Why Donald Trump will never be 'the president of law and order'

Once a president decides following the law is sometimes optional, he doesn't get to position himself as a "president of law and order."
Image: President Donald Trump walks past police in Lafayette Park after visiting outside St. John's Church across from the White House Monday, June 1, 2020, in Washington.
President Donald Trump walks past police in Lafayette Park after visiting outside St. John's Church across from the White House Monday, June 1, 2020, in Washington.Patrick Semansky / AP

As peaceable protestors were forced from a public park with tear gas so Donald Trump could briefly pose in front of a church, the Republican told Americans that he is "your president of law and order."

The surprising thing wasn't his willingness to peddle the nonsensical claim; the surprising thing was his ability to deliver the line with a straight face.

Slate's William Saletan had a good piece on Sunday -- the day before the president's comments -- making the case that Trump stops believing in the rule of law the moment law enforcement takes a closer look at him and his friends.

There's no mystery left about the president's views on cops. He loves them when they're targeting minorities. But when they investigate him or his friends, he calls them dirty. He's not interested in order, justice, or the rule of law. He's not even interested, as a matter of principle, in defending the police. He's interested in corrupting them.

To a striking degree, Trump is leading with his chin. We are, after all, talking about a president who was identified as "Individual One" in an illegal hush-money scheme that sent his fixer to prison. It's the same president who launched an illegal extortion scheme last year, for which he was impeached.

Trump has also repeatedly abused his pardon power to reward politically connected criminals, dangled pardons to U.S. officials whom he's encouraged to ignore legal limits, and argued that law enforcement should be politicized to advantage his political party.

The president has spent much of his term basically operating from the principle that following the law is sometimes optional. Axios once noted that Trump "sees himself above the traditions, limits and laws of the presidency."

And once a leader adopts such a posture, his ability to credibly position himself as a "president of law and order" effectively evaporates.

But in practical terms, when Trump uses the phrase, he's almost certainly not referring to his willingness to protect the integrity of the rule of law; the president is making a political argument, aligning himself with tactics -- state-sanctioned executions, police abuses, "stop and frisk," etc. -- he considers "strong."

But as the editorial board of the Washington Post concluded today, Trump's "slogans and impulses signal a disrespect for law, and path away from order."