Washington Blackmail

Article Two, Section Three, of our constitution obliges the president to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed.” The current occupant defies this legal mandate by ensuring that the laws cannot be faithfully executed. Federal agencies designated to execute US laws have been shut down in consequence of his deliberate inaction on Congressional budget appropriations. Donald Trump demands an appropriation for a wall between the US and Mexico, and the newly-installed Congress can’t or won’t accommodate him. He has no power over Congress, but he does have the power to interrupt government. He threatened to do just that, and he did it.

Trump should have consulted a criminal lawyer or maybe applied a little common sense before resorting to this tactic. His threat was an act of extortion, a felony under Title 18 of the US Code. What he did was blackmail, by any definition, legal or conversational. He did this “in our face,” and we are now obliged to hold him accountable. If we decline, we sacrifice the rule of law. With extreme prejudice.

From a legal standpoint, the case against Trump is open-and-shut. He’s committed malfeasance by extortion, a species of misconduct that’s been pursued by corrupt public officials throughout recorded history. They use their authority to exact something of value from others. In a typical fictional case, a crooked cop expects a free lunch from the restaurants on his beat and withholds police services from uncooperative merchants. Trump’s government shutdown differs only in scale.

The crime of extortion is not difficult for ordinary citizens to grasp, although they might have some trouble appreciating the wrongfulness of the conduct. Their news media find no fault in the shutdown tactic, maybe because it’s not without precedent, and it gives reporters something to talk about. They depend on government officials for just about everything they report about government, and this makes them reluctant critics. Abuses of authority–even government shutdowns–are taken for granted.

When it comes to raising money, Congress has the upper hand. The media like to refer to Trump’s border wall as a “campaign promise,” but he’s in no position to deliver anything but persuasion. The House of Representatives is where the Constitution says appropriations of money must originate, and that body is not persuaded. The law does not permit Trump to shut down exective offices to pressure the legislative branch to make an appropriation. In fact, the preservation of the rule of law now obliges the legislative branch to bring him to account for this high crime.