OPED: Trump defies the Constitution, and sanity

Jules Witcover
Tribune News Service

President Trump's attempt to have the Supreme Court reverse two lower courts that have rejected his demand for a travel ban against certain Muslim refugees and immigrants raises questions about his political judgment, if not about his actual sanity.

Allie Morgan, a University of Colorado graduate student, is among dozens of people at a travel ban protest at the University of Colorado in Boulder on Thursday, Feb. 9, 2017. ( Cliff Grassmick/Daily Camera via AP)

At precisely the time those courts have emphatically ruled against imposing an unconstitutional prohibition on travelers from six specific Middle East countries, Trump has doubled down by brazenly arguing that such a religious ban is justified by national security considerations.

Amid a semantic argument over the real purpose and legal basis for the temporary relief sought by the president, he has added insult to injury by resorting to a divisive tweets bucking the highest court.

Arguing against what he called his own Justice Department's "watered-down" version of its first proposal as "politically correct," Trump tweeted that Justice should advance a "much tougher" version of the ban, presumably with his blessing.

His White House press secretary, Sean Spicer, had insisted earlier that the order was not a "travel ban" but merely an enhanced vetting procedure aimed at possible terrorists. Last week Trump explicitly tweeted: "People, the lawyers and the courts can call it whatever they want, but I am calling it what we need and what it is, a TRAVEL BAN!"

Trump lawyers and administration staff aides could understandably have been dismayed at that response. It directly and even defiantly harpooned the Trump camp's rationale that religious discrimination against Muslims was not involved, but rather that the demands of national security reasonably took precedence.

But Trump's decision to revert to his original defense of a "travel ban" underscored his determination speak for himself via Twitter. He did so again despite many calls from within his political circle that he lay off the social media platform.

When deputy White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked whether Trump's tweets were being vetted by aides, she said, "Not that I'm aware of." In any event, Trump continues marching to his own drummer, whatever the political consequences.

Indeed, his pointed defense of the term "travel ban" suggested that he failed to recognize the additional damage he was doing to his legal argument, and that in his personal ire toward the lower courts he was defiantly striking back. He was still not accepting that the judiciary branch has irrefutable constitutional powers and rights in its own bailiwick.

Trump has several times reiterated personal animosity toward Muslims, reinforcing the notion that his proposed travel ban is based at its core on religious discrimination. His insistence on calling his first immigration reform initiative a "travel ban" seems an open invitation to the full nine-member Supreme Court to deliver him a clear lesson on the constitutional separation of powers.

Yet none of this judicial defiance by Trump appears to offer the means by which his political foes might bring a premature end to his young presidency. In this new era of politics and governing in which Trump's unfamiliarity shows through so glaringly, it is growing more obvious that this country has elected a president who by inexperience, temperament and lack of knowledge of how government works is woefully in over his head.

He appears to see neither the wisdom nor the imperative to function within a political system that is far different from the world of real estate and finance, in which muscle matters much more than compromise and finesse.

All this comes at a time when he rails against the cloud cast by Russian interference in the 2016 election, which was highlighted in last week's testimony by fired FBI Director James Comey. Questions of Trump's competence are competing now with those of his credibility as president. He has proved to be a master salesman of himself, but he has not yet accepted the constitutional limits placed on the office he has acquired. The Supreme Court will have the opportunity in the "travel ban" case to educate him emphatically on it.

— Jules Witcover's latest book is "The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power," published by Smithsonian Books.