The rule of law is fragile. Laws are nothing but words on paper, and the rule of law ceases to function when laws are suspended by those charged with seeing that they are faithfully executed. The law against murder was suspended this week by the President of the United States in the case of the head of state of Saudi Arabia. Despite substantial evidence that Muhammad Bin Salman, ruler of the Arabian monarchy, ordered the murder of one of his critics a few weeks ago, the U. S. president has now said explicitly that this nation will continue to support the handsome prince, even if he’s a murderer, because his nation spends lots of money here.
By way of rationale, Trump remarks, “Who’s to say whether he did it or didn’t do it?” That’s the question faced by every police detective, every judge, every prosecutor, and every juror in every criminal case, and it’s a question that gets resolved routinely under the rule of law. When the chief executive declines to confront that question, the rule of law must be considered extinct.
News-mongers are a bit upset over the president’s move, not so much because it undermines the rule of law or gives a license to kill to another head of state, but because the assassination victim was a Washington, D.C., newspaper columnist. This victim’s popularity with colleagues in the news business seems to have blinded reporters to the implications of Trump’s pronouncement. If, as our president says, this head of state can kill his critics with impunity, doesn’t it follow that our president has the same power? Don’t hold your breath waiting for a newsman ask that question.
When the President of the United States relaxes the rule of law for a particular person or party, the consequences can reach far beyond the one case. If heads of state are privileged to commit murder with impunity, their critics must all consider themselves at risk of assassination. Critics who want to survive are well advised to withhold their criticism, here as in Saudi Arabia. And if the President of the United States is unwilling to impute guilt despite compelling evidence against one or another of his associates, mustn’t every other prosecution be considered arbitrary? Since he speaks for us, mustn’t we all be deemed outlaws?
This is not the first time the rule of law has been suspended to accommodate a privileged party. Gerald Ford did it when he pardoned Richard Nixon. The U. S. Senate did it when it acquitted William Clinton. The difference, of course, is that in this case the offense is murder. Trump once said that he could commit murder and get away with it. He can. So can anybody.