September 1, 2022 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

Trump is president for life. Just ask him

By claiming to have declassified government secrets, he refuses to recognize the authority of the current president


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As you know, the US Department of Justice responded late Tuesday to the former president’s request for a “special master” to review secret government documents seized last month by federal agents. 

Accompanying the filing to a federal judge was a photograph of some of those documents arranged on the floor in a room at Donald Trump’s home, Mar-a-Lago, some of which are clearly marked “Top Secret/SCI” in bright red lettering. “SCI” means information of foreign spies who risk their lives working for the US government. 

On the one hand, Trump is saying, “Yes, I’m the president.”

On the other hand, prosecutors are saying, “No, you’re not.”

Officials said they believe more documents are to be found and that Trump and his attorneys have been impeding the investigation. According to USA Today, citing prosecutors: “Even more troubling documents remained at the property and, equally troubling, that efforts had been made to possibly ‘obstruct’ the federal inquiry.”

Still president
So far, that’s where the public’s attention has been – on the kinds of documents Trump apparently stole after leaving the White House, on how he’s mishandled them in a private club lousy with foreign spies eager to get their hands on classified information, and on the former president’s apparent crimes. But there’s another aspect to all this.

That aspect can be found in another part of the court filing and in two related words – “standing” and “entitled.” Here’s what federal prosecutors said: “Not only does Plaintiff [Trump] lack standing to raise these claims [allegations against the FBI], but even if his claims were properly raised, Plaintiff would not be entitled to the relief he seeks [the assigning of a ‘special master’ to review the documents].”

I’m not a legal person, but as I understand it, “standing” means who’s qualified to bring a civil suit to civil court. If you have “standing,” as a result of a relevant injury, then you may be “entitled” to relief. 

From the viewpoint of Trump’s attorneys, he has both on account of being the former president of the United States. From the Justice Department’s viewpoint, Trump has neither for the same reason – on account of being the former president of the United States.

On the one hand, Trump is saying, “Yes, I’m the president.”

On the other hand, prosecutors are saying, “No, you’re not.”

“They’re mine”
As I said, most of the public’s attention has been on the kind of documents Trump apparently stole. For this reason, he and his allies have been making noise about a so-called standing order to declassify them the moment they left the White House grounds. 

Not only does the Justice Department’s Tuesday night filing reject that claim. It makes clear that Trump’s “standing order” is irrelevant. Trump has no standing. Nor is he entitled. He’s the former president. 

What matters is that the current executive branch, in which the Justice Department operates, says the documents are classified (or some other official designation). What matters is that the current president has the legal authority to decide, not the former president.

By claiming the right to claim something he has no right to, Trump is demonstrating, one could say, his profound contempt for the rule of law. But it’s not contempt of the law so much as the hoarding of it. 

It is what he says it is. It isn’t what he says it isn’t. As Trump might say, laws are what those classified documents are. “They’re mine.”

It’s another form of sedition.

President for life
American exceptionalism is the idea that the United States is the exception to the rule of global history. In most places and in most times around the world, the mighty ruled, because they were mighty. The law did not bind them. They bound the law. They were the law.

According to the principle of American exceptionalism, however, that can’t happen in the United States. Everyone is equal and everyone receives equal treatment under law. Men do not rule. The law does.

No man is above the law. 

That this is nonsense is not as important as our collective failure to recognize it as such. Anyone with any sense knows that the powerful can break the law without fear of accountability. The point of the invention of corporations, after all, was avoiding personal liability. Corporations may be people, but they’re rarely prosecuted as such.

That the former president is claiming the right to claim something that he has no right to is not an exception to the rule of American exceptionalism. It is, instead, the rule itself. Though we think of ourselves as the exception to global history, might still makes right.

Here, right doesn’t matter as much as might. 

The Republicans agree but they also value the illusion of American exceptionalism. Criminal acts are jim-dandy as long as they’re nice and legal. Trump is a headache for them. He’s bursting the illusion by refusing to recognize the legal authority of the current president. 

Trump is president for life.

Because he says so.

Drop the illusion
Some say the question isn’t whether Donald Trump broke the law. The Justice Department’s filing Tuesday hints hard in the affirmative. The question, we’re told, is whether something will be done about it.

I don’t think that’s the real question, because we already know the likely answer. Senior officials in the Justice Department have said off the record that an indictment before November’s congressional elections is highly unlikely. Equally unlikely is any indictment at all. 

The real question, I think, is whether most people most of them in this country choose to recognize the plain truth about American exceptionalism, and, as a consequence, do something about it. Or whether they decide it feels better to continue believing illusions.

Will most people most of the time see that the principle of American exceptionalism, as noble as it may seem, is in fact providing moral cover for the ugly reality of the powerful getting away with murder?

As it is, our faith in American exceptionalism is getting in the way of justice. In a world without such illusions, maybe Trump gets indicted.

As it is, he probably won’t.

John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.

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