How Many Terms ’til You’re a Tyrant?

Donald Trump caused a lot of concern in early March when he seemed to praise Chinese President Xi Jinping’s removal of term limits on the president from the Chinese constitution, clearing the path for him to become "President for life," as Trump called him. Trump said, “He’s now president for life. President for life. No, he’s great." He then added, “And look, he was able to do that. I think it’s great. Maybe we’ll have to give that a shot some day.”

The text reads differently than the audio sounds. The text is shocking; the audio sounds like Trump may have been joking. But the difference is less important than it seems. Perhaps Trump was joking about China’s removal of presidential term limits from the constitution. But, America wasn’t laughing when removing Presidential term limits from the Honduran constitution was being considered. They backed a coup instead.

How many consecutive terms turns a president into a dictator? Many parliamentary democracies lack term limits. In Britain, Robert Walpole was prime minister for almost 21 years. William Pitt the Younger served for almost 19 and Thatcher and Blair served for 12 and 10 respectively. Washington never called Thatcher or Blair a dictator. In Canada, William Lyon Mackenzie King served as P.M. for more than 21 years. Canada’s first prime minister, John A. Macdonald, served for almost 19, and Pierre Elliot Trudeau, father of the current prime minister, served for 15.

Term limits became a constitutional issue early in America. Many of the framers backed lifetime appointment for presidents. Alexander Hamilton and James Madison both supported lifetime terms. So did others. One person would have swung the vote as it was defeated by a margin of only six votes to four.

The Constitutional Convention of 1787 did not impose term limits on the president. And, despite Washington declining to run for a third term, Ulysses S. Grant, Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson all sought third terms. Franklin Delano Roosevelt won a third term. And a fourth. It wasn’t until the middle of the last century that the twenty-second amendment ensured that "No person shall be elected to the office of the President more than twice . . .."

That is a sentence that has come up for consideration in other countries too recently: none more troublingly than Honduras as far as America’s reaction goes. Trump was, at most, full of approbation for China’s removal of presidential term limits and, at least, able to laugh about it. The States was also full of approbation for Honduras’ removal of term limits.

In 2015, the Supreme Court of Honduras removed the one term limit on the president, clearing the way for Juan Orlando Hernández to run for a second term in office. The States has supported Hernández’ bid for a second term though it is not clear the Honduran court had the authority to make that constitutional amendment without a vote by the people. It is also not clear that the court did legitimately make that amendment since a five-member panel and not the full 15-member court voted on the change.

The same support was not offered to the previous Honduran president, the popularly elected Manuel Zelaya, though he went much less far than Hernández. Zelaya did not touch the constitution, he did not change presidential term limits and he did not run for a second term. He merely opened the constitutional change for discussion. Zelaya only had to announce a plebiscite to see if Hondurans wanted to draft a new constitution for the hostile political establishment to falsely translate his intention into an intention to seek an unconstitutional second term and oust him in a coup. Zelaya had never declared the intention to stand for a second term: only to open the constitutional ban on presidential re-election to discussion. But, the Supreme Court declared the President’s very plebiscite unconstitutional. On June 28, 2009, the military kidnapped Zelaya, and the Supreme Court charged Zelaya with treason and declared a new president.

Though the U.S. backed Hernández, who actually did change term limits and actually did run for reelection, it not only did not back the far more innocent Zelaya, it backed the coup against him. Rodolfo Pastor Fasquelle, the minister of culture in the Zelaya government, said on Democracy Now that “I know for a fact that CIA operatives and military personnel of the United States were in direct contact with the conspirators of the coup d’état and aided the conspirators of the coup d’état.” Latin American expert Mark Weisbrot at least partially corroborated that claim in a correspondence when he told me that “the Obama administration acknowledged that they were talking to the [Honduran] military right up to the day of the coup, allegedly to convince them not to do it”. But, he added, “I find it hard to believe that they couldn’t convince them not to do it if they really wanted to: the Honduran military is pretty dependent on the US”. 

After the coup, then Secretary of State Clinton has admitted that she aided the coup government by shoring up the coup government blocking the return of the elected government: “In the subsequent days [after the coup] I spoke with my counterparts around the hemisphere, including Secretary [Patricia] Espinosa in Mexico. We strategized on a plan to restore order in Honduras and ensure that free and fair elections could be held quickly and legitimately, which would render the question of Zelaya moot.”

The US did all this while being in full knowledge that what was unfolding in Honduras was a coup. By July 24, 2009, less than a month after the coup, the White House, Clinton and many others were in receipt of a cable called “Open and Shut: the Case of the Honduran Coup” that was sent from the US embassy in Honduras. The embassy cable says “There is no doubt that the military, Supreme Court and National Congress conspired on June 28 in what constituted an illegal and unconstitutional coup . . . "And just in case there were any objections, the cable adds that “. . . none of the . . . arguments [of the coup defenders] has any substantive validity under the Honduran constitution”.

The US backed a coup in Honduras that removed a popular president for merely considering removing term limits. So, it should have been surprising when it backed a president in Honduras for actually removing term limits and seeking reelection But, it was never about term limits. Term limits have become a weapon in America’s silent coups. Removing term limits in China is funny. It might even be desirable in Trump’s America. It was fine for Juan Orlando Hernández because he never served the interests of the people of Honduras: according to State Department cables," he has consistently supported US interests." But, it was not fine for Manuel Zelaya because he dared to serve the interests of the people who elected him instead of the interests of America. So, when America’s servant removed presidential term limits in America’s backyard, the US embassy in Honduras certified his reelection, saying it was "pleased" with its "transparency"; when a president who served his own people just considered doing the same, the US helped prevent his reelection by removing him in coup.

Ted Snider writes on analyzing patterns in US foreign policy and history.