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Still hope in the rule of law

Fraser Smith BigOccasionally, on the brink of despair, some of us are tuning out.

“I just can’t stand to hear anymore,” a friend said the other evening.

So she doesn’t listen to NPR. Or read anything political or governmental. Or talk about any of it to her friends.

Can’t do it, she says.

We know what “it” refers to. Roy Moore, Donald Trump and on and on.

Another friend says, “You just have to listen and read.”

Some of us agree. We listen in a dream state, a state of continuous disbelief. Is he really the president? Is that Moore guy a potential U.S. senator? (Even Republicans can’t listen to that – except they have to.)

For others, “it” is like auto racing: the inevitable crash creates an audience.

Unfortunately, the country itself may be crashing.

Alarmist? Overwrought? I don’t think so. And we actually have to do more than listen. We have to speak out.

Listen to Steve Portnoy of Austin, Texas, in a recent letter to The New York Times: Among the many corrosive forces loosed upon the land, he says, there is one we cannot accept:

“More than coarsening of our civic life, possible acceptance of foreign influence in our political process, failure to release his tax returns, a cavalier relationship with the truth, perhaps the most insidious aspect of Donald Trump’s presidency is his bullying attempt to undermine the rule of law.”

Listen closely to the concerns of U.S. Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein, formerly the U.S. attorney for Maryland, who spoke to a business group at the BWI Marriott.

Rosenstein and Portnoy were not working together, but he’s on the same page as the writer from Austin.

“If people lose faith in the rule of law,” Rosenstein said, “then everyone will suffer.”

Referring to Robert Bolt’s “A Man for All Seasons,” he added, “if we permit the rule of law to erode because it doesn’t harm our personal interests, that erosion may eventually consume us all.”

Rosenstein suggested businesses – often critical of regulation – should ramp up their appreciation of the law and regulations.

“(They) establish a mechanism for resolution of disputes and (they) provide some degree of protection from arbitrary government intrusion,” he said.

Some observers suggested the speech trod carefully to avoid stepping on the toes of the elephant in the room – President Trump.

I thought the speech was daring. It might have been addressed to a president who needs a refresher course on the rule of law. And maybe it was?

Moreover, who could have missed the subtext?


A challenging balance

Rosenstein cannot be one of the president’s favorite people. He appointed former FBI director Robert S. Mueller III to investigate alleged relationships between Trump’s presidential campaign and Russia.

Portnoy, the Austin letter writer, operating under no constraints, offered a laundry list of situations in which Trump has evaded the law or trampled on important standards of presidential behavior:

  • The Emoluments Clause in the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits a President from personally profiting from his actions.
  • Appointing unqualified or compromised people to his cabinet
  • Unraveling the steadfast value of America’s word
  • The coarsening of our civic life

I would add, as others have, failing to lead the nation in a time of division.

I spent last weekend in Charlottesville, a city in mourning, trying to reclaim get beyond the trauma of last August. Coarsening was the order of that day. Heavily armed demonstrators invaded the streets in defense of Civil War statues. Heather D. Heyer, a 32-year-old paralegal, was killed by an automobile driver apparently bent on mayhem.

Trump appeared to defend Nazis and white supremacists by saying there was violence on both sides of the upheaval.

The city’s beautiful downtown mall was decorated last week with memorials to Heyer and to the city’s values.

A Charlottesville official despaired of reconciling public safety concerns and the First Amendment, freedom of speech, the right to assemble. Sometimes difficult and awkward, to be sure.

And yet we can remember Heather Heyer who, her friends say, couldn’t look away from hate.

C. Fraser Smith is a writer in Baltimore. His column appears Fridays in The Daily Record. He can be reached at [email protected].

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