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Obama Should Give Trump A Teachable Example of Limits to Presidential Power

December 18, 2016

By Joe Rothstein

Former Alabama Governor Don Siegelman is a political prisoner. As an act of justice, before President Obama turns over the keys to the White House to Donnald Trump, he should use those keys to unlock Siegleman’s prison cell and give him a full pardon.

A pardon would not retrieve Siegelman’s lost years---he’s nearing the end of 78-month sentence. Neither would it restore Siegelman’s political career or reputation. But it would be a clear message to the incoming administration that the United States of America is not a nation that tolerates jailing the political opponents of those in power.

Siegelman’s “crime” was being a progressive Democratic governor in Alabama and becoming the political enemy of President George W. Bush’s political guru, Karl Rove.

Here was the case they brought against Siegelman: While governor, he re-appointed a political donor to the state’s unpaid hospital board. The donor contributed, not to Siegelman, but to Siegelman’s campaign to create a state lottery to benefit Alabama’s educational system.

If appointing campaign donors to public office is a crime, legions of presidents, governors, mayors and other elected officials are also guilty. The Siegelman case is clearly a bogus and outrageous misuse of the legal system to punish a political opponent.

According to an Alabama Republican lawyer’s sworn statement, while on a conference call she heard Rove tell campaign workers not to worry about Siegelman because the “girls” would see to it he would not be a political threat in the future. The “girls” were two Bush-appointed U.S. attorneys, one of them the wife of the Rove associate who managed the campaign against Siegelman.

Shortly after this whistleblower went public, her house mysteriously burned down and her car was run off the road by a private investigator. The “star witness” who testified against Siegelman is a convicted felon.

The Siegelman case screams out for the justice of a full pardon. At stake is more than one man’s future. Those of us who didn’t back Donald Trump in the presidential campaign accept the fact that during the Trump White House years there will be epic political combat in many policy areas. That’s the way the system works. The winners play offense with their initiatives. The opposition does its best to limit what it considers the potential damage.

Trump’s high level appointments and policy declarations, as worrisome as most are, pale next to the blood sport signals emanating from the “lock her up” chorus. It’s not encouraging that the man who will become president is inflaming the passions of his supporters and mocking his opposition during this post-election period. The demand for the names of federal employees who worked on climate change policy is equally chilling. So is the apparent role the FBI played in helping Trump’s candidacy, through its own actions and its leaks through Rudy Giuliani.

During George W. Bush’s presidency Democratic officials, candidates and fundraisers were five times more likely to be prosecuted by Bush’s Justice Department than Republican counterparts. And Bush, by all accounts, was not a vindictive man. Trump, by contrast, has made a career of personally going after those who fail to pay him homage. Trump’s litigious record is ripe with his efforts to punish opponents legally and financially.

Once in the White House he will command a worldwide intelligence network, the military, the Justice Department, the IRS, dozens of regulatory agencies and other weapons to wield against his opposition. Trump's rhetoric during the campaign demonstrated little understanding of the constitutional or legal limits to his use, or abuse of all that power.

It’s the prospect of democracy and the rule of law itself going off the rails during Trump’s reign that’s most frightening---his admiration of Vladimir Putin’s extra-legal one-man rule, his lack of personal financial transparency, his apparent intention to be president and business mogul simultaneously, justified by brazenly telling us the law doesn’t apply to him.

The history of the United States is one of 225 years of political combat and turmoil. What we’re facing with a Trump administration isn’t new on that level. But we’ve never had a president who's told us, and appears to believe, “I alone can fix it.” That’s not a reassuring promise, it's a dangerous, autocratic threat.

The Siegelman case is text book abuse of political power. President Obama must pardon Siegelman as a message to Trump and his incoming team that there are limits to their power, and that the nation that invented modern democracy intends to enforce those limits.

(Joe Rothstein can be contacted at joe@einnews.com)

Joe Rothstein's highly-acclaimed political novel, "The Latina President and The Conspiracy to Destroy Her" is now on sale at Amazon.

Joe Rothstein is editor of U.S. Politics Today. His career in politics spans 35 years, as a strategist and media producer in more than 200 campaigns for political office and for many political causes. He was a pioneer in professional political consulting and one of the founding members of the American Association of Political Consultants. During his career Mr. Rothstein has served as editor of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Anchorage Daily News and adjunct professor at George Washington University's Graduate School of Political Management. He has a master's degree in journalism from UCLA.