About halfway through his remarks to a group of far-right students yesterday, Donald Trump launched into a tirade about former Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation and how unfair the president believes it was. It led to these comments:
“I could take anybody in this audience. Give me $40 million. Give me unlimited FBI, unlimited interviews, unlimited – they interviewed 500 people. Listen to this: Two thousand five hundred subpoenas. They did everything. Their collusion; no collusion. They have no collusion.
“Then I have an Article II, where I have the right to do whatever I want as president. But I don’t even talk about that because they did a report and there was no obstruction.”
To know anything about the Mueller report is to know that the president badly mischaracterized the most basic elements of its findings (again). But it was Trump’s reference to Article II that stood out.
The context was a little ambiguous. Does he think the Constitution gives him “the right to do whatever” he wants in general, or specifically with regards to the federal investigation into him and his operation?
Either way, whether the president understands this or not, Article II establishes the powers of the executive branch. It’s the same part of the Constitution that empowers Congress to oversee the presidency – and if necessary, pursue impeachment.
The Washington Post yesterday spoke to Syracuse University law professor William Banks, who said Trump’s comments were an affront to “basic points that every schoolchild learns in civics.”
Referring to Article II, Banks added, “It’s certainly not a grant of unlimited power,” Banks said. “He’s not a monarch, he’s the chief executive … and he’s bound to uphold the rule of law.”
As important as this is, there was a side angle to this that lingered in my mind: doesn’t it seem as if Trump has been talking about Article II a lot, all of a sudden?
Before two months ago, he’d literally never referred to this part of the Constitution on Twitter. Going through the official White House website, there are only a handful of presidential transcripts that reference Article II, and nearly all of them come from the last few months.
According to the Factbase database, Trump didn’t reference Article II at all in his first year as president, and he only mentioned it in a couple of interviews in the latter half of 2018, but he’s used it on multiple occasions since May, including an interview with ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos in which he said, “Article II allows me to do whatever I want.”
Two weeks ago, the president added, “Nobody ever mentions Article II. It gives me all of these rights at a level that nobody has ever seen before. We don’t even talk about Article II.”
It’s a little unsettling that Trump talks about a foundational element of the Constitution like a child who just discovered a new toy. But just as importantly, I get the sense that the president only recently learned about Article II – and whoever explained it to him didn’t do an especially good job.