To understand how the U.S. system failed in Trump’s first term—and how it could fail further across another four years—let’s look closer at some of Trump’s abuses and the direction they could trend in a second term.
Abuse of the Pardon Power
On July 10, 2020, Trump commuted the sentence of his longtime associate Roger Stone. As Stone’s own communications showed, he had acted as an intermediary between the Trump campaign and WikiLeaks in 2016. Had Stone cooperated with federal investigators, the revelations might have been dangerous to Trump. Instead, Stone lied to Congress and threatened other witnesses.
Just as Stone was supposed to go to prison, Trump commuted his sentence. Commutation was more useful to the cover-up than an outright pardon. A commuted person retains his Fifth Amendment right not to testify; a pardoned person loses that right.
Trump’s clemency to Stone reminded others who might hold guilty knowledge—people like Paul Manafort and Ghislaine Maxwell—of the potential benefits to them of staying silent about Trump.
How did Trump get away with using a public power for personal advantage in this way? There’s nothing to stop him. The Constitution vests the pardon power in the president. Long-established government practices have discouraged presidents from using it on a whim. But a second-term Trump could demand that associates break the law for him—and then protect them when they are caught and face punishment. He could pardon his relatives—and even try to pardon himself.
Abuse of Government Resources for Personal Gain
On August 28, 2020, after the president broke with precedent—and, if federal employees besides the president and vice president were involved in planning the event, possibly violated the law—by accepting the Republican nomination on White House grounds, The New York Times reported:
Mr. Trump’s aides said he enjoyed the frustration and anger he caused by holding a political event on the South Lawn of the White House, shattering conventional norms and raising questions about ethics law violations. He relished the fact that no one could do anything to stop him, said the aides, who spoke anonymously to discuss internal conversations.
“No one could do anything to stop him.” No one has stopped Trump from directing taxpayer dollars to his personal businesses. No one has stopped him from defying congressional subpoenas looking into whether he was violating tax and banking laws. No one has stopped him from hiring and promoting his relatives. No one has stopped him from using government resources for partisan purposes. No one has stopped him from pressuring and cajoling foreign governments to help his reelection campaign. No one has stopped him from using his power over the Postal Service to discourage voting that he thinks will hurt him.
Trump found it surprisingly easy to use the Justice Department as a shield against curtailment of his own wrongdoing. The Hatch Act forbids most uses of government resources for partisan purposes. By long-standing courtesy, however, enforcement of that law against senior presidential appointees is left to the president. It’s just assumed that the president will want to comply. But what if he does not? The independent federal agency tasked with enforcing the Hatch Act, the Office of Special Counsel, has found nine senior Trump aides in violation of the law, and has recommended that Trump request their resignation. He has ignored that recommendation.