“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. They were also perfectly fine using force or fraud to enable them to dictate those terms.

Indeed, white supremacists had 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 sixty black men. And they used fraud, too. Aycock and the amendment both prevailed that November by a roughly 60–40 spread—according to the unlikely tallies of Democratic clerks. 

For the next seventy 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 on October 8. Since Trump judged the case against himself “baseless,” he would not “participate in your partisan and unconstitutional inquiry.”

Cipollone’s letter is patently absurd. Impeachment is spelled out in the Constitution; by definition, it can’t be unconstitutional. The administration can’t simply declare the president innocent and therefore ignore congressional subpoenas. According to Gregg Nunziata, the former chief counsel for Senate Judiciary Committee Republicans, the letter was a “barely lawyered temper tantrum” and a “middle finger to Congress.”

It was only 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 that were previously 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 Kyiv 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. Senator Thom Tillis, to whom he gave $17,900 and his wife gave $57,900, according to Open Secrets.) 

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 now said to be under criminal investigation

Meanwhile, Sondland has agreed to testify whether the State Department wants him to or not; 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 told U.S. Senator Ron Johnson, R–Wisconsin, that Ukrainian aid was directly tied to these investigations.

The White House knows where 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 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 that the rule of law exists to further their interests, and it can be ignored when it serves to restrain them. 

By force, by fraud, or by law—whatever gets the job done.

Contact editor in chief Jeffrey C. Billman at jbillman@indyweek.com.

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