President Or King: Which Have We Got?

President Or King: Which Have We Got?


Leonard Zwelling

David Armitage is a professor of history at Harvard. In his opinion piece in the NY Times on July 14, he makes note of the kingly powers retained in the Constitution for the President of the United States. Chief among these powers is that of the pardon where the result of a fully complete legal process that sent someone to jail can be overturned by the monarch—err—president. This gives the man (or woman eventually) sitting in the Oval Office the power to ignore separated families on the southern border of the US while pardoning a local sheriff who treats immigrants like slaves. Hmm….

Are we sure we are happy with this constitutional power being in the hands of a man like Donald Trump? I know I’m not. There is no doubt that should Mr. Mueller get any closer to the Trump kids or to the president himself, Donald Trump will pardon everyone despite the fact that they colluded to steal the 2016 election. This is looking more likely with every passing day as the Department of Justice has identified twelve of the group that shook hands with Americans to get their e-information and it’s only a matter of time until DOJ identifies the Americans on the other side of the hand shake.

This reminds me of an episode from my days as a vice president. I was the research integrity officer back then and my office was dealing with a case of alleged research misconduct using a very rigid process that guarantees the rights of the accused and is prescribed by the federal government. The panel of three faculty members thought they had unearthed sufficient evidence of wrong-doing on the part of one of their peers and reported this up through me to the chief academic officer. The president of MD Anderson and the chief academic officer determined that the panel had overreacted and did not fire the accused but rather gave the person a lighter sentence. The panel was not happy. They had worked diligently to identify the evidence of malfeasance and thought a harsher punishment was in order. The king decided otherwise just as King Trump pardons those he feels wronged by the rule of law.

It has been often in my tenure that appeals were made to the president of MD Anderson who wielded absolute power—like a king. No matter that faculty committees had deliberated long and hard on a question. If the king disagreed, the king’s opinion predominated. That’s now what is happening in the country and unless Congress acts to pass some laws limiting Mr. Trump’s power, my guess is that he will get away with serious crimes against the people of the United States. He will run roughshod over the Constitution (e.g., the emoluments clause).

The same can be true at MD Anderson where the president’s power is almost unlimited save for overrides by the Board of Regents who usually have no idea what is happening in Houston (see the six years of DePinho).

I often heard it said in my past life that the president of MD Anderson can fix any injustice, but a wise president might best stay out of most of the procedures into which the faculty has had input and has come to fair conclusions (like who does and doesn’t get tenure).

There are times when people take comfort in the presence of a king. Be careful what you wish for.

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