The rule of law rests on respect for the law.
Economists would have us believe that obeying the law is all about sanctions.
That’s only part of the story however, and perhaps a very small part.
The vast majority of us stop at a red light most of the time, even when no police or cameras are in the area. We really can’t get caught in such circumstances and we can usually see that we won’t get hit, or hit anyone else. Yet, we wait until the light turns green.
Most of us pay our taxes in full despite the fact that only about one half of 1 percent of returns are audited, meaning our chances of being caught and punished are nearly infinitesimal.
Multiple studies confirm that our compliance with the law results less from fear of sanctions than from respect for its legitimacy.
We stop at red lights and pay our taxes, in important measure, because we regard government action in these arenas as legitimate.
Central to this sense of procedural justice is the perception that the law applies equally to everyone.
If people see the authorities flouting the law without consequence, they will not obey it. If they see leaders disrespecting the law, they will not respect it. If they see the system as unfair, it eventually breaks down.
Which brings us to the Trump administration.
Put aside for a moment the Robert Mueller question about whether a sitting president can be indicted. Instead ask whether President Trump and some of his close advisers are undermining the rule of law in the United States.
Sadly, the answer is yes.
How can Americans be expected to respect and obey the law when the president himself proudly proclaims he will flout it?
Not even to protect himself from the consequences of some past act, but going forward, Trump brazenly claimed that he would simply break the law.
In his interview last week with ABC News’s George Stephanopoulos, the president made three points concerning information about rivals coming to him from foreigners attempting to influence U.S. elections:
1. That he would accept the dirt;
2.That he would not necessarily inform the FBI and he would encourage others not to do so;
3. That taking these actions would not be illegal.
There is simply no question that accepting such help from a foreign source is a crime.
As Federal Election Commission Chairwoman Ellen Weintraub stated flatly, “It is illegal for any person to solicit, accept or receive anything of value from a foreign national in connection with a U.S. election.”
Campaigns pay considerable sums for opposition research—it’s certainly a thing of value.
Sadly, the president is not the only member of his administration who delights in disrespecting the law.
A legal watchdog with a long Republican pedigree, appointed by Donald Trump himself, concluded that Kellyanne Conway’s “persistent, notorious, and deliberate Hatch Act violations have created an unprecedented challenge. … She has willfully and openly disregarded the law in full public view … Ms. Conway defiantly … and flippantly stated, ‘Let me know when the jail sentence starts.’ ”
Never before has a president, or a top aide, demonstrated such extraordinary public contempt for the law.
That contempt has consequences for the country. As the Trump-appointed special counsel investigating Conway concluded, “Her actions erode … the rule of law.”
Such wrongdoing must also have consequences for the perpetrators.
As a nation built on the rule of law, we cannot countenance its erosion.
Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has helped elect 30 U.S. senators, 12 governors and dozens of House members. Mellman served as pollster to Senate Democratic leaders for over 20 years and as president of the American Association of Political Consultants.