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Stephen Colbert asks a legal expert what happens if Trump defies SCOTUS, as this is the Bad Place

Emily Bazelon, Stephen Colbert
Screenshot: The Late Show With Stephen Colbert

Stephen Colbert reached all the way back to his former television persona for some legal advice on Wednesday’s Late Show. Bringing on Yale fellow, New York Times Magazine writer, host of Slate’s Political Gabfest podcast, and “go-to legal expert on The Colbert Report,” Emily Bazelon, Colbert started out by asking his pal, “What the hell is going on?” Bazelon, since she’s sunk in the same daily mire of Trump administration madness as the rest of us, responded, not unreasonably, “You gotta give me something a little more specific.” Ha ha haaaa—we’re in hell.

But seriously, folks, Bazelon was on the show to answer one specific query from nightly news-sifter Colbert, that being, what happens should—just spitballing here—a sitting president under investigation for a roster of crimes including but not limited to obstruction of justice defy a direct order from the courts to release an uncensored report of that investigations findings? You know, hypothetically. “Were that to happen,” explained Bazelon, “that would be like a five-alarm constitutional crisis.” Colbert, noting that current, Trump-chosen Attorney General William Barr has already told Congress they can’t have an unexpurgated (by him) version of the Mueller Report, pressed his guest on the “What if?” front. To which Bazelon responded, in her capacity as expert in a functioning American system of governance, that she imagined the result would be “people resigning all over the place.”

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“You’d think,” interjected Colbert acidly, pointing out that, say, a government policy ordering the caging of babies might have prompted such a response already. While having no response to that particular point, Bazelon did give a brief history lesson about how conflicts over the separation of powers have historically been defused, usually by the courts giving the president an out. Citing the precedent of Marbury v. Madison, Bazelon said that, basically in order to avoid a showdown where one branch of government has a standing army and the other is made up of a bunch of middle-aged people with gowns and gavels, there’s a certain amount of goodwill toward proper procedure and precedent involved in maintaining the rule of law. So good luck with that, everyone. Bringing the issue down to the most basic level—in deference to where we’re at at this point—Colbert speculated instead about a court-Trump conflict that comes down, essentially, to “You and what army?”

And, perhaps wanting to move onto a looming crisis with the merest smidgen of hope, Colbert then asked Bazelon about her new book about mass incarceration in America, Charged, where, she said, the key to fixing America’s disproportionate prison population (some 2.2 million people at this point) is to bypass Washington altogether. (And focus on reform-minded District Attorneys instead.) Would that, just hypothetically, a Republican-abetted campaign by an ass-covering reality show grifter-bigot against the Constitution could be taken out of this Washington’s hands for a while.

And just to leave you with something like a smile, here’s Colbert on that same episode musically tricking even Oscar The Grouch into admitting that things might get better.

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Dennis Perkins

Contributor, The A.V. Club. Danny Peary's Cult Movies books are mostly to blame.