May 13, 2017 by


George Washington rejected fancy titles, so today we use “Mr. President.” Credit Spencer Platt/Getty Images

When George Washington was preparing to take office, everybody wondered what to call him. Senators proposed lofty titles like “Illustrious Highness” and “Sacred Majesty.”

But Washington expressed irritation at such fawning, so today we are led by a modest “Mr. President.” Later, Washington surrendered office after two terms, underscoring that institutions prevail over personalities and that, in the words of the biographer Ron Chernow, “the president was merely the servant of the people.”

That primacy of our country’s institutions over even the greatest of leaders has been a decisive thread in American history, and it’s one reason President Trump is so unnerving. His firing of James Comey can be seen as simply one element of a systematic campaign to undermine the rule of law and democratic norms.


Donald Trump, depicted in a painting at Mar-a-Lago, has a different attitude than Washington had toward being fawned over. Credit Eric Thayer for The New York Times

Human rights, women’s rights, health, global affairs.

Comey took the investigation into possible collusion between the Kremlin and the Trump campaign seriously enough that for his last three weeks leading the F.B.I. he was getting daily updates, according to The Wall Street Journal. The new acting director of the F.B.I. confirms that the inquiry is “highly significant.”

For months, as I’ve reported on the multiple investigations into Trump-Russia connections, I’ve heard that the F.B.I. investigation is by far the most important one, incomparably ahead of the congressional inquiries. I then usually asked: So will Trump fire Comey? And the response would be: Hard to imagine. The uproar would be staggering. Even Republicans would never stand for that.


President Trump speaking at an event in the Rose Garden early this month. Credit Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Alas, my contacts underestimated the myopic partisanship of too many Republicans. Senator Charles Grassley, an Iowa Republican, spoke for many of his colleagues when he scoffed at the furor by saying, “Suck it up and move on.”

This goes way beyond Comey. When judges block presidential orders, Trump denounces the courts. When the opposition criticizes him, Trump savages individual Democrats. When journalists embarrass him, Trump threatens to tighten libel laws and describes the press as “the enemy of the people.”

Trump has also challenged and evaded the ethics rules that traditionally constrain administration officials. He has breached the four-decade norm that presidential candidates release their taxes. And — how else to put this? — he has waged war on truth. These days, any relationship between White House statements and accuracy seems coincidental.


James Comey on his first day as F.B.I. director in 2013. Last week Mr. Trump fired him. Credit Stephen Crowley/The New York Times

Patterns emerge. Trump also ousted Preet Bharara, a U.S. attorney who infuriated Moscow and investigated Tom Price, Trump’s secretary of health and human services. Likewise, Trump fired Sally Yates, the acting attorney general, after she warned the White House that Michael Flynn could be blackmailed over his lies about Russian contacts.

In short, Trump challenges the legitimacy of checks on his governance, bullies critics and obfuscates everything. Trump reminds me less of past American presidents than of the “big men” rulers I covered in Asia and Africa, who saw laws simply as instruments with which to punish rivals.

It’s reported that Trump sought a pledge of loyalty from Comey. That is what kings seek; the failure to provide one got Thomas More beheaded. But in a nation of laws, we must be loyal to laws, norms and institutions, not to a passing autocrat.

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