The checks and balances myth

The end of the Trump presidency will indicate whether the checks and balances in the US constitution work or whether they are just a myth – as they seem to have become in so many liberal democracies all over the world

The people who cannot stomach Trump’s amorality – for that is the real problem – have had to resort to underhand moves
The people who cannot stomach Trump’s amorality – for that is the real problem – have had to resort to underhand moves

I formally joined the local political fray in 1974 – at the age of 29 – when the Watergate scandal was at its peak. I used to follow its development passionately and when US President Richard Nixon resigned in August 1974, I was positively impressed by the fact that in the USA, the checks and balances – that the founding fathers of the US constitution had devised in order to ensure that the President does not become an elected monarch – had actually worked. Moreover, the power of the free press to rein government abuses was undisputed.

When in 1978, I was invited to visit the US, I specifically asked to meet someone from the Washington Post where a young reporter by the name of Bob Woodward used to work – a journalist who was being continuously tipped from inside the White House about how the scandal developed. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein had already published their story in June 1974 in the book All the President’s Men that I had avidly read.

When I visited the Washington Post, I was shown the newsroom that was exactly as seen in the film based on the book that had been released in 1976. I was told that this newsroom would soon be completely overhauled – computers were in and typewriters were out.

The events of those years certainly strike a chord in my memories when – more than four decades later – I now follow what is happening in the USA provoking The Economist to recently publish a cover consisting of a black and white photograph of Donald Trump with the tell-tale question: Above the law?

Yes, the US is now facing another challenge. Or rather, its system of checks and balances is facing the challenge. This time, there is a good chance that it will fail. The founding fathers relied on Congress to act honourably, but partisan politics seems to have buried all sense of honour. Not just in the US, of course.

Again the people who cannot stomach Trump’s amorality – for that is the real problem – have had to resort to underhand moves. A senior administration official wrote an astounding op-ed that appeared in the New York Times on September 5, suggesting that President Donald Trump’s aides are actively thwarting him in an attempt to protect their country.

On September 11, the same Bob Woodward of Watergate fame released an in-depth look at the chaos of President Donald Trump’s White House, a book titled Fear: Trump in the White House. It sold 750,000 copies on the first day, breaking publisher Simon & Schuster’s all-time pre-order sales record.

Will Woodward do it again? I doubt it.

In theory, in the US constitutional system, the different branches of the federal government check one another. When a president acts in corrupt, authoritarian, or reckless ways, the legislative branch holds hearings, blocks his agenda, refuses to confirm his nominees, and even impeaches him. That is how the US federal government is supposed to work.

But it no longer does. Instead, for the last year and a half, congressional Republicans have acted, for the most part, as Trump’s agents. Not only have they refused to seriously investigate or limit him, they have also assaulted those within the federal bureaucracy who have – particularly the justice department and the FBI.

So, in the absence of this public, constitutional system of checks and balances, a secret, unauthorised system has emerged to replace it with the President’s own appointees pressing on the brakes.

Defence Secretary James Mattis thwarted the President’s directives on torture and transgendered Americans serving in the military. John Bolton rushed through a joint summit declaration reaffirming NATO before Trump had a chance to muck it up. Bob Woodward’s book revealed how National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn stole papers off Trump’s desk to prevent him from undoing America’s trade deal with South Korea.

Donald Trump is even ‘at war’ with the Attorney-General he appointed – Jeff Sessions. In the US, the Attorney-General is a Cabinet member appointed by the President. In Europe, one would refer to him as the Minister for Justice. Trump can dismiss him and replace him at his will. But he has not done so, preferring to attack him by twitter.

Sessions who was a Republican senator before Trump hand-picked him and appointed him Attorney-General is certainly no antagonist to Trump’s political programme. He just deems that the rule of law overrules Trump’s whims. For this, he has become an unlikely hero, even for his political rivals. Whenever he wants, Trump can kick him out and many think that he will do so once the mid-term elections in November are over.

As the anonymous writer of the New York Times put it: “Many of the senior officials in his [Trump’s] own administration are working diligently from within to frustrate parts of his agenda and his worst inclinations.”

The end of the Trump presidency will indicate whether the checks and balances in the US constitution work or whether they are just a myth – as they seem to have become in so many liberal democracies all over the world.

Is Crypto crippled?

Virtual currencies plumbed to new depths on Wednesday, extending their collapse from their January peak to 80 percent – a loss of more than $640 billion in value.

Cryptocurrency investors who bet big on a seemingly revolutionary technology are suffering a painful reality check, particularly those in many secondary tokens, so-called alt-coins.

The virtual-currency mania of 2017 – fuelled by hopes that Bitcoin would become “digital gold” – has quickly given way to concerns about excessive hype, security flaws, market manipulation, tighter regulation and slower-than-anticipated adoption by Wall Street. Yet crypto supporters point out that Bitcoin has rebounded from past crashes of a similar scale.

Back here in Malta, the government is all smiles after it enacted three laws establishing the first regulatory framework for blockchain, cryptocurrency and DLT (Distributed Ledger Technology).

This made Malta the first country in the world to provide an official set of regulations for operators in blockchain, cryptocurrency and DLT. Malta is striving to earn a reputation for being known as “the world’s first blockchain island.”

This new financial niche is apparently Joseph Muscat’s pride and joy.

He was recently quoted as saying: “I think that blockchain technology, DLT and cryptocurrency is where innovation is happening right now and we are very glad that Malta can offer the first jurisdiction in the world to regulate this sector. We are excited about what this will lead to in the future.”

Is this a case of rushing in where angels fear to tread?

More in Blogs

Get access to the real stories first with the digital edition

Subscribe