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A Felon in the Oval Office Would Test the American System

U.S.A Felon in the Oval Office Would Test the American System

The revolutionary hero Patrick Henry knew this day would come. He might not have anticipated all the particulars, such as the porn actress in the hotel room and the illicit payoff to keep her quiet. But he feared that eventually a criminal might occupy the presidency and use his powers to thwart anyone who sought to hold him accountable. “Away with your president,” he declared, “we shall have a king.”

That was exactly what the founders sought to avoid, having thrown off the yoke of an all-powerful monarch. But as hard as they worked to establish checks and balances, the system they constructed to hold wayward presidents accountable ultimately has proved to be unsteady.

Whatever rules Americans thought were in place are now being rewritten by Donald J. Trump, the once and perhaps future president who has already shattered many barriers and precedents. The notion that 34 felonies is not automatically disqualifying and a convicted criminal can be a viable candidate for commander in chief upends two and a half centuries of assumptions about American democracy.

And it raises fundamental questions about the limits of power in a second term, should Mr. Trump be returned to office. If he wins, it means he will have survived two impeachments, four criminal indictments, civil judgments for sexual abuse and business fraud, and a felony conviction. Given that, it would be hard to imagine what institutional deterrents could discourage abuses or excesses.

Moreover, the judiciary may not be the check on the executive branch that it has been in the past. If no other cases go to trial before the election, it could be another four years before the courts could even consider whether the newly elected president jeopardized national security or illegally sought to overturn the 2020 election, as he has been charged with doing. As it is, even before the election, the Supreme Court may grant Mr. Trump at least some measure of immunity.

Mr. Trump would still have to operate within the constitutional system, analysts point out, but he has already shown a willingness to push its boundaries. When he was president, he claimed that the Constitution gave him “the right to do whatever I want.” After leaving office, he advocated “termination” of the Constitution to allow him to return to power right away without another election and vowed to dedicate a second term to “retribution.”

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