remains our position that the President’s actions here, by virtue of his position as the chief law enforcement officer, could neither constitutionally nor legally constitute obstruction because that would amount to him obstructing himself, and that he could, if he wished, terminate the inquiry, or even exercise his power to pardon if he so desired.” Trump’s attorneys also claim the Constitution gives the president power to terminate the Mueller probe.

We go now to Philadelphia, where we’re joined by Will Bunch, longtime columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News. Latest column is headlined “The week Trump went full dictator and no one tried tried to stop him.”

Respond to these latest developments and comments of both President Trump, reinforcing this letter that The New York Times got a hold of and released this weekend.

WILL BUNCH: Yeah. And hi, Amy. Hi, Juan. Thanks for having me on. I appreciate it.

Yeah, you know, I wrote that column over the weekend, before this extraordinary tweet from President Trump yesterday in which he claimed that he has the ability to pardon himself. You know, you mentioned it’s been 500 days of President Trump. And it’s day by day we’ve seen him slowly eroding democratic norms, the rule of law, rules, you know. And when he does that, step by step, he not only erodes our democracy, but he’s taking us on a path from a presidency to some kind of dictatorship, where he’s basically, like you said, declaring—like he said, declaring himself above the law. I mean, the letter, the 20-page letter from his lawyers to Robert Mueller, was stunning in the claims that he can shut down the investigation, that he can fire anybody in the Justice Department who’s investigating him, at will, and that he has the right to pardon anybody—Michael Flynn, Michael Cohen and himself, perhaps, although that theory is yet to be tested. So, this is clearly a dangerous time for democracy. And again, we’ve seen it just erode step by step, you know, the fact that he gets away with telling an average of 30 lies a day to the American people and goes unchallenged on that, the—you know, in so many ways.

And, you know, the flip side of that is the Founders always thought that we’d be protected against that, because Congress, the courts, our institutions, the media would step in if somebody was that abusive to our fundamental democracy, and take action. But we have a Congress that’s totally cowed. You know, the Republicans have completely thrown in with Trump, and the Democrats haven’t really adopted an aggressive strategy on how to counter this. The media is debating whether to call a lie a lie. And he is really strengthening this hold over our reality in ways that are very dangerous.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Will, talking about calling a lie a lie, for months and months President Trump continued to say that he was ready to talk to the special prosecutor, and he was looking forward to it. And yet, here, this letter that the Times issued, released, shows that back in January they were already claiming that they didn’t want—that he doesn’t want to talk to Mueller, that they believe that Mueller has all the information he needs and that the president basically doesn’t have the time. It was stunning that yet he has continued to say that he’s willing to talk to the special prosecutor.

WILL BUNCH: Right, it is stunning, Juan. And, of course, something else emerged in that letter, too, which is the fact that the official story line out of the White House about their initial explanation of this Trump Tower meeting with the Russian emissaries in 2016, the issue was whether President Trump had been personally involved in drafting this statement claiming that the meeting was only about adoptions and nothing else, and, you know, there wasn’t a discussion of dirt about Hillary Clinton. The White House had initially denied that Trump had made that—had done that. And now, in their own letter, they admit that Trump did, in fact, dictate the statement. And, you know, Sarah Sanders was pressed on this yesterday, and she doesn’t have a good answer.

And this has just been a hallmark of the Trump administration, you know, just blatant lying. I mean, obviously, Donald Trump is not the first president to lie. You know, we’ve been through LBJ and Vietnam and Watergate and all these other things. But in this case, I mean, the sheer brazenness of it. And, you know, this gets back to the whole issue of democracy versus dictatorship, because what really makes a dictator is the ability to redefine reality, right? So, the more that Trump and his aides, like Sarah Sanders, and his lawyers can come out and just state these blatant untruths, and he’s still—and you wake up the next day, and nothing has really changed, you know, the more dangerous our situation becomes.

AMY GOODMAN: You know, we’ve been doing a lot of reflecting back, 50 years later, on 1968. Now, this is, well, not quite 50 years, maybe more like 41 years, but it was after Nixon resigned, the famous interview that he did with David Frost.

DAVID FROST: The president can decide that it’s in the best interest of the nation, or something, and do something illegal?

RICHARD NIXON: Well, when the president does it, that means that it is not illegal.

DAVID FROST: By definition?


AMY GOODMAN: So, that was Nixon after he resigned, in 1977. Will Bunch, can you compare Nixon and Trump?

WILL BUNCH: Yeah, absolutely. You know, Amy, I came of age during Watergate. I mean, that’s what kind of made me want to go into journalism as a young man. And one of the lessons, supposedly, of Watergate was that we proved that no one is above the law, because Nixon had to resign, he was forced out of office. The truth is, we obviously never really resolved that question, unfortunately. I mean, first of all, the muddies were watered when Gerald Ford pardoned Nixon, so, in a way, he was above the law. He did commit crimes and was not sent to jail or punished for them. And so you had a situation where, three years later, Nixon, instead of being in jail, is a free man, and he’s making this claim that when the president does it, it’s not illegal. I think the vast majority of Americans totally disagree with that statement, and yet we’ve never really resolved that question.

And now we have a president who’s determined to push this to the outer limit. You know, he’s determined to blow by every tradition, every norm, every rule, and he’s basically challenging us to say, “What are we going to do about this?” You know, he’s challenging Congress. He’s challenging the media. He’s challenging the American people. What are we going to do about it? Are we going to, you know, sit on our couches and watch this on TV every night? Are we going to take to the streets? What are we going to do as he gets more and more brazen? And this is really the question we have to resolve, because if the president can show that he’s above the law, that just erodes the underpinnings of our democracy in so many ways. You know, it’s a very risky time.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, of course, even the fact that a president can pardon someone, Trump claims, including himself, doesn’t mean that a crime was not committed, because you’re obviously being pardoned for having broken the law in one way or another. I wanted to ask you about the issue of forbearance, that you talk about in your column—


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —in the Philadelphia Daily News Could you expand on that? Explain your approach on the issue of forbearance.

WILL BUNCH: Yeah, absolutely. You know, this is a term, in terms of politics, that I wasn’t familiar with until this really excellent book came out this year called How Democracies Die. It’s by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt. They’re two political scientists from Harvard. And, you know, they talk about how democracies die and what the road to dictatorship looks like. And one of the important things is, forbearance means, basically, you may have some powers that are not denied to you in the Constitution or that you theoretically could exercise, but forbearance means you don’t use all your powers to the hilt, because that puts you over the edge.

So, pardons are a perfect example of that. The Constitution really doesn’t make clear—you know, gives the president absolute power to issue pardons, so he can pardon his best friend, he can pardon Michael Cohen, theoretically, under the law. But, you know, tradition has restrained us from doing that. What’s actually happened over the last 242 years is we’ve developed a system. People, generally, who want pardons from the president make an application. It goes to the Justice Department. There’s a lengthy review process. Things are taken into consideration, like whether that person has redeemed themselves in some ways. Trump’s pardon process is none of this. He’s playing a game of Celebrity Apprentice with the pardon process, in terms of people he knows, people who are powerful, people who are political allies, like Joe Arpaio.

I mean, you know, when I say democracy has eroded over 500 days, go back about halfway through his term, when he issued that first pardon to Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who hadn’t even been brought to justice yet for violating the rights of immigrants down in Arizona. Basically, that was the first challenge, to say, “You know, this pardon process is completely abnormal. You know, he hasn’t even been sentenced yet, and I’m issuing him a pardon.” He basically was challenging the system: What are you going to do about this? And the answer was nothing. You know, Joe Arpaio is a free man. I think he’s even running for office down there. So, you know, this emboldens him. So then he can pardon Dinesh D’Souza. He can pardon Scooter Libby. And when there’s no uproar about that, it just makes it so much easier for him to pardon someone like Michael Flynn or someone like his own lawyer, Michael Cohen. And so—


WILL BUNCH: So that’s forbearance. You know, it’s kind of going past the guardrails of democracy that all of Trump’s predecessors have followed.

AMY GOODMAN: So, what can people do? For example, Congress. What do Democrats, in the minority, have the power to do? And what would happen if they became the majority in November? And what about Republicans, if the president has absolute power?

WILL BUNCH: Well, in the short term—you know, November, unfortunately, seems like a long time away in Trump years, right? So, you know, I think it’s possible that the Democrats could peel off some moderate Republicans for certain measures, such as legislation that would prevent Trump from firing Robert Mueller. I think that could get some Republican support. You know, whether the leadership would allow a vote on that is another thing. But, you know, I think the Democrats really need to make it clear to the people that if they can gain a majority in the November election, that they’re going to start a full-blown investigation of the Trump administration, with impeachment on the table. I don’t think—I don’t think you can run right now and say, “I’m a yes vote on impeachment,” because we haven’t had the process yet, that we had in 1973 and 1974, of hearings and producing the evidence. But the evidence is there to be produced. You know, a Democratic Congress is going to have subpoena power and more power to gather the information that the public needs.

And, you know, the abuses of the Trump administration have been so dramatic, it really probably shouldn’t take that much time to develop a case for impeachment. And, you know, there’s an argument against impeachment, obviously, which is that you’ll never get enough Republican votes in the Senate to convict and remove Trump, and so what’s the point? But on the other hand, when you look at everything Trump has done—you know, his violations of the emoluments clause, his selling our foreign policy to the highest bidder, whether it’s Russia, whether it’s Saudi Arabia, whether it’s the United Arab Emirates, and now his obstruction of justice in the Mueller case—if Donald Trump can’t be impeached, then why do we even have an impeachment provision in the Constitution? Because he’s just a prima facie case.

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