Connie was right, nearly 4 years ago, and today's column by Tim Wu provides further evidence of that.
Americans are taught that the main function of the U.S. Constitution is the control of executive power: curtailing presidents who might seek to become tyrants. Other republics have lapsed into dictatorships (the Roman Republic, the Weimar Republic, the Republic of China and so on), but our elaborate constitutional system of checks and balances, engineered largely by James Madison, protects us from despotism.
Or so we think. The presidency of Donald Trump, aggressive in its autocratic impulses but mostly thwarted from realizing them, should prompt a re-examination of that idea. For our system of checks and balances, in which the three branches of government are empowered to control or influence the actions of the others, played a disappointingly small role in stopping Mr. Trump from assuming the unlimited powers he seemed to want.
What really saved the Republic from Mr. Trump was a different set of limits on the executive: an informal and unofficial set of institutional norms upheld by federal prosecutors, military officers and state elections officials. You might call these values our “unwritten constitution.” Whatever you call them, they were the decisive factor.
If any of these informal “firewalls” had failed, President Trump might be on his way to a second and more autocratic term. But they held firm, for which the Republic should be grateful.
Consider the first firewall: prosecutorial independence. The prosecution function of the executive branch is not mentioned in the Constitution, and based on the text alone — “the executive Power shall be vested in a President of the United States” — some might think (and some have even insisted) that the president has the power to order federal prosecutors to do his bidding. Mr. Trump claimed that power in 2017, saying “I have absolute right to do what I want to do with the Justice Department.”
But an unwritten norm has long held that the president should not dictate law enforcement decisions in general, and criminal prosecutions in particular. That is why, throughout this fall, even as Mr. Trump urged his appointees in the Justice Department to openly announce a criminal investigation into the Biden family, they did not comply. None of Mr. Trump’s appointees was willing to openly investigate Joe Biden or his family members, let alone issue an indictment or civil complaint.
The second firewall of the unwritten constitution was the U.S. military’s longstanding custom against getting involved in domestic politics. It was invaluable in checking Mr. Trump’s militaristic instincts. Two days after Trump’s June 1 speech in The Rose Garden, Mr. Esper publicly broke with the president, stressing that active duty forces should be used domestically only “as a matter of last resort, and only in the most urgent and dire of situations.” He concluded that “I do not support invoking the Insurrection Act.” ( On November 9, 2020, Trump announced via Twitter that Esper had been terminated from his position.)
General Milley later issued a public apology for participating in Mr. Trump’s photo op. “My presence in that moment,” he said, “created a perception of the military involved in domestic politics.” He added, “I should not have been there.”
The final firewall of the unwritten constitution has been the integrity of state elections officials. Corruption of the people and institutions that set election rules and count votes is an obvious threat to the democratic process. In Russia, for example, the neutrality of its Central Election Commission during President Vladimir Putin’s rule has been repeatedly questioned, especially given the tendency of that body to disqualify leading opposition figures and parties.
The story of Brad Raffensperger, the secretary of state in Georgia and its top elections official, testifies to the potential threats to an election’s integrity during a heated campaign. Mr. Raffensperger, a Republican, was loosely in charge of the vote in a state that went narrowly for Mr. Biden. In that capacity, Mr. Raffensperger was attacked and disparaged by higher-ranking members of his own party. (Like other elections officials around the country, Raffensberger has received death threats). This included such prominent political figures as Georgia’s two senators, David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler. Both demanded Mr. Raffensperger resign for no apparent reason other than his failure to prevent Mr. Biden from winning the state.