Who is the chief law enforcement officer under the U.S. Constitution? President Trump claimed the title, and a predictable collective freakout ensued. Political theatre like this is designed to keep the actual truth hidden.
“I’m allowed to be totally involved. I’m actually, I guess, the chief law enforcement officer of the country. But I’ve chosen not to be involved,” Trump told the press Tuesday.
A barrage of hysterics then broke out, the familiar self-righteous indignation from the media. Breaking news alert: Trump is lying!
Could have knocked me over with a feather.
The U.S. attorney general, not the president, is the rightful chief law enforcement officer of the federal government, we’re generally told. But is this what the U.S. Constitution says?
Bear with me. There’s a plot twist coming up!
Article II of the Constitution covers the executive branch, leading off with what is known as the Vesting Clause: “The executive Power shall be vested in a President of the United States of America.”
Of course, there are various interpretations of that clause, but it is significant to note that it preexists the Office of the Attorney General created by Congress in its first meeting through the Judiciary Act of 1789.
Could the Legislative Branch dictate to the Executive who its chief law enforcer is?
For what it’s worth, the Justice Department’s website tells us that the U.S. attorney general position “evolved over the years into…chief law enforcement officer of the Federal Government.”
Perhaps what’s most revealing about Trump and the media is that they each conflate law enforcement with the law itself. They just disagree on which singular, Washington D.C.-based demigod exerts the power.
Thankfully, the founders were more thoughtful.
The most fundamental enforcement of the law in the U.S. is adherence to the Constitution. It doesn’t matter if the chief enforcement officer is the president, attorney general, or any other government agent.
This is because, at its heart, the Constitution is about limiting the power of the federal government. All the founders were aware of the propensity of governments to expand beyond their created purpose. Most quotable here are James Madison and Alexander Hamilton.
In Federalist #48, Madison wrote that “experience assures us, that the efficacy of the provision has been greatly overrated; and that some more adequate defence is indispensably necessary for the more feeble, against the more powerful members of the government.”
That “more adequate defence” is extrapolated by Hamilton in Federalist #28.
“It may safely be received as an axiom in our political system, that the State governments will, in all possible contingencies, afford complete security against invasions of the public liberty by the national authority,” he wrote.
In other words, the Constitution does not enforce itself. Having a “chief law enforcement officer” doesn’t solve the problem either. Trump, after all, is also the chief gun control enforcement officer.
Effectively, the chief law enforcer is who has the final say. Nullification from the state and local level against unconstitutional federal acts have a proven record of success. More than ever, the American people should be reminded of their duty to push back in this fashion.