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Policy Can't Trump Undermining of Democratic Norms

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

For conservatives who support much of President Donald Trump's agenda but find his character and commitment to democratic norms and the Constitution lacking, a week such as this one is challenging. On the one hand, the president has succeeded in spurring the House of Representatives to introduce a major tax overhaul that will be good for the economy and will benefit both families and businesses, fulfilling one of his major campaign promises. For many conservatives, this is enough to justify supporting a man who has no ideological ballast and whose behavior makes most of the country cringe. As one dear friend of mine -- a former state legislator and a man of real character and faith -- put it to me when I challenged his criticism of those, like me, who don't think Trump is fit for the office he occupies: "Policies, bingo, you said it. ... I can't find a reference in the Constitution to the chief executive as a moral exemplar." But is policy all that matters? And if principle doesn't drive policy, how can we know whether we can trust that it won't change when expediency or political advantage dictates?

This week also displayed the president's glaring defects. When a terrorist struck New York this week, killing eight people and injuring a dozen others, President Trump was quick to blame the justice system and immigration policy for the horrific attack on innocent people biking and walking along a path in lower Manhattan. He also suggested that he'd have the suspect, who was injured by police and in custody, shipped to Guantanamo Bay, though he backtracked later, probably when someone explained to him that the man's legal permanent resident status and the fact that the crime took place on U.S. soil would make that option difficult. But the president followed with calling for the attacker to be put to death for his crime -- before he had even been charged.

That type of reaction would be understandable from a man on the street. All of us react in anger and want quick retribution when something like this happens. But the president of the United States should not attack our justice system by claiming, "We need quick justice and we need strong justice, much quicker and much stronger than we have right now -- because what we have right now is a joke and it's a laughingstock. And no wonder so much of this stuff takes place." When he does so, he undermines the judicial system itself, essentially saying this coequal branch of government is a failed institution. The American judicial system is the best in the world, and it has punished terrorists with swift and sure justice, including imposing the death penalty on Dzhokhar Tsarnaev for the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings and murders and six consecutive life sentences on Zacarias Moussaoui for his role in the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks. America does not engage in vigilantism; we abide by the rule of law, including due process for the accused, no matter how heinous the crime, under the Constitution -- which the president swore to uphold.

But perhaps the worst part of the president's reaction to the attack on Americans was his knee-jerk reaction to blame our immigration system for the deaths. Ending the diversity lottery (which admits about 100,000 permanent residents and their families to the U.S. each year from countries that do not contribute large numbers to our immigrant population) will do nothing to stop terrorism. The president was quick to blame immigration policy for the New York City deaths but loath to blame gun policy for the far deadlier attack in Las Vegas a month ago. Yet the correlation seems far clearer between the high number of deaths in Las Vegas and the shooter's legal access to an obscene number of weapons (47 modified rifles with high-capacity magazines were recovered in his hotel room) than any link between terrorism and our legal immigration policy. But the president and a large part of his base favor virtually unlimited access to guns while opposing immigration, legal as well as illegal. Politics, not policy, dictate why reactions to two terrorist acts differ.

Tax reform will make Americans wealthier, but President Trump's attacks on our judicial system and other institutions of democracy undermine our fundamental freedoms. We can survive as a democracy without the former, but not without the latter. I will continue to support President Trump's policies when I think they are good for the country. But I continue to believe that whatever good a specific policy might bring, it is far outweighed by his undermining of our institutions and his flouting of democratic norms.

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