“Do you want to give his name? We’ll destroy his career.” These were the words of Donald Trump, addressing a Texas sheriff during a listening session this week. The sheriff was peeved that a certain state senator was pursuing efforts to reform a controversial law enforcement practice. Trump helpfully offered to bring the hammer of the Oval Office down on this elected official. Only he got the gender wrong. State Senator Konni Burton has been leading the charge to reform civil asset forfeiture in Texas.
There are two important points here. The first is the policy itself. Civil asset forfeiture is a practice that allows law enforcement to seize property if they suspect it of being involved in a crime. There is no need to prove guilt, or even file criminal charges. In many cases, victims of the practice never get their property back even after they are acquitted.
Civil asset forfeiture has gone unnoticed for a long time, but over the last couple of years a major reform effort has been sweeping the nation. Recognizing that the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees the right to due process, a dozen states have recently changed their laws to require a higher burden of proof before assets can be forfeited.
Naturally, not everyone is happy with this change. Many sheriffs’ departments and other members of law enforcement like civil asset forfeiture, claiming that it makes it easier for them to prosecute crimes and the War on Drugs. For this reason — as well as the fact that many states allow police departments to keep any money taken in this way to cover their operating costs — there is a particularly strong resistance to asset forfeiture reform among law enforcement.
While it’s true that it’s easier to go after criminals when you don’t have to worry about due process, it’s also easier to mistreat innocent people. That’s why these protections exist in the first place. And this is not a hypothetical situation. There are many documented cases of police taking money from people who have committed no crimes. An abuse of power if there ever was one.
So that’s the background on the policy in question, but perhaps even more important is how disagreement on the issue is being handled at the executive level. President Trump obviously disagrees with Sen. Burton on asset forfeiture. That’s his prerogative, although it’s troubling to have a president sworn to uphold and defend the Constitution who doesn’t value due process. But the threat to destroy the career of a state senator, coming from the chief executive of the United States, is, in a word, terrifying.
We live in a democratic republic, designed intentionally not only with the separation of powers, but with a certain level of federalism that allows the states a measure of independence from the federal government. These are the much vaunted checks and balances intended to protect us against tyranny. The founders recognized that too much power in one place can only lead to bad things. Trump, as president, wants not only the power to control the legislative branch, but power over the state legislatures as well.
For those on the Right who may be somewhat charmed by Trump’s bravado, imagine how you would feel if the shoe were on the other foot. What if Barack Obama had threatened to use the power of his office to destroy state senators who rested his agenda, say on immigration, climate change, or health care? Conservatives would have been furious at that kind of dictatorial overreach. They should be equally furious now.
There are some who claim that Trump was joking. Maybe he was, but that kind of humor is wholly inappropriate coming from the most powerful man in the world. There’s no sense in which that couldn’t be considered intimidation, and such levity will certainly have a chilling effect on politicians who might see things differently than he does. Any way you look at it, a commander in chief who feels comfortable leveling threats of this kind is one rather to be feared than respected.
This article originally appeared on Conservative Review.