President Donald Trump’s order to his secretary of state to declassify thousands of Hillary Clinton’s emails, along with his insistence that his attorney general issue indictments against Barack Obama and Joe Biden, takes his presidency into new territory — until now, occupied by leaders with names like Putin, Xi and Erdogan.
Trump has long demanded — quite publicly, often on Twitter — that his most senior Cabinet members use the power of their office to pursue political enemies. But his appeals last week, as he trailed badly in the polls and was desperate to turn the national conversation away from the coronavirus, were so blatant that one had to look to authoritarian nations to make comparisons.
He took a step even Richard Nixon avoided in his most desperate days: openly ordering direct immediate government action against specific opponents, timed to serve his reelection campaign.
“There is essentially no precedent,” said Jack Goldsmith, who led the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel under President George W. Bush and has written extensively on presidential powers. “We have a norm that developed after Watergate that presidents don’t talk about ongoing investigations, much less interfere with them.”
“It is crazy and it is unprecedented,” said Goldsmith, now a professor at Harvard Law School, “but it’s no different from what he has been saying since the beginning of his presidency. The only thing new is that he has moved from talking about it to seeming to order it.”
Trump’s vision of the presidency has always leaned to exercising the absolute powers of the chief executive, a writ-large version of the family business he presided over. “I have an Article II,” he told young adults last year at a Turning Point USA summit, referring to the section of the Constitution that deals with the president’s powers,