Presidents are Neither Above the Law or Criticism: Wisdom from Theodore Roosevelt and Stephen A. Douglas

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I find it both interesting and troubling to listen to many supporters of President Trump castigate anyone for any criticism offered about the President, sometimes going as far to say that critics are being “unfair,” “disrespectful,”or most disturbing, “disloyal” or “treasonous.” Even the President tweets out those kind of accusations on a whim.

Admittedly some forms of criticism cross boundaries and are personally insulting and disrespectful of the President. In my writings I try, even when being very critical of his policies, words, or actions, to refrain from personal insults that could be considered disrespectful to the President because I am still on active duty.  As my readers know I am a historian as well as an theologian/ethicist and when I do write about the actions of the President and his administration I do so based on careful study and comparison with historical, ethical, or legal precedents. My views are likewise informed by my education and and belief in the principles of the Enlightenment, my belief in human rights as set out in the Preamble of the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, and the French Rights of Man and the Citizen, as well as my understanding of the Anglican Christian tradition of “Scripture, Tradition, and Reason” being the foundations of faith.

But it is not disloyal or treasonous to offer criticism of policies, legislative proposals, executive orders, or actions and words of the President or his advisers that could endanger the security of the United States, its citizens, and its alliances, or potentially be unlawful.

Even so I am occasionally criticized for offering historical examples that compare the President and his most ardent supporters in an unfair way, some even calling those disrespectful. I find their double standards and lack of appreciation of irony quite fascinating as most of these people have spent the last eight years or more disparaging and disrespecting President Obama with some of the most racist, vile, contemptible, and false accusations ever made against a sitting President, while at the same time condemning others for simply repeating what the President himself has said.

I found out that a couple of years when I had a couple of students criticize some of my teaching at Gettysburg when comparing the anti-immigrant Know Nothings of the 1830s-1850s to current anti-immigrant Trump supporters, and stated that some Trump Administration Civil Rights proposals to be a throwback to Jim Crow. My words then were not insulting nor disrespectful, but simply valid historical criticism; but some Trump supporters are so thin-skinned that they cannot abide any criticism of the President, despite dishing out incredibly racist and disgusting personal comments about President Obama, which were mostly devoid of any non-racially based political or ideological principles.

Last summer I experienced the threat to my career from one of my chapel parishioners who lied about the contents of a sermon and asked my Commander to have me investigated and tried by Court Martial for simply criticizing the actions of the administration on the southern border using Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and History. I did not mention the President but I was accused of comparing him to Hitler and my critic, who never spoke to me and who I still would not recognize wanted me charged with Conduct unbecoming of an officer and disrespect to the President of the United States. About a quarter of the congregation was questioned and I was exonerated, but I have learned the hard way that the President’s supporters will go to any length to silence anything the believe critical,of him.

Unlike President Obama the current President is ensnared in numerous legal, criminal, and Constitutionally backed investigations which range from simply enriching himself as a public official (the emoluments clause) and his family, or more seriously collusion with not only Russian, but Saudi, and other nations to influence his election. The Senate committee investigating the Russian connection said that this actually happened and backed up the evidence submitted by U.S. law enforcement, military, and intelligence agencies concerning this. The Saudi and other Sunni Arab connections were just brought to public light about a year ago. Lord knows how many other governments were involved with Donald Trump Jr., and others to seek to influence the 2016 elections and U.S. foreign policy since then.

Theodore Roosevelt had to defend himself in 1918 from such criticism from the supporters of President Woodrow Wilson. Roosevelt was criticizing the Wilson administration because of how badly he thought they were pursuing the war effort against Germany. For this people were castigating him. People said that newspapers should not print what Roosevelt had to say as well as “He should stand by the President” and “He should be stood before a stone wall and shot.” Roosevelt ended up writing an op-ed in the Kansas City Star in which he noted:

“The President is merely the most important among a large number of public servants. He should be supported or opposed exactly to the degree which is warranted by his good conduct or bad conduct, his efficiency or inefficiency in rendering loyal, able, and disinterested service to the Nation as a whole. Therefore it is absolutely necessary that there should be full liberty to tell the truth about his acts, and this means that it is exactly necessary to blame him when he does wrong as to praise him when he does right. Any other attitude in an American citizen is both base and servile. To announce that there must be no criticism of the President, or that we are to stand by the President, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public. Nothing but the truth should be spoken about him or any one else. But it is even more important to tell the truth, pleasant or unpleasant, about him than about any one else.”

Senator Stephen A. Douglas

This is exactly how I base any criticism I offer of the President, his policies, words, and actions. I heartily agree with the words of Senator Stephen A. Douglas when he battled President James Buchanan over the pro-slavery attempt to have Kansas admitted to the Union as a Slave State in 1858. Douglas said of his encounter with Buchanan:

“God forbid,” I said “that I ever surrender my right to differ from a President of the United States for my own choice. I am not a tool of any President!” 

Sadly, there are very few GOP Senators who would have the moral courage to do what Stephen Douglas did in 1858. He did so even though it doomed his chances to be President.

I admire Stephan Douglas but there is a difference. Now there is a difference, I am not a Senator or elected Representative, I am an officer and must carry out the orders of the President. However, if I ever come to believe that I cannot in good conscience carry them out, or if I believe that they are un-Constitutional I will retire from the military in order to allow myself the freedom to speak out more openly. To ‘this point in time I have not to have been forced to Carr out any illegal or unconstitutional orders, and as a Chaplain I have been able to speak my thoughts openly, though I am careful in how I say them at least in order to maintain my respect for the office of the President.

General Ludwig Beck

One of my examples is the German General Ludwig Beck, who resigned as head of the German Army in 1938 over Hitler’s aggression and his plan to attack Czechoslovakia. He wrote something that I hold particularly important in my service at this point in history:

“It is a lack of character and insight, when a soldier in high command sees his duty and mission only in the context of his military orders without realizing that the highest responsibility is to the people of his country.” 

Unlike the current President who sought numerous deferments from entering the military in a time of war: Stephen Douglas put his political career on the line to follow the Constitution, Theodore Roosevelt resigned from his office as Assistant Secretary of the Navy Since to go to war and place himself in harms way, Ludwig Beck would die in the failed attempt to kill Hitler in July 1944. All three men were far more honorable than President Trump, and their words should be heeded by Americans regardless of their political affiliation.

Over the past few weeks the President and his media cohorts have been suggesting unconstitutional and illegal actions against his critics Following the end of the Mueller investigation. His administration members are refusing Congressional subpoenas, and he is hiding behind executive privilege. In a different era his own party members in Congress would hold him to account, but these are different times. The actions of the President and his administration members, supported by the GOP majority in the Senate will likely bring about a Constitutional Crisis that will test the very foundations of the Republic, at the same time he is sending significant military assets to confront an undisclosed threat from Iran, while increasing sanctions on that country, while readying economic tariffs on China. I could go on, but I won’t.

Theodore Roosevelt was absolutely correct. Presidents are not beyond criticism, rebuke, or the law. Any real patriot understands that.

Until tomorrow,


Padre Steve+


Filed under History, laws and legislation, leadership, Military, News and current events, Political Commentary

5 responses to “Presidents are Neither Above the Law or Criticism: Wisdom from Theodore Roosevelt and Stephen A. Douglas

  1. Steven


    I don’t believe you can honestly say you do not engage in personal criticism of Trump. You do, in fact, criticise Trump the man, you do so regularly, and you do not flinch from hard and harsh judgements of his conduct as a person. I believe you to be fair. I believe you are honest and correct in writing that you base your condemnations on concrete acts and demonstrable facts. But you do criticise him.

    It would be more truthful to say you do not engage in scurrilous personal attacks on Trump, nor do you engage in petty insults or derogatory name-calling.

    I happen to find TR’s comments to be the most apt, and I believe the President is as responsible for his deeds as a person as he is as a public servant. So I do not see an inherent conflict between your duties as an officer in the service of your country—who swore an oath to defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign AND domestic—and your writings and speech concerning Trump the person or Trump the President.

    The line, to me, is the oldest and most difficult one for any soldier—the moreso as many of us face this line when we are very young (not that we believe so at the time)—the line between obedience to lawful orders from the duly constituted National Command Authority (not the person sitting in the President’s chair), and simple obedience. You are not required by your oath to simply obey. You have a duty not to undermine legitimate national authority, that must contrast with your duty to foster, encourage, and reinforce, the moral sinews of the soldiers in your care. To point out the obvious disconnects between what a prominent political figure says and does is not disloyal; nor does it expose the Emperor’s nakedness—the Emperor’s lack of clothes does that.

    Clearly, you believe Trump to be dishonest, dishonourable, and dangerous to the American Democracy. I would agree. I would, in fact, go further in saying that Trump is so poorly equipped to be President that he is, of himself, a danger to the nation—policy cannot be conducted by single sheets of double-spaced bullet points. His criminality, while commonplace among his fellow grifters (aka Businessmen without any successful businesses), further degrades his serial bungling—what he would call decision making, I suppose—so that even where he hasn’t made a complete dogs breakfast of governance, his malfeasance is such that it undermines any momentary accomplishment.

    The gravest risks are his fundamental stupidity coupled with his narcissistic personality disorder. These render him both supremely malleable by foreign flatterers, and intellectually unequipped to grasp the actual facts of any situation. His self-admiration is such that he treats impulse as decision and cannot distinguish truth from fiction; his lack of intelligence ensures he is insulated from bothersome intrusions of evidence and fact. His vanity and desperate need to validate his masculinity are constantly in conflict with his banality, utter ineptitude, and innate cowardice.

    By himself, Trump is to inept to pose a threat to the foundations of the American democracy. The terrible danger to the country arises from the impotence and overweening self-interest of the Republican Party; its disinterest in governance, in maintaining the prerogatives of the Congress (including the Senate), and it’s appalling lack of moral strength in allowing Trump to wreck American institutions one after another without batting an eye, are the actual betrayal.

    One can hope that upon being defeated in the general election, Trump will be prosecuted for his egregious conduct and criminality while occupying the office of President. Perhaps, for once, Americans will decide to settle things up before “moving on”—I doubt it, but I hope.

    My nickel.

    • padresteve

      True, but I didn’t in the sermon and as you noted I don’t engage in scurrilous attacks or name calling. I point out his failures to live up to his oath and make historical comparisons with his administration and others. At work if a subject comes up it is dealt with as policy differences. I walk a tightrope. The greater threat is the GOP which is allowing his criminal antics to continue.

      I see the next year and a half to be full of danger. A President who is obviously melting down, an incompetent and lawless cabinet and administration, coupled with the GOP’s surrender of everything it once supposedly stood. Likewise, the transformation of the GOP base to a theocratic, authoritarian group of radicals who have run off the self respecting conservatives. The consistent attacks on the constitution and defiance of Congress and the Courts are frightening. I am just waiting for him to get his Reichstag Fire moment. Then we are doomed.

  2. Woebegone but Hopeful

    We have something similar in the UK.
    Woe betide any socialist (as I count myself) who suggests that Jeremy Corbyn is doing a terrible job as leader of the Labour Party and Leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition. His followers will descend in the manner of faintly hysterical.
    Keep up your good work

    • padresteve

      It’s a sad thing. I think of some of the great leaders of the Labour Party and see Corbyn and his followers, I see impending disaster.

      • Woebegone but Hopeful

        They are the greatest gift a floundering hapless government could have ever wished for.

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