Blog post

Trump got himself into a legal quagmire

Placeholder while loading article actions

We are at a loss for words to describe the magnitude of the evidence uncovered by the House committee on January 6, or the enormity of what former President Donald Trump was responsible for between the 2020 election and the time he left office. But Tuesday’s surprise hearing with star witness Cassidy Hutchinson, the close aide to Mark Meadows, Trump’s latest chief of staff, blew them all away.

In two absolutely gripping hours that filled in one important detail after another, Hutchinson testified that, among other things, Trump knew the rioters he was urging to march on the Capitol were armed — and he wanted it to continue, because after all their weapons were not to be used against him.

I don’t think anyone can doubt that Trump committed any crimes, based on the testimony we’ve heard. Serious crimes. We learned on Tuesday that White House attorney Pat Cipollone warned that the White House was about to break the law. We have also heard testimony that Meadows was on the list of those who apologized to the incumbent president after the events of January 6.

We still have no idea what Attorney General Merrick Garland thinks, although we do know the Justice Department’s investigation is progressing. We also don’t know that Garland could get any convictions or, if so, for what exactly. Yet we see more and more legal experts saying that Trump is in grave danger.

Despite this, as political scientist Sarah Binder has suggested, the committee’s target is not Merrick Garland: “It’s the GOP elite – get them off the sidelines and into the fight to keep Trump from holding power again.”

It could be true. After all, a grand jury could have heard Hutchinson’s testimony in private. Today wasn’t so much about providing new evidence (although there was plenty that hadn’t been reported yet). This was to publicize how anarchic Trump had become. And on the amount of evidence against him, which could matter to those deciding how to position themselves right now.

I found political scientist Richard Neustadt’s explanation of the inherent weakness of the presidency extremely helpful in understanding Trump in office. One of the key points is that presidents generally cannot get things done by giving orders (as opposed to negotiation and persuasion), and that trying to rule by fiat has all sorts of likely costs for anyone try.

So I couldn’t help but take advantage – if that’s the correct word – of the number of orders Trump gave before and on Jan. 6 that he couldn’t enforce. Perhaps the most important of these was, as we heard last week, how Trump tried to fire his attorney general but was fired by the White House and the Justice Department.

If such was the example of Neustadt, we learned on Tuesday that there may be a new low: the president was repeatedly trying to lead the march to the Capitol as his own White House staff and services secrets told him he couldn’t, which ultimately led to his attempt to grab the steering wheel of the car he was in. And failing. We’ve seen this kind of episode before, in a way. President George W. Bush wanted to go straight back to the White House on September 11, 2001, but the Secret Service wouldn’t let him. But Trump’s version was both chilling and pathetic.

To be clear: it’s not that presidents can’t do these things. It’s that most things require negotiation, agreement and skill to be done – not to issue orders. Trump never developed the skills to make things happen, and so he was regularly left to, well, throw his plate against the wall in frustration. The two CEOs who have relied most on executive order government have been Richard Nixon and Donald Trump, and they both demonstrate how dangerous it is for the president and for the nation.

I also can’t help but think of Trump as Jafar, the villain of Disney’s “Aladdin.” Jafar was undermined when he was tricked into wanting to be an all-powerful genie – not realizing that part of being a genie was, as the story goes, being a servant to one who possesses the magic bottle.

Trump never understood that the job he aspired to and won is a job with 330 million bosses. Trump trying to take control of this vehicle saying “I’m the fucking president, take me to the Capitol now!” is the result.

He was not the only president to fall into this trap. There’s a famous anecdote in which a young military aide tries to steer President Lyndon Johnson in the right direction. “That’s your helicopter over there, sir,” the aide said, only for Johnson to respond, “Son, those are all my helicopters.”

Of course, Johnson — and Trump — were wrong. It’s not his helicopters. Or his car. Or his oval office. Or his china that he smashed against the wall. All of these things belong to the American people. And that is why the presidency is organized as it is, in the system of separate institutions sharing powers, and why presidents who try to rule by edict face disaster.

At least, it’s been that way since George Washington was sworn in — to preserve, defend, and protect the Constitution. Trump was sworn in, but he never got it or the presidency, and he tried to overthrow the Constitution. Regardless of the legal situation, it is hard to believe that anyone could follow these hearings and not come to this conclusion. And to be terrified that he almost succeeded, and that he or someone else will probably try again.

More from Bloomberg Opinion:

• How Watergate helped derail Trump’s scheme: Jonathan Bernstein

• The January 6 committee should complete its work — quickly: publishers

• Will January 6 be a factor for November 8? : Julianna Goldman

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and politics. A former political science professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University, he wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

More stories like this are available at