"There are three ways in which we may rule," Charles Aycock, soon to be the governor of North Carolina, told his supporters in 1900. "By force, by fraud or by law. We have ruled by force, we can rule by fraud, but we want to rule by law."
Aycock was rallying his fellow white supremacists not only for his own election but also to pass a state constitutional amendment that would, in effect, disenfranchise most black voters. By modern standards, this was a startlingly revelatory admission: Whites were willing to govern under the rule of law, Aycock was saying, but only if they could dictate its terms. But they were also willing to use force or fraud to dictate those terms.
Indeed, white supremacists had used recently used force to accomplish that goal, during the November 1898 Wilmington coup, overthrowing a municipal government deemed too friendly to African Americans and murdering at least 60 black men. And they used fraud, too. Aycock and the so-called Suffrage Amendment both prevailed that November by a roughly 60-40 spread – according to the unlikely tallies of the voting clerks.
For the next 70 years, having cheated and bullied their way to absolute power, white supremacists got to write the laws.
I thought of Aycock's quote – captured in David Zucchino's forthcoming book, Wilmington's Lie – and the sense of entitlement behind it, when I read the letter the White House dispatched to the House of Representatives last week, calling the impeachment proceedings illegitimate and saying the administration wouldn't participate.
"You have designed and implemented your inquiry in a manner that violates fundamental fairness and Constitutionally mandated due process," White House counsel Pat Cipollone told House leaders Oct. 8. Since the White House judged the case against Trump "baseless," the president "cannot participate in your partisan and unconstitutional inquiry."
From a legal perspective, Cipollone's letter is patently absurd. Impeachment is spelled out in the Constitution; it, by definition, cannot be unconstitutional. The administration can't simply declare the president innocent and therefore ignore congressional subpoenas. As Gregg Nunziata, the former chief counsel for Senate Judiciary Committee Republicans, put it, the letter was a "barely lawyered temper tantrum" and a "middle finger to Congress."
It was the latest in a string of them.
That same day, Trump's Department of Justice was in federal court arguing that the courts had erred four decades ago by allowing Congress to review transcripts of Watergate grand jury proceedings. The House Judiciary Committee now wants to review Robert Mueller's grand jury materials, and – for some unfathomable reason – the DOJ is desperate to stop that from happening.
Also that day, the State Department ordered Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union and now a key player in the Ukraine scandal, not to appear for a scheduled congressional deposition. Text messages between Sondland and former Special Envoy for Ukraine Kurt Volker released by Congress appear to show that the administration was withholding military aid from Ukraine unless the country indulged Trump's conspiracy theories about Ukrainian interference in the 2016 election and reopened an investigation into Joe Biden's son – except for one, in September, in which Sondland told the head of the embassy in Kiev assuring him that he was "incorrect about President Trump's intentions" and that there was "no quid pro quo." (Sondland was awarded the ambassadorship after giving Trump's inauguration committee $1 million; his appointment was championed by U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina, to whom he gave $17,900 and his wife gave $57,900, according to federal campaign records.)
In addition, Rudy Giuliani announced that he would disregard a House subpoena for documents and dared Congress to hold him in contempt.
It didn't take long for dominoes to begin falling. Two of Giuliani's henchmen were arrested boarding one-way flights out of the country, accused of routing hundreds of thousands of Russian dollars into Republican political campaigns in an effort to, among other things, oust the American ambassador to Ukraine – which Trump did. Giuliani himself is said to be under investigation.
Meanwhile, Sondland has agreed to testify whether the State Department wants him to or not, and the Washington Post reported that he plans to say that Trump dictated his "no quid pro quo" message to the Ukrainian embassy. And according to the Wall Street Journal, in August, Sondland had told U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin that Ukrainian aid was directly tied to these investigations.
The White House knows the direction in which this is going. The only recourse is to paint the exercise as illegitimate – to assert, as Richard Nixon did, that "when the president does it, that means it's not illegal" – and to hope the president's supporters, cheered on by the president's propaganda machine, choose not to care.
Charles Aycock was a white supremacist, but that's not the thing that most tightly binds him to Donald Trump. Instead, it's the authoritarian sense that the rule of law exists to further their interests and can be ignored when it restrains them.
By force, by fraud or by law.Trump, like all authoritarians, feels the rule of law exists to further his interests and can be ignored when it restrains him