EDITORIAL: Stop selfish abuse of presidential powers

York Dispatch Editorial Board
FILE - In this Aug. 21, 2018, file photo, President Donald Trump speaks during a rally in Charleston, W.Va. Trump denied the crimes of his ex-lawyer were criminal, complained about a politician plagiarizing his slogan despite his history of doing the same and defied data in declaring the U.S. is No. 1 in environmental quality. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

President Donald Trump’s cavalier misuse of his office’s many powers and privileges is troubling, self-serving and unseemly — perhaps nowhere more starkly than in his abuse of presidential pardons and, conversely, the ability to revoke individuals’ security clearances.

But these abuses have moved into the realm of the dangerous now that two of the president’s former close associates are facing prison terms.

The conviction of onetime Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort last week for financial misdeeds, coupled with the near simultaneous guilty plea of Trump’s former personal lawyer Michael Cohen to campaign violations and other crimes, raise the stakes in terms of the president’s ability to undermine our system of justice through self-serving pardons.

The submissive Republicans who lead Congress must rile themselves from their partisan stupor and take action to head off what could easily turn into a constitutional crisis.

That Trump cares not a whit for the traditional parameters of his office, including the casual parceling out of pardons, has long been established.

Unlike his predecessors, the president dispenses with Department of Justice consultations. The legal particulars of a case have no bearing on his decision-making.

Rather, pardons are seen as favors to friends, as was the astoundingly inappropriate legal pass given to former Maricopa County, Arizona, sheriff Joe Arpaio.

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Trump has also altered the course of justice at the behest of celebrity friends such as Sylvester Stallone (who secured a pardon for early 20th century boxer Jack Johnson) and Kim Kardashian (who lobbied successfully for clemency for a 63-year-old Tennessee woman).

And his pardon of former Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby seemed to have more to do with poking a stick in the eye of former FBI Director James Comey (who, as then-deputy attorney general, appointed the special counsel in Libby’s case) than with any righteous indignation regarding Libby himself.

But Trump took the wielding of presidential power to settle personal scores to new heights this month when he revoked the security clearance of former CIA Director John Brennan.

Trump justified the move by claiming Brennan had made “a series of unfounded and outrageous allegations — wild outbursts on the internet and on television — about this administration.”

That certainly describes someone’s recent behavior, but it’s not Brennan’s.

What the former CIA director is guilty of is being a fierce critic of the president. Brennan, for instance, dubbed Trump’s actions as “treasonous” following the president’s subservient performance at a Helsinki press conference last month with Russian leader Vladimir Putin.

In case other Trump critics were slow to get the hint, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders named other former officials whose security clearances were being reconsidered. It was basically a hit list of Trump critics, including, as it did, Comey; Sally Yates, a former acting attorney general; Susan Rice, a former national security adviser; Andrew McCabe, a former deputy FBI director; and Peter Strzok, a former FBI agent.

There have even been reports that Trump has considered revoking the security clearance of former President Barrack Obama and other members of his administration because, according to the New York Post, “the White House believed former Obama administration officials were a threat to the president.”

This shouldn’t need to be said, but decisions about pardons and security clearances ought not to be made to settle scores, to discourage criticism or as favors to friends. With singular exceptions — President Bill Clinton’s pardon of fundraiser Marc Rich leaps to mind — they have been made to right historic wrongs (in the case of pardons) or protect the national interest (in the case of pulling security privileges).

As more serious criminal charges and convictions come ever closer to Trump and his White House, Congress must act quickly to constrain the president’s ability to abuse these powers to hinder ongoing investigations or subvert the rule of law.