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Patriotism above president

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Monday, April 22, 2019

Patriotism prevailed, and it is likely to continue prevailing.

This is the most significant revelation to come from the long-awaited Mueller report when it documented instances of individuals in President Trump’s circle of aides and allies refusing to do his bidding. They helped save him from himself by failing to carry out crazy illegal presidential orders.

Far more important, they saved the country, putting patriotism above president. And this bodes well for the remainder of the Trump presidency because we can only imagine how deep patriotism runs in hallowed institutions such as the U.S. military.

Former White House counsel Don McGahn didn’t carry out Trump’s order to fire Robert Mueller, warning it would echo Watergate as another Saturday Night massacre, triggering impeachment. Trump railed against McGahn, using profanities and threatening his job, all to no avail.

According to the report, former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski was told “to tell the attorney general to limit the scope of the Russia investigation to prospective election-interference only.” Lewandowski, a known Trump toady, never delivered the message to Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

Mueller declined to recommend prosecution of the president because he could not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Trump had criminal intent. Yet, anyone watching this president and/or listening to his rhetoric knew he wanted to end the Russia investigation. He even told NBC News anchor Lester Holt that’s why he fired FBI Director James Comey.

Then, Trump’s lawyers saved him from self-incrimination. After stonewalling for months, they refused to make the president available for an interview with Mueller. Proving intent without being able to interview Trump was Mueller’s undoing. Refusing direct access to Trump was a brilliant piece of lawyering. In the written responses Trump gave to Mueller, he said he didn’t know or couldn’t remember 36 times. If he had done that in person, Mueller would have had his case.

The pushback Trump got from his closest aides and allies is nothing compared to the pushback awaiting him if he extends his attempted abuse of power beyond the confines of the White House, the Pentagon being just one of the obvious bastions of patriotism.

For example, when it comes to Venezuela, Trump has hinted he might send in U.S. troops. Military intervention is sometimes warranted, but not when it bypasses the chain of command, or is ordered in a moment of anger and frustration.

During President Nixon’s darkest days of Watergate, Defense Secretary James Schlesinger told the generals and admirals not to carry out any order received directly from the president, but to check with him first. It’s hard to imagine that this type of instruction hasn’t already been put in place, even with an acting defense secretary who hasn’t been confirmed by the Senate, and owes his job to Trump.

The Mueller report is heartening in the sense that an administration as full of toadies as this one can still right the ship occasionally when necessary. Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said there were times when Trump wanted him to do things that were clearly illegal, and he had to explain the law to a frustrated president.

Trump may feel vindicated by the Mueller report, but others in the administration, and especially in the Defense Department, must remain on guard and ready to draw the line between what’s appropriate, and what might be the whim of an out-of-control chief executive.

Washington Merry-Go-Round, the nation’s longest-running column, presents today’s events in historical perspective. Douglas Cohn and Eleanor Clift are veteran commentators.

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