A federal judge’s stunning rebuke of the White House on Monday came as the result of a case by House Democrats to force former White House counsel Don McGahn to testify. But it serves as a thematic frame for an entire presidency that has never played by the rules.
How it turns out will shape his personal political legacy, the nature of the office he has held for nearly three years and potentially the American political system itself.
The impeachment battle over Ukraine, Trump’s efforts to keep Americans in the dark over his financial past, the lingering questions left over from special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia report and Trump’s determination to rule as an unchallenged commander in chief now all boil down to two simple questions.
The White House on Monday walked away from its latest battles over presidential power with a loss, a temporary win and a bunch of new legal battles.
McGahn ordered to testify
Kicking off a frenzied half hour in Washington on Monday night, federal Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson ordered McGahn to testify before the House of Representatives, which has been trying to force his appearance since April over Mueller’s findings that suggest Trump obstructed justice in the Russia investigation.
Getting right down to the basics that most Americans learn in school, the judge quoted Founding Fathers James Madison and Alexander Hamilton and French diplomat Alexis de Tocqueville to explain the nature of the presidency.
“Stated simply, the primary takeaway from the past 250 years of recorded American history is that Presidents are not kings,” Jackson wrote.
The Justice Department quickly said it planned to appeal the ruling, which has profound implications for the impeachment inquiry, since Trump has launched a similar effort to prevent administration officials from testifying under another sweeping claim of presidential immunity.
Though after five days of public hearings in the impeachment inquiry, public opinion over whether the President ought to be impeached and removed from office remains exactly the same as it was in October, as per the latest poll conducted by SSRS.
Trump vs. the Pentagon
The legal drama erupted on a day when Washington was already waging a debate about the extent of presidential authority.
Trump’s shielding of Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher, who had posed with the corpse of a young ISIS fighter, led to a bewildering set of events that have yet to be explained and the firing of yet another senior official, Navy Secretary Richard Spencer.
Like the State Department, the Justice Department and the intelligence community, the fortress across the Potomac found that traditions, rules and decorum mean little to the President. In one way, the controversy actually offered Washington some relief Monday from the incessant impeachment drama that has dominated the last two months.
Trump’s entire time in office could be viewed as a struggle between the rules and customs that govern the presidency and his attempts to stretch such guardrails to their limits.
Trump claims his political reward
There is no doubt that Trump, as commander in chief, has the power to reverse the demotion of Gallagher, and to pardon two other soldiers accused of war crimes, as he did last week.
But the question becomes: Does his action serve the military, the reputation of America’s servicemen and women, and the nation’s image as a land of laws and military honor?
Gallagher was subject to a rigorous military legal process. He was acquitted of attempted murder, premeditated murder and obstruction of justice. It’s hard to argue that he didn’t get due process and fair treatment from the military.
But Trump left little doubt in an exchange with reporters Monday afternoon that he was seeking a political reward for ordering Defense Secretary Mark Esper to restore Gallagher’s rank.
“I think what I’m doing is sticking up for our armed forces. And there’s never been a President that’s going to stick up for them and has, like I have,” Trump said.