Posts Tagged ‘Conflict of Interest’

Usurpation, Tyranny and Sailing to Algiers: How Bad Does It Have to Get? (pt. 6)

March 21, 2020

I wrote this before the COVID-19 outbreak, and therefore it does not address this rapidly-changing situation.  It may seem like a lifetime ago that we were discussing impeachment and abuses of power.  However, these are still important questions; besides, I hate loose ends and I have time on my hands, so I want to go ahead and finish.

A president (or other executive) might also be removed based on the present facts; not that he or she is an usurper, but rather that he or she is acting as a tyrant. Obama faced repeated calls for his impeachment, not only by FOX News and other conservative opinion makers but also by Republican lawmakers such as Darrell Issa and Tim Scott. The more substantive arguments alleged abuse of power, in that Obama’s executive orders were said to either go beyond Congressional authorization or to refuse to enforce Congressionally-passed laws. However, none of these claims ever really went anywhere, and it is debatable whether even the people making these charges really believed them; there was a general pattern of calling for Obama’s impeachment during the election season, and dropping the topic once the election was over.

Donald Trump likewise faced calls for his impeachment based on abuse of power; or in Locke’s terms, that he was exercising power which neither he nor anyone had a right to, and thus was acting as a tyrant. A partial list of these reasons include:

  1. Violations of the Constitution’s “Emoluments Clause,” which states that a President may not receive income from foreign persons, powers or properties while in office. Unlike past presidents, Trump has held onto his extensive business empire including business dealings with Russia (which he sought to hide, according to the Mueller Report), investments in Turkey (which even he admits cause “a little conflict of interest”[1]), Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and many other countries, as well as domestic properties that receive much of their income from foreign nationals and governments.
  2. Ten acts of obstruction of justice, as this is defined in law, and as documented in part II of the Mueller Report.
  3. Obstruction of Congress and solicitation of foreign interference in our nation’s elections, violating election law and soliciting a bribe. These last two actually resulted in articles of impeachment being passed by the House of Representatives.

So whereas Obama faced continuous calls for impeachment which never materialized, Trump was in fact impeached based not on past disqualifications but on his present actions. What was the difference?

Locke points towards an answer with his chapter “Of Prerogative.”[2] Locke accepts that no legal system could possibly predict all contingencies, and therefore assumes that a civil government will allow its magistrates to exercise their power at their own discretion. He even accepts that a judge, sheriff, or even a king (or president or other chief executive) might violate the letter of the law. What matters to Locke is the motivation behind this act. Locke distinguishes between proper perogative and abuse of this power by citing the welfare of the people, writing:




But since a rational creature cannot be supposed, when free, to put himself into subjection to another, for his own harm; (though, where he finds a good and wise ruler, he may not perhaps think it either necessary or useful to set precise bounds to his power in all things) prerogative can be nothing but the people’s permitting their rulers to do several things, of their own free choice, where the law was silent, and sometimes too against the direct letter of the law, for the public good; and their acquiescing in it when so done: for as a good prince, who is mindful of the trust put into his hands, and careful of the good of his people, cannot have too much prerogative, that is, power to do good; so a weak and ill prince, who would claim that power which his predecessors exercised without the direction of the law, as a prerogative belonging to him by right of his office, which he may exercise at his pleasure, to make or promote an interest distinct from that of the public, gives the people an occasion to claim their right, and limit that power, which, whilst it was exercised for their good, they were content should be tacitly allowed.[3]




Since the legislature cannot predict every contingency, some leeway must be granted to the executive. The local or national government may act without direct mandate from the law or even seemingly against it. For example, Locke says that if tearing down the house of an innocent man is the only way to stop a fire from spreading and destroying the city, the executive authority on the scene may do so. This is because the people form and assent to government for their own good, and particularly for the preservation of the lives of every one of them. If strict adherence to the law, or inaction until the legislature can convene and issue a relevant law is to lead to the death or suffering of people, then the executive branch of the government must act immediately. Likewise, Locke argues, there may be a person who is technically guilty of breaking the law, but has acted for the good of all and in fact deserves reward and honor rather than punishment; in this case, Locke says, the executive is empowered to pardon this person.[4] Always, the test is whether the act of prerogative is performed as a service to the people and for the good of the community as a whole, or as a right of the executive to act according to his or her own welfare and desires.

Obama faced repeated calls for his impeachment based on his actions at the time, which we call “executive orders” and Locke would define as “prerogative.” Often these calls came from extremist websites and pundits such as InfoWars, but at times the threats came from elected officials or former officials within the Republican party. One particular flash point was immigration.[5]   During the Obama administration there was a rise in border crossings, including both asylum seeking and attempts to sneak across the border undetected. Obama raised the ire of many liberals by deporting large numbers of undocumented and would-be immigrants, even being called “Deporter-in-Chief” by some. However, he issued one of his most controversial executive orders when he announced that the so-called “Dreamers,” children of undocumented immigrant parents who had perhaps lived in this country since infancy, would not be deported. Essentially, the Obama administration announced that it would prioritize deportations, seeking to remove criminals first, and deporting last (if at all) people who had lived in this country for years or decades and who had no part in choosing to immigrate since they were children at the time. This was claimed to be a failure to enforce the laws of the nation, and thus a violation of the Presidential oath of office; it was also alleged that this was done for partisan reasons since the immigrants would presumably vote Democrat. It was even alleged, without any proof and even against all evidence, that large numbers of undocumented immigrants would or had voted Democrat. However, these calls for impeachment may have been mere rhetoric, and in any case they failed to stir any serious impeachment attempt. Obama was able to argue, in courts and to the public, that it was a necessary part of his office to enforce the laws as he thought best for the American people, and that included prioritizing deportations of dangerous undocumented immigrants first, then the unproductive, rather than targeting those who were contributing to the welfare and economy of the nation and hadn’t even chosen to break immigration law in the first place. In Locke’s terms, this seems to be a legitimate exercise of prerogative; and the argument for this was reinforced by the fact that Obama was in fact vigorously enforcing immigration law overall. So long as he was seen as going after what would later be called “bad hombres” few people really cared if he ignored or protected “Dreamers.”

Donald Trump likewise faced calls for impeachment for some of his acts of prerogative. He has publicly suggested pardons for people under investigation for crimes allegedly committed on his behalf, such as Michael Cohen, so long as Cohen refused to cooperate with prosecutors. This is mentioned as one of the possible acts of obstruction of justice found by the Mueller investigation. As Locke says, a legitimate act of prerogative would be to pardon someone who acted against the law, but for the good of the nation; but in this case a pardon was offered for someone whose actions had no benefit for anyone but the president.[6] But while such actions as these were potentially impeachable, Trump faced actual impeachment and trial for his acts of prerogative in attempting to pressure Ukraine, an ally under attack by its stronger neighbor Russia, into doing political favors for him. He used the power of his office to delay promised aid and to withhold a public meeting that would signal U.S. support of Ukraine. Trump then attempted to hide what he was doing from Congress and the people. When the story finally came out, he defended himself by pointing out that Obama had also delayed aid to an ally, Egypt, so it was his right as President to do so. However, Obama had delayed aid because there had been a coup in Egypt; in other instances, there were concerns over corruption in the recipient country. In this case, all relevant agencies had determined that Ukraine needed the military aid promised by Congress, that it was meeting its obligations to fight corruption so the money would be properly spent, and that the aid was urgently needed. The only reason to delay the aid, it seems, was to pressure Ukraine to announce an investigation of one of Trump’s political rivals in an attempt to help Trump’s reelection campaign.

The defense against this claim of abuse of power obliterates the distinction Locke drew between proper prerogative and acts of tyranny.[7] Trump lawyer Alan Dershowitz argued that anything a president does for the good of the nation cannot be considered an abuse of power. Since every politician thinks his or her own reelection is for the good of the nation, anything a sitting public official does to aid his or her own reelection is thus for the good of the people, and a legitimate act of prerogative. While Mr. Dershowitz concedes that a President demanding a contribution to his personal bank account might be impeachable, his efforts to cover up or impede an investigation into this crime would not be; and in any case, demanding some other payoff such as a political favor would not be. While Locke, and our Founding Fathers guided by Locke’s philosophy sought to distinguish between prerogative done for the good of the people and abuses of power done for the benefit of a corrupt politician, the Trump Party has said there is no difference since whatever is done to benefit the political office holder is by definition “for the good of the nation.” Or, as an earlier politician put it, “L’état, c’est moi.”

[1] Russ Choma, “Reminder: Trump Has a Massive Conflict of Interest in Turkey;” Mother Jones Oct. 7, 2019 (

[2] Locke, Chapter XIV

[3] Locke, sect. 164

[4] Locke, sect. 159-61

[5] Erika Echelburger, “These 7 Conservatives Would Impeach Obama Over Immigration;” Mother Jones November 14, 2014 (

[6] Bart Jansen, “Trump Repeatedly Tried to Impede the Russia Probe, Mueller Report Says. Was it Obstruction?” USA Today, July 23, 2019 (

[7] Charlie Savage, “Trump Lawyer’s Impeachment Argument Stokes Fears of Unfettered Power;” The New York Times January 20, 2020 (