The Tragedy of Trump may have set itself up for a truly Shakespearean endingby Edward Wilson-Lee / July 25, 2017 / Leave a comment
The great Renaissance jurist Edward Coke was fond of telling the story of a young Roman who, having shown himself to be of great intelligence and learning, was offered a position as a judge by the Senate. After giving it much thought, the young man summoned all of his friends, family, and connections to a sumptuous feast, which they took to be a celebration of his newfound power and the rewards that they were all to reap from it. At the end of the dinner, the young Roman astonished them all by announcing that this was not a celebration but rather a farewell: in his new life he would have to forget all of his former attachments, and look upon them all as strangers in order to judge them with uprightness and equity. The judge can only be impartial, Coke’s anecdote suggests, by cutting himself off from the world.
Recent rumours that Donald Trump’s aides were looking into the power of the president to confer pardons sent a shiver through the public sphere—in large part because it was clear, from context, that those in line for pardons would likely be for his son, Don Trump Jr, and other close associates who apparently agreed to meet a Russian lawyer on the promise of compromising material on Hillary Clinton, offered as “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr Trump.” Not only was the President pre-emptively threatening to undermine the legislative and judicial branches of the government, but he was doing so in a case where he could not possibly claim to be impartial. (Trump’s camp has called the claims that the president has sought clarification on the power to pardon “nonsense”.)
Worse than this, however, was the suggestion that President Trump might issue a pardon to himself in response to any indictments coming from Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller. Legal thought about this surreal and paradoxical situation—worthy of the ‘Case of the Tarts’ in Alice in Wonderland (“Sentence first—verdict afterwards”)—goes back to the English Renaissance, when jurists first codified the principle in natural law that nemo debet esse judex in propia causa: “no man should be judge in his own case.” The glaring and unavoidable lack of impartiality was not the only problem here. It was also one of legal form: as…