What the freakout over Trump’s self-pardon claim misses

Congress, not the president, is ultimately in charge.

President Trump’s lawyers have provoked great consternation of late by laying out a theory of executive power that is sufficiently broad as to leave open the possibility that the president of the United States is legally permitted to pardon himself. The most common response to this asservation has been that the president, who has subsequently endorsed the idea, is gearing up to insist that he is “immune from the law,” or, more bluntly, that he is allowed to “get away with his crimes.” A few observers have added that this capacity, if exercised in response to a Mueller-secured conviction, would effectively make Trump a “dictator.” We are, it seems, on the verge of a new dawn.

That it would be a disgrace for Trump to take such a step is self-evident. As a matter of elementary political hygiene, voters must always oppose politicians who would separate themselves from the law. But I must confess to fearing that, should Trump elect to go down this road, we will comfort ourselves with the insistence that the cause of the crisis was this president rather than a persistent structural imbalance that has been nine decades in the making. I must confess to worrying, too, that we will respond by damaging the constitutional order in a misguided attempt to save it. There’s not been much reflection to go along with the outrage. This will only matter if we let it.