Remember all the talk during and just after the Mueller investigation about whether the president was culpable in Russian election interference and obstruction of justice? The well-oiled phrasing was: Did the president or his campaign have "intent to break the law."
Well, time and time again, the president himself proves he has intent to break the law. And time and again, he is saved by the people around him who know better.
Privately, Trump aides recently told the Washington Post that the president is so eager to complete hundreds of miles of border fence ahead of the 2020 presidential election that he has directed them to fast-track billions of dollars' worth of construction contracts, aggressively seize private land, disregard environmental rules and use money earmarked for other purposes.
To top it off, "he has told his worried subordinates that he will pardon them of any potential wrongdoing should they have to break laws to get the barriers built quickly," according to the Post report based on interviews with unnamed current and former officials involved with the project. "The president has told senior aides that a failure to deliver on the signature promise of his 2016 campaign would be a letdown to his supporters and an embarrassing defeat," the Post wrote Wednesday.
"When aides have suggested that some orders are illegal or unworkable, Trump has suggested he would pardon the officials if they would just go ahead, aides said. He has waved off worries about contracting procedures and the use of eminent domain, saying 'take the land,' according to officials who attended the meetings. 'Don't worry, I'll pardon you,' he has told officials in meetings about the wall."
Trump was "joking," was the official White House comment.
With the election 14 months away, Trump has stirred his rally crowds to chant "Finish the Wall!" and repeatedly pledged to complete 500 miles of wall by Election Day. Back at the White House, he has held regular meetings for progress updates. Yet during Trump's two and a half years in office the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has completed only about 60 miles of "replacement" barrier — all of it in areas that already had border infrastructure.
In coming weeks, Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper is expected to approve a White House request to divert $3.6 billion in Pentagon funds to the wall — money Trump sought after lawmakers refused to allocate $5 billion. The money will be pulled from Defense Department projects in 26 states.
Did we mention that Trump also promised Mexico would pay for it? How's he going to deliver on that promise? Rob all Mexican banks? Don't worry. He'll pardon the robbers.
Meanwhile, the Trump administration — even as Hurricane Dorian bore down on Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands and Florida — was transferring hundreds of millions of dollars in disaster relief funding to boost U.S.-Mexico border enforcement, prompting outraged comments from congressional Democrats who called it executive overreach.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California, called the administration's action "stunningly reckless." She also said that "to pick the pockets of disaster relief funding in order to fund an appalling, inhumane family incarceration plan is staggering."
ICE is holding more than 54,000 migrants — almost all adults — in immigration jails, according to an ICE count a week ago. Most are recent arrivals taken into custody at the border, and have not been convicted of a crime, according to ICE statistics online.
Rep. Bennie G. Thompson, D-Mississippi and chairman of the Committee on Homeland Security, railed against taking money from emergency funds in hurricane season.
"This is reckless and the Administration is playing with fire — all in the name of ... playing to the President's base leading up to an election year," Thompson said.
Let's review: Trump not only directs his underlings to break the law for a wall and an immigration policy theoretically intended to prevent crime, he even tells those underlings he will pardon them. If that's not knowingly thumbing his nose at U.S. law, what is? To borrow from Perry Mason: It is premeditated law-breaking.
But to angst about this — and yes, even to opine and write about it — misses the point.
Trump knows he won't get 500 miles of wall built in 14 months — even if all of Congress and the administration and every bureaucrat in Washington joyfully hops onboard.
But he also knows it doesn't matter. His top priority is another prize entirely. What he's really building is another staggering wall of false but marketable propaganda for election year. He's already posted it on his @realDonaldTrump Instagram page and on Twitter: "The Wall is going up very fast despite total Obstruction by Democrats in Congress, and elsewhere!"
To Twitter, he added: "Another totally Fake story in the Amazon Washington Post (lobbyist) which states that if my Aides broke the law to build the Wall (which is going up rapidly), I would give them a Pardon. This was made up by the Washington Post only in order to demean and disparage - FAKE NEWS!"
If Snidely Whiplash had a real name, it would be Donald Trump.