John Yoo: The Man Who Would Make the President King
Defender in Chief: Donald Trump’s Fight for Presidential Power, by John Yoo, All Points Books, 299 pages, $29.99
John Yoo and Donald J. Trump seemed like a perfect match from the jump. Yoo is the legal scholar who believes the president can order a recalcitrant prisoner’s fingernails pulled out and his child’s testicles crushed if that’s what it takes; Trump is the politician brash enough to insist that “torture works” and “you have to take out [terrorists’] families.” For a no-limits executive-power enthusiast such as Yoo, what’s not to like about Trump? And surely Trump could use a little scholarly heft for his authoritarian impulses.
Yet a funny thing happened during Trump’s rise to power: Yoo seemed to go wobbly over the prospect. The GOP nominee “reminds me a lot of early Mussolini,” Yoo told The Washington Post in October 2016—in a bad way, that is. Just two weeks after Trump’s inauguration, Yoo took to The New York Times to sound the alarm about “Executive Power Run Amok.” Later that year, Yoo all but called for Trump’s impeachment.
But we always knew, however tortuous the path, that Yoo would eventually find his way home. In the opening pages of Defender in Chief: Donald Trump’s Fight for Presidential Power, Yoo declares, Penthouse Forum–style, that he never thought this sort of thing would happen to him. “If friends had told me on January 21, 2017, that I would write a book on Donald Trump as a defender of the Constitution, I would have questioned their sanity, he wrote.” He found Trump’s personal behavior repellent and “saw him as a populist, even a demagogue, who had not prepared for the heavy responsibilities of the presidency.” But then our 45th president turned out to be a “stout defender of our original governing document” and the Framers’ glorious vision of “an independent, vigorous executive.”
Defender-in-Chief has already earned Yoo the coveted tweet-blurb from @realDonaldTrump, so it’s unlikely anything I write here will put much of a dent in its sales. But ye gods, this is a terrible book: a lazy, turgid, error-ridden mess, perched atop an appallingly silly thesis.
Yoo forgets history he learned in high school, announcing that the Mexican-American War kicked off with an “attack on Sam Houston’s forces along the Rio Grande.” (Zachary Taylor’s, actually; Houston was a U.S. senator at the time.) He forgets history he actually lived through, declaring that President Barack Obama “launched attacks on Syria for its use of chemical weapons.” (Er, he didn’t.) Through large stretches of the book, Yoo even forgets what he’s just written, as when he deploys the same damned passage from the Federalist three times in seven pages. You get the sense that with this book, unlike the Torture Memos, his heart really wasn’t in it
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