The $64,000 question in Washington, still a lively speculation well into the second year of the Trump era, is whether Donald Trump with a little self-discipline could have accomplished more than he has, or whether a disciplined Donald could accomplish anything at all.
He has accomplished a lot more than his critics give him credit for, beginning with his appointment of Neil Gorsuch and enough lower-court judges to protect the Constitution from judicial abuse for well into the new century. No small thing.
He is rebuilding the American military that America and the West will count on for survival for years to come. No small thing. He reformed the tax code and put “the economy, Stupid,” on an upward trajectory that no one expected. Nancy Pelosi to the contrary notwithstanding, these are no small crumbs.
He routed the ossified Republican establishment, and if those ossified Republicans want to get back in the game they can’t do it posing as Conservatives Lite, continuing to cry to in piteous notes of self-pity and desperation that “we’re not as bad as you think.”
He did all this in spite of himself, and if he were capable of introspection he might wonder himself what he could have accomplished by now if he were not Donald Trump. He has had the gift of incredible luck, running against Hillary Clinton, unchallenged as the most inept and corrupt Democratic presidential nominee since God was in short pants. Now, as he gears up for a campaign for a second term, the not-so-loyal opposition stands splintered and soggy, their hopes for resurrection dependent on two old guys at the cusp of 80 proposing to lead the necessary youth movement, and a clutch of harpies that remind a man of his first and second wives. They’ll need good luck with that.
The Donald might well win that second term. If he were not the man who was brash enough to think he could take on the elites of both parties, the media, the academics and right-thinking Nice People everywhere, and do it with vulgarity and rowdy ribaldry to spare, how much could he have accomplished in his first 400 days? The Donald is Dizzy Dean proving the boast that “if you can do it, it ain’t braggin’.”
But he sure does make it hard on himself, and hard on the many who want to help the president we have. He’s got lawyers aplenty at his beck and call, any one of whom could have explained that “due process” is not what process-servers (with whom he has had some experience) do. Due process, as one of these Blackstones would have explained, is what set our republic apart from all the others more than two centuries ago.
Many, maybe most, of the men and women he recruited for his administration have been good choices. But not all. If he had it to do over again (and if he were not the Donald), he might reflect that nepotism rarely works out well, and presidents have to stand up to their kin, and often cannot.
One of his best appointments is Jeff Sessions, his badly used and abused attorney general. Mr. Sessions’ soft Alabama accent and courtly deep-dyed Southern manner belies the integrity and inner strength of a man who knows who he is, and where he is. He’s loyal to both the president and to his own beliefs, and to the Constitution that outranks all other concerns of a good citizen-lawyer. The president, eager for James Comey and Hillary Clinton to be brought to what he thinks is justice, subjected Mr. Sessions to a Twitter storm for asking the inspector general at the Justice Department to investigate the abuse, if any, of national security interests in the FISA court.
President Trump wants Mr. Sessions to make quick work of bringing the guilty to justice. The inspector general, he says, would “take forever” and one of Mr. Sessions’ lawyers could do the deed faster. It’s true that the first thing lawyers learn is how to keep the meter running.
But this was asking for a bitten lip and a restrained tongue too far. The not-so-subtle suggestion was that a tough lawyer could cut a corner or two and deliver the goods in a hurry. The president was asking the wrong man.
“We have initiated the appropriate process that will ensure that complaints against this department will be fully and fairly acted upon if necessary,” Mr. Sessions replied to the tweet storm. “As long as I am the attorney general, I will continue to discharge my duties with integrity and honor.”
This was the lesson in due process the president needed. Had he taken it to heart, who knows where he would be today.
• Wesley Pruden is editor in chief emeritus of The Times.
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