Knapp: Trump makes a point about immunity without meaning to


Thomas L. Knapp is a director and senior news analyst at The William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism, where this was first published. He lives in north central Florida.

“It’s the opening of a Pandora’s box,” Donald Trump said Jan. 9, musing on the possibility of a court rejecting his claim that, as a former president, he must enjoy lifelong immunity from criminal prosecution for pretty much anything and everything he did while in office.

“If I wasn’t given immunity, then other presidents that we talked about today — President (Barack) Obama with the drone strikes, which were really bad — they were mistakes; they were terrible mistakes. You really can’t put a president in that position. ... A president has to have immunity.”

Personally, I’d like to see that Pandora’s box opened in precisely the way Trump mentions.

In 2011, then-President Obama ordered the murder of an American citizen — Anwar al-Awlaki — in Yemen. Whatever his alleged crimes might have been, he hadn’t been charged with, arrested for (or taken in resistance of arrest for), tried for or convicted of those crimes in the United States. The basis for the murder was a Justice Department memo that wasn’t publicly released until 2014.

Later that year, al-Awlaki’s 16-year-old son, Abdulrahman al-Awlaki — also an American citizen — died in another Obama-authorized drone strike. When questioned on the matter, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs blamed the victim for having the wrong father.

In 2017, U.S. Navy SEALs murdered yet a third al-Awlaki — 8-year-old American citizen Nawar al-Awlaki, Anwar’s daughter and Abdulrahman’s half-sister — in a raid approved by ... hmm ... then-President Trump.

What’s so outrageous about suggesting that a president who orders American citizens murdered should be held to answer in the same way, and face the same penalties, as a Mafia don who orders a competitor killed or a regular American who hires a hit man to murder a spouse?

Over time, American presidents have come to enjoy nearly unlimited power with little likelihood of being held accountable for how they exercise that power and minimal penalties when they are.

Trump argues that that small likelihood and those minimal penalties should both be reduced to zero.

Don’t get me wrong: I believe that former presidents accused of crimes are entitled to the due process of law they denied Anwar, Abdulrahman and Nawar al-Awlaki.

But broad immunity for real crimes isn’t due process of law. In fact, it denies due process of law, and justice in general, to the victims of presidential crimes.

Presidents should be held to a higher, not lower, standard of conduct than those they presume to rule.

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