Donald Trump’s call over the weekend for terminating the Constitution was, though appalling, also a long time coming.
Trump, the once and aspirationally future Republican president, has long praised the Constitution and touted his own defense of it in heroic terms. But for just as long, he has shown a shallow understanding of the document—seldom extending much beyond a maximalist reading of the Second Amendment and a disjointed view of the First—and especially espoused a view of the Constitution as more of a source of advice than the ultimate authority in American government.
Trump’s view of the Constitution is much like his treatment of the flag he physically embraced while mouthing, “I love you baby” at a conservative summit in 2020: a useful prop for florid praise, but ultimately a passive and lifeless one, easily moved aside.
In a post over the weekend on his social-media site, Truth Social, Trump yet again claimed falsely that the 2020 presidential election was stolen. “A Massive Fraud of this type and magnitude allows for the termination of all rules, regulations, and articles, even those found in the Constitution,” he wrote. “Our great ‘Founders’ did not want, and would not condone, False & Fraudulent Elections!” (On Monday, Trump partly reversed himself, posting, “The Fake News is actually trying to convince the American People that I said I wanted to ‘terminate’ the Constitution.” Where could the press have gotten that notion, other than reading his words?)
Where Trump gets this idea of termination is anyone’s guess, but he almost certainly didn’t get it from reading the Constitution (nor, given his other reading habits, does it seem likely he’s been reading learned commentary). Throughout his political career, Trump has often couched his own policies in terms of the founding document. “You know, I believe in our Constitution, much more so than most people,” he said in 2020. “As president, I have no higher duty than to defend the laws and the Constitution of the United States,” he added last year.
But he practically never talks about the Constitution on any deeper level. When he discusses it, he is almost always speaking about the Second Amendment; in 2016, his website’s position page on the Constitution was dominated by discussions of gun rights. He also talks sometimes about the First Amendment right to religious liberty, but as we will see, this is almost always in the context of the rights of Christians.
Then–White House Counsel Don McGahn said in 2017 that “the Trump vision of the judiciary can be summed up in two words: ‘originalism’ and ‘textualism,’” but this seems to be more a summation of the view of McGahn and his fellow Federalist Society members, to whom Trump farmed out judge selection, than of Trump, who has offered few hints of any personal judicial philosophy at all. A regular line in his stump speeches, for years, was that he had appointed judges to interpret our Constitution as written. The closest he offered to an explicit endorsement of originalism came during a scripted 2019 speech honoring former Attorney General Edwin Meese III, in which he praised “his unwavering advocacy for the legal principle that judges must adhere to the original meaning of the Constitution, setting aside their own personal and political views.”
Trump has also insisted that his opponents do not revere the document. “They want to demolish our Constitution, weaken our military, eliminate the values that built this magnificent country,” he said in 2019. And two days before inciting a riot at the Capitol building in 2021, Trump said progressives were “bent on destroying our Constitution and overthrowing America’s founding.”
The irony and hypocrisy of this claim is easy to see in light of this weekend’s Truth Social post, but a call for the suspension of the Constitution is simply the natural and most explicit articulation of Trump’s demonstrated view that the Constitution is more a set of guidelines than a binding rule book.
The first prominent example came during the 2016 Republican presidential primary, during which Trump called for a ban on Muslims entering the United States and suggested that they might have to carry a special ID card. (Trump’s vision of religious freedom extends only to certain faith traditions, apparently.) In December 2015, he smoothly pivoted from accusing the press of insufficient fealty to the Constitution—“the mainstream media wants to surrender the Constitution”—to making his own case for abandoning it under certain circumstances. “We believe in the Constitution more than anybody. But we can’t let people use and abuse our rights. We can’t let people kill us. They want to kill us. They want to destroy us. We can’t let it happen. We just can’t let it happen.” The following month, he was even more direct about the idea that certain imperatives could override it: “The Constitution—there’s nothing like it. But it doesn’t necessarily give us the right to commit suicide, as a country, okay?”
Once he was elected, Trump’s sense of the Constitution as essentially a suggestion only grew. Presidents often develop new views about the expansiveness of their powers once elected, but Trump’s articulation was shockingly blunt. In 2019, he told a conservative conference that one section of the Constitution offered him unlimited power. “Then I have an Article II, where I have to the right to do whatever I want as president,” he said. “But I don’t even talk about that.” In fact, Article II simply lays out the role and duties of the executive branch. Had Trump actually read it, his interpretation would make no sense.
Trump repeatedly ran into constitutional problems during his presidency, exemplified by his repeated defeats in court and his attempt to withhold congressionally appropriated money from Ukraine, which led to his first impeachment. But he rarely had occasion to discuss the actual Constitution in anything other than vague terms. (“Our Constitution was the product of centuries of tradition, wisdom, and experience.”) When the arrival of the coronavirus forced him to wade into federalism issues, it didn’t go well.
In an April 2020 news conference, Trump was asked about state governments making their own decisions on lockdowns and masking. “I like to allow governors to make decisions without overruling them, because from a constitutional standpoint, that’s the way it should be done,” he said. “If I disagreed, I would overrule a governor, and I have that right to do it. But I’d rather have them—you can call it ‘federalist,’ you can call it ‘the Constitution,’ but I call it ‘the Constitution.’ I would rather have them make their decisions.”
This is Trump’s incoherent constitutional philosophy summed up: The Constitution provides a first option, but if for some reason he doesn’t like it, he’s happy to discard it. That presaged his approach to the 2020 election. First, he tried constitutional remedies—the judicial system—to pursue his bogus claims of fraud. But once that failed (because the claims were false), he moved on to calling for the Constitution to be set aside entirely.
On January 6, 2021, during a rally in Washington before the riot, Trump made a last-ditch effort to convince Vice President Mike Pence to assist in subverting the election. “Let’s say you don’t do it. Somebody says, ‘Well, we have to obey the Constitution,’” he said. “And you are, because you’re protecting our country and you’re protecting the Constitution.”
The revolutionary concept behind the United States is that the country and the Constitution are one and the same; for Trump, the country exists separate from and above the rule of law. Trump has also said that “he alone can fix” what’s wrong with the United States. He claims to cherish the Constitution, but as usual, Trump holds fast to only one thing: his own interests.