Donald Trump proclaimed Monday, “When somebody is the president of the United States, the authority is total and that’s the way it’s got to be. It’s total.”
As usual, the president was wrong about the specific issue he was discussing—the process by which states might “reopen” following the Covid-19 lockdown—and about the broader issue of his authority. Indeed, he was so wrong that, without acknowledging that his claim of power was inflated, he walked back some of the most aggressively authoritarian language on Tuesday.
But no one who has paid much attention to Trump will doubt that this delusional megalomaniac was expressing his deepest desire when he began the week by asserting, “The president of the United States calls the shots.” Indeed, he was back at it on Wednesday, telling a White House briefing that he might adjourn Congress and unilaterally appoint his nominees for judgeships and administrative positions. He justified his proposal to override the confirmation process by declaring, “I have a very strong power.”
That’s an abusive reading of a narrowly defined constitutional provision that allows for adjournments when there are disagreements between the leaders of the House and Senate. “No President in history,” notes historian Michael Beschloss, “has ever used the constitutional power to adjourn Congress.” Since assuming the presidency, Trump has regularly stretched the limits of the law—and of credulity. Now, however, as this country struggles with a pandemic and the threat of an economic depression, the president’s power-grabbing seems more dangerous. And more daunting.
Trump, as has been well established, is temperamentally and practically unfit for office. He should have been removed from his position on February 5, when the constitutionally mandated impeachment process concluded. Unfortunately, Republican senators chose partisan allegiance over their sworn oaths to protect the republic. That decision by Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell and the members of his caucus—which came after the first coronavirus case had been confirmed in the United States—allowed a president who had committed high crimes and misdemeanors to continue to commit them and put Trump in a position to endanger the health and safety of the American people in a pandemic.
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The United States would, of course, be better off today without Donald Trump in the White House. He is making a public health crisis, and the economic crisis associated with it, worse than it need be.
But no one should imagine that this is just about Trump. The crisis of ever-expanding presidential power was already evident almost 50 years ago when historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. wrote his 1973 book The Imperial Presidency. The great scholar of the accumulation and abuses of executive authority warned then that the American political system, and the country itself, was threatened by “a conception of presidential power so spacious and peremptory as to imply a radical transformation of the traditional polity.”
His counsel was not heeded. Even after the target of Schlesinger’s immediate concern, President Richard Nixon, was forced from office under threat of impeachment and removal following the Watergate meltdown, ensuing presidents continued to exercise authority that went far beyond the narrowly enumerated powers of the office as they were outlined in the Constitution.
Trump deserves the condemnation that even some congressional conservatives have uttered with regard to his recent rhetorical excesses. But mild rebukes from those who have allowed successive presidents to make their position ever more domineering and distasteful does nothing to maintain a proper separation of powers.
Congress has allowed president after president to accumulate outsize and outlandish powers—to wage wars of whim, to politicize federal policy, to declare emergencies and rework budgets to the benefit of their political agendas and allies. A pattern of failures to check and balance the executive branch of the federal government, which began long ago, created a presidency that was ripe for exploitation by an ill-formed son of privilege.
Congress continues to fail, even now, to assert its own constitutional authority to rein in a power-hungry narcissist whose ignorance and self-absorption have prevented the nation from responding with even minimal efficacy to a deadly threat. McConnell, the husband of a Trump cabinet member, has turned the Senate into a mumbling amen corner for the president’s madness. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi objects more vociferously, but fails to take the necessary steps to keep the House in session by using readily available technology to organize virtual hearings, debates, and votes, thus sidelining the legislative branch at the most critical moment in modern American history.
Pelosi’s choice cedes the spotlight to Trump, as his daily press conferences spread misinformation, create confusion, and divide rather than unite the country.
The presidency has always been a bully pulpit. But Trump has turned it into a communication platform that dominates the 24/7 news cycle with little interruption. Yes, there may be days when the coverage is critical, but it is still Trump, Trump, Trump.
Political and media elites are disinclined in moments when the United States is wrestling with overwhelming issues as we are now to ask or answer structural questions. What we are seeing now is a reminder of our folly. We allowed the presidency to become so powerful, so domineering that in the hands of a Donald Trump, it does the country more harm than good. This president does not just lie to the American people. He plays favorites, provokes fights, and cuts the United States off from global partners—as he did this week when he announced a 60-day freeze on US funding of the World Health Organization.
Trump’s words and deeds make the case for his removal. That’s what should have happened February 5, and we cannot forget the names of those like Maine Senator Susan Collins and Colorado Senator Cory Gardner who, for reasons of blind partisanship, refused to perform the most essential of their senatorial duties.
Because of their failure, the task of removing Trump falls to the voters on November 3.
But November 3 should not merely be understood as a presidential election day but also as the day when we must elect leaders who are prepared to restore a proper balance to the governance of this country. That balance should favor the Congress, not the White House, as the great constitutional scholar of the current Congress explained to me last year. “We are not a coequal branch of government,” Representative Jamie Raskin says of the Congress. “We are the primary and predominant branch of government, and my colleagues need to understand that.”
“The whole Revolution was conceived as an insurgency against monarchy. We wanted to overthrow the rule of the kings and queens and nobles,” explains Raskin, who reminds us that the Constitution envisioned an executive “with very strict limits.”
If this harrowing moment should teach us anything, it is that we must reassert the limits that protect us not just from Donald Trump but also from an imperial presidency.