Donald Trump is to conservatism as SpaghettiOs are to Italian food: a distant, crude and almost unrecognizable cousin. But last year, many conservatives who had trouble rationalizing a vote for Donald Trump settled on one decisive reason. Justices appointed by President Hillary Clinton, they said, could not be trusted to faithfully follow the Constitution.
These strict constructionists now find themselves with a president who regards the nation's founding document as something between an irrelevance and a wad of gum stuck to his shoe. On Wednesday, he uttered statements that would have shocked conservatives had they come from Clinton or Barack Obama but were taken as inconsequential coming from Trump.
The president was angry with NBC News because it reported he had proposed a huge increase in the U.S. nuclear arsenal. He fumed that it is "frankly disgusting the way the press is able to write whatever they want to write" and threatened to punish the network by revoking its license to broadcast (though licenses, as he probably doesn't know, are granted to stations, not networks).
Trump has held up the late Antonin Scalia as his model of a justice. Scalia disdained the idea of a "living Constitution" — whose meaning evolves over time. "The only good Constitution is a dead Constitution," he declared.
If Trump had his way, the Constitution would be deader than the czars, though not quite in the way Scalia meant. When the president swore an oath to "preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States," he took it just as seriously as the debts he escaped in bankruptcy court.
Trump would start by amputating the First Amendment, which upholds the disgusting freedom of journalists to "write whatever they want to write." This is the same president who invited violence against reporters by tweeting a video doctored to make it look like he was punching a CNN representative.
Press freedom extends to broadcast news media, which are entitled to report and comment without government interference. To suggest that the president has the authority to punish allegedly inaccurate reporting by silencing a news organization betrays gargantuan ignorance and childish petulance.
But Trump's empty threat flowed naturally from his past pronouncements on such matters. During the campaign, he vowed to change libel laws to make it easier for the likes of him — loudmouthed, grossly dishonest public figures — to win libel suits.
His position is at war with one of the Supreme Court's most important and unassailable decisions, reached in 1964. It said the First Amendment requires that citizens be able to express their views without fear of being punished for inadvertent misstatements. If Trump were thinking clearly, he would realize that existing libel law is his friend, because it immunizes him for his fraudulent claims about critics.
His three orders on foreigners traveling to the United States so obviously stemmed from his campaign vow to ban all Muslims that administration lawyers implored judges to forget everything he had previously said. The judges didn't. The first two travel orders were ruled unconstitutional, and the latest is being challenged.
He and Attorney General Jeff Sessions have spurned the January Justice Department report that found Chicago police guilty of "pattern or practice of unconstitutional use of force" — including killing people without a good reason. Barack Obama's Justice Department wanted to prevent these abuses through a consent decree. Sessions has no interest in fixing or even noticing such problems.
He flaunted his indifference in a memo rejecting corrective action: "It is not the responsibility of the federal government to manage non-federal law enforcement agencies." Actually, when they violate the federal Constitution, it is.
What are the responsibilities of the federal government, according to Sessions? To "promote officer safety, officer morale and public respect for their work." If the point wasn't clear enough, Trump told an audience of police officers in New York they should rough up suspects they arrest.
That was too much for a lot of police departments. The New York City police commissioner objected: "To suggest that police officers apply any standard in the use of force other than what is reasonable and necessary is irresponsible, unprofessional and sends the wrong message to law enforcement as well as the public."
Trump's supporters feared that if Clinton were elected, constitutional rights would be damaged over time by a liberal Supreme Court. Instead, they got a president who prefers to damage them immediately all by himself.
Steve Chapman blogs at http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/opinion/chapman. Follow him on Twitter @SteveChapman13 or at https://www.facebook.com/stevechapman13. To find out more about Steve Chapman and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.