A Trump Presidency and the Legitimacy of Our Institutions

Voters received a useful look yesterday into the administration of justice that might characterize the presidency of Donald Trump, should they elect him in November. Responding to the arrest of Ahmad Khan Rahami in connection with bombings in New York City and New Jersey, Trump, at a rally in Florida, expressed his frustration with what will happen next.

"But the bad part is now we will give him amazing hospitalization," Trump said. "He will be taken care of by some of the best doctors in the world. He will be given a fully modern and updated hospital room. And he will probably even have room service, knowing the way our country is," he said.

Two troubling assumptions are embedded in this statement. The first is that suspects deserve a secondary, presumably less competent, level of medical care while in custody. Seemingly, Trump would be more satisfied if Rahami received poor medical care in a rundown hospital and was made to walk somewhere, though injured, to get food. The second, implied in the first, is that Rahami is guilty (and thus not deserving of the best medical care). Admittedly, this is what most Americans believe, and it may turn out to be true, but the Constitution guarantees a presumption of innocence, pending the verdict of a jury. Guilt or innocence in the United States is not decided in a campaign rally. For a presidential candidate (or president) to presume guilt is to prejudice the judicial system and treat Constitutional protections as inconvenient barriers.

"And on top of all of that, he will be represented by an outstanding lawyer. His case will go through the various court systems for years, and in the end, people will forget and his punishment will not be what it once would have been. What a sad situation", Trump said. "We must have speedy, but fair trials, and we must deliver a just and very harsh punishment to these people," Trump told the Florida rally.

Unpacking this part of Trump's statement, we again see the presumption of guilt. We note Trump's admiration for a speedy trial but his anger that the provision of the best possible defense, also a feature of our justice system, is a barrier to delivering the "just and very harsh punishment" that he has concluded, prior to a trial, Rahami deserves. Further, he assumes that, in the end, the punishment will not fit the crime, though he presents no evidence that a softer penalty will come just because time has passed.

"We're trying to be so politically correct in our country," Trump also told supporters at the rally. He has also urged the government to allow police to "profile" citizens. What that profiling would entail, such as stopping people because of their race, ethnicity, or religion, was left unsaid. Rahami, we should remember, is a U.S. citizen, and profiling has been banned by law and court decision.

Perhaps the gravest danger of Trump's comments is that his words foster delegitimizing the nation's justice system. If it does not produce the result he wants,, it is ipso facto corrupt. He has done this before, claiming that the federal judge in the trial of Trump University would not be impartial because "he has an inherent conflict of interest" - his Mexican heritage.

Delegitimizing American institutions appears to be a conscious strategy of the Trump campaign. He previously applied this approach to the Republican Party primary process ("rigged") and the Pennsylvania electoral system ("the only way I can lose Pennsylvania is if . . . cheating goes on"). He has applied it to the media ("totally dishonest") and to the fairness of presidential debates: "By the way, Lester [Holt - moderator of the first debate] is a Democrat. It's a phony system. They are all Democrats. It's a very unfair system." (Holt has been a registered Republican since 2003.)

Perhaps Donald Trump prefers a country where you get a very fast trial, only a cursory defense, and can be declared guilty by the president in advance. Perhaps he prefers a nation where suspects are thrown in jail with little or substandard medical care. Perhaps he prefers a political process that is much more predictable for the "obvious" choice of the people and a press much more likely to be cowed by the attacks of politicians.

Actually, there are such countries. One of them is Russia, whose leader Trump so admires for his strength. Thankfully, we do not live in Russia. Sadly, we have a man not far removed from being president who seems to wish we did.