If the President Does It, It’s Not Illegal?
By John W. Whitehead
“When the President does it, that means that it is not illegal.”—Richard Nixon
Since 9/11, George W. Bush has been trampling all over the Constitution. Unfazed by public opinion, the law or Congress, Bush seems to think he can get away with anything.
His most recent attempt (that we know of, at least) to expand his powers beyond all legal justification came in July 2007. Falling conveniently under the rubric of national security, Bush issued an executive order which authorizes the government to freeze the financial assets of anyone who directly or indirectly aids someone who has committed or “poses a significant risk of committing” violent acts “threatening the peace or stability of Iraq.”
Yet as Walter Pincus pointed out in the Washington Post, the text of the order, entitled “Blocking Property of Certain Persons Who Threaten Stabilization Efforts in Iraq,” if interpreted broadly, “could cast a far bigger net to include not just those who commit violent acts or pose the risk of doing so in Iraq but also third parties—such as U.S. citizens in this country—who knowingly or unknowingly aid or encourage such people.”
In fact, the language is so broad that ordinary Americans who oppose the Iraq war could find their names on the list of persons who are perceived to be undermining “efforts to promote economic reconstruction and political reform” in Iraq. With public support for the war in Iraq plummeting, this could mean almost anyone.
This executive order is just the latest example of Bush’s surreptitious attempts through various presidential directives, executive orders and stealth provisions to lay claim to a host of unprecedented powers. For example, last fall, the Bush Administration engineered into a mammoth defense budget bill the insertion of two stealth provisions that authorize the president to use the military as a domestic police force in response to a natural disaster, disease outbreak, terrorist attack or any “other condition.” And another “presidential directive” issued in May 2007 allows Bush to assume control of the federal government following a “catastrophic event” such as an earthquake, hurricane or another 9/11.
Undaunted by plummeting approval ratings, George Bush just keeps moving forward. And our paper tiger Congress isn’t helping matters much, either. As Jonathan Alter noted in Newsweek, right before leaving for their summer recess, Congress “sold out the Constitution to cover their political rears while keeping the rest of us mostly in the dark.” Giving in to pressure from the White House, Congress passed the Protect America Act of 2007 (the title alone should be a warning that illicit motives are at work), which authorizes open-ended surveillance of Americans’ overseas phone calls and e-mails without the need for a warrant or security justification. It is, as Aziz Huq writes in The Nation, “power without responsibility.”
We are long past the point of concerning ourselves about the potential for abuse. This is out and out abuse—of a federal office, of governmental powers, of the oath made to the American people to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution. President Bush is clearly not listening to the American people, and the law means next to nothing to him—unless he can bend it to his own purposes.
Which leaves us where, exactly? The groundwork has been laid, the documents signed and the powers transferred. For all intents and purposes, the Bill of Rights is as good as dead. All we await is the fall of the axe to signal that what has been plotted on paper is now a reality: the Bill of Rights will soon cease to afford us any protection from an imperial president.
And still President Bush continues to add to his list of extraordinary orders and directives, granting himself near dictatorial powers. Congress, with little spine, less integrity and too busy running for re-election, offers little attempt at oversight, enabling the president to ride roughshod over the Constitution. And the media—the perfect accomplice in this stealthy, bloodless coup—content to inundate us with the latest celebrity scandal, says virtually nothing about Bush’s burgeoning powers.
All the while, most Americans continue to operate in blissful near-ignorance, unaware or uncaring that the republic is about to fall. Yet, in the end, “we the people”—not the president or the politicians—are the ones who will suffer the consequences. They may justify violating our freedoms in the name of national security and the war against terrorism, but we will always be the ones to pay the price.
Let us not forget that presidents don’t give up power. Furthermore, what George Bush is currently doing is preparing a toolbox of power for the next president, whomever that might be. And the Constitution be damned.