Playing at Being President

by John Lawrence

Donald Trump’s precise relationship to the Republican Party he putatively leads, and to its majorities in Congress, continues to be very much a work in progress. During his campaign, in his bellicose Inaugural address, and even in Thursday’s speech before the Republican congressional retreat in Philadelphia, Trump pointedly distinguished himself from the “politicians” he castigates.

In Philadelphia, he blamed those “politicians” for the failures of the federal government. He assured his colleagues that he was speaking of “not you here,” a curious dispensation since Republicans have been in charge of one or both houses of a largely somnambulant Congress since 2011, but to “others,” before menacingly adding, “Maybe.”

What Trump has said in his first week in the White House is less significant than what he has done. On a daily basis, Trump has signed Executive Orders to fulfill campaign pledges, ordering all federal agencies, for example, “to the maximum extent permitted by law,” to “waive, defer, grant ­exemptions from or delay” application of any provision of the Affordable Care Act that “imposes a financial or regulatory burden.”  Such a sweeping directive could apply to anyone compelled to buy insurance or to provide health services, it would seem, and likely constitutes an egregious over-reach by seeking to invalidate an existing statute.

With his trademark swagger, Trump has declared he will “reduce regulations big time,” and suspended all new regulations (including those intended to ease or modify earlier regulations on businesses) for months.  Developing replacement regulations will take months due to the laborious publishing and comment requirements, one reason that many companies are not happy with the regulation freeze.

Trump dubiously asserts that his orders will “save thousands of lives, millions of jobs and billions and billions of dollars.” He froze the hiring of new federal employees, which may result in greater reliance on non-unionized contractors who lack protections granted federal employees.  He reversed course on the controversial Keystone and Dakota Access pipelines (although final action will take months of hearings and rules proceedings), limited the admission of refugees based on religious considerations ((interestingly, not in those countries where the Trump Corporation does business), and withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which pleased Democratic labor leaders more than pro-trade Republicans and their business allies.  While boasting “our relationship with Mexico is going to get better,” he disinvited President Enrique Peña Nieto of Mexico, a crucial ally on drugs, crime and immigration and one of our largest trading partners.  Such a visit to Washington would be “fruitless,” he asserted, if Peña Nieto refused to accept the responsibility of paying for the Great Wall of Trump. Peña Nieto’s decision to forgo his planned visit to Washington ranks as the most popular one of his troubled administration.

Trump and his supporters justify this torrent of Executive initiatives by pointing to former President Obama’s heavy use of such orders, but there is a difference.  Obama was slow to resort to unilateral action (his pace ran behind many recent presidents for most of his term) until it became evident that Republicans would block his  legislative proposals. Obama was left with little recourse if he wanted to implement the policies on which he had successfully campaigned in 2012.

“This Congress is going to be the busiest Congress we’ve had in decades,” Trump told the Retreat participants, but thus far, he has shown a preference for substituting his solitary judgment for that of the peoples’ representatives.  That circumvention of Congress’ deliberative procedures is particularly disturbing since his initial orders cover highly divisive and incendiary topics that represent a complete reversal of existing policy, a reversal not embraced by a majority of voters.

Had Trump received a genuine electoral mandate to effectuate such changes (as Obama arguably did on such early Executive Orders as the closing of Guantanamo), the precipitous action might be warranted. Instead, he is intent on making policy by spouting wildly fabricated notions, justifying his immigration restrictions on his belief that “if you were a Muslim you could come in, but if you were a Christian, it was almost impossible.” (The numbers were effectively equal last year.)

Congressional Democrats have predictably reacted with anger to Trump’s cascade of executive actions, hardly a surprisingly response. The Republican response is of greater significance. According to one report, Republicans had no idea if Trump’s orders conflicted with the laws Congress has written “because they hadn’t reviewed them.” Neither have the departments that will have to implement them, including the National Security Council, the Departments of State, Homeland Security and Health and Human Services. One man’s flawed impulsive and cartoonish judgment is being substituted for the entire policymaking process.

Only in the case of the military, where civilian presidential control is actually essential, does Trump appear willing to cede decision-making to congressionally approved leaders.  Reiterating his discredited belief in the effectiveness of torture, Trump agreed to bow to the views of Secretary of Defense Mattis, who discounts the value of “enhanced interrogation techniques” like waterboarding.  “I don’t necessarily agree,” said Trump, but “he will override [me] because I’m giving him that power.” Still, the President, asserted, “I happen to feel that it does work. But I’m going with our leaders,” before adding the Trumpian coda, “We are going to win, with or without.”  (Trump ended his musings on torture with the frequent self-editing that marks his pronouncements, “But I do disagree.”)

In the 1960s, the Congress on a bipartisan basis began to push back against the steady accumulation of power in the hands of a more agile presidency.  Legislators and scholars agreed that Congress had withered into what Sen. Joseph Clark of Pennsylvania described as the “sapless branch” of government, helping to produce what James MacGregor Burns of Williams College memorably called a “deadlock of democracy.” Reformers demanded that Congress, created in the first Article of the Constitution, reassert itself as a co-equal branch rather than continue to defer to the Imperial Presidencies of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon.

Much of what Trump wishes to do will require the involvement and assent of the curiously quiet Congress, and securing agreement on issues from health care to energy to immigration and infrastructure will surely require vast stores of policy experience, personal relationships and patience — traits that Trump has not displayed to this point.  He can claim to have followed through on his campaign promises with his early Executive actions, but it is hard to escape the impression he is just sitting at the Resolute desk in the Oval Office, playing at being President. It remains to be seen whether Republicans in Congress have the courage to challenge Trump when he veers towards the irresponsible, or the capacity to move beyond the nay-saying rhetoric of the past 6 years and produce effective legislation themselves.