The republican government designed by the American Constitution gives the primary powers of the national government to the Congress, which is to be the central body for deliberation about national policies. The executive and judicial branches of the national government and the state governments contribute to the process of political deliberation within a system of checks and balances in which no one person or group can have predominant power.
Abraham Lincoln warned in his Lyceum Speech of 1838 that the greatest threat to the American republic would come from the rise of ambitious men who would seek the glory and distinction of becoming the national leader--men like Alexander, Caesar, and Napoleon--acting outside the rule of law. But now, far from worrying about populist Caesarism as a threat to republican government, many Americans have accepted the argument of the American Progressives for presidential government--a form of government in which the President becomes the great Leader of the People who rules by executive decrees that have not passed through any deliberative lawmaking in the Congress. I have written about this in a previous post in 2008.
One clear measurement of Presidential Caesarism in American government is the stunning increase in the number of executive orders signed by the president, in which the president attempts to rule by decree without congressional lawmaking. From Reagan to Trump there has been a steady increase in these executive orders. There was a big increase with Obama, who explicitly identified himself as a Progressive promoting a Progressive view of Presidential Government. But now Trump has surpassed even Obama in this signing of executive orders that have not been subject to congressional debate. One can see this at the website for the American Presidency Project, where there is a chart comparing Trump with the previous four presidents in the number of executive orders issued during their first 100 days.
Now that Trump is nearing the middle of his first term, we can look back over his behavior in the White House and judge the quality of the deliberation about policy in his Presidential Government. Bob Woodward's new book--Fear: Trump in the White House--is a good account of Trump's attempt to rule by executive decree, and it shows how dangerous this is. In fact, it is so dangerous that many of Trump's own appointees in the White House and the Executive Branch have tried to protect the country from the consequences of his erratic impulsiveness. As the writer in the recent anonymous Op-Ed essay in the New York Times has written, "many Trump appointees have vowed to do what we can to preserve our democratic institutions while thwarting Mr. Trump's more misguided impulses until he is out of office." This is what Woodward identifies as the "administrative coup d'état" in the Trump administration, in which those around Trump have "worked together to derail what they believed were Trump's most impulsive and dangerous orders" (xix). This is the chaos created by Presidential Caesarism.
One illustration of this in Woodward's book occurred in early September 2017. For many months, Trump would impulsively have an idea and then say, "I want to sign something." He would start scribbling an order or dictate it to someone. His advisors would tell him that his authority to issue executive orders was often restricted by law. They would "slow walk"--stall and delay--his orders until he forgot about what he had ordered. And sometimes when they saw a draft of an executive order on his desk, they would secretly remove it; and because of his short attention span, he wouldn't ask about it if the draft was not laying on his desk.
So, for example, Trump wanted the United States to get out of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the United States-Korea Free Trade Agreement (KORUS), and the World Trade Organization (WTO). "We've talked about this ad nauseam," Trump said. "Just do it. Just do it. Get out of NAFTA. Get out of KORUS. And get out of the WTO. We're withdrawing from all three" (264).
Many of Trump's advisors--including Gary Cohn, Rob Porter, Jim Mattis, H. R. McMaster, and John Kelly--defended these free trade agreements. In particular, they argued that KORUS was vital to American interests, not only economically but also militarily. The free trade agreement with South Korea was part of an alliance against the threats from North Korea. This included the stationing of 28,500 U.S. troops in the South and top secret intelligence operations If North Korea launched a missile with a nuclear warhead to attack the United States, it would take 38 minutes to reach Los Angeles. The intelligence operations in South Korea could detect a missile launch in North Korea within seven seconds, allowing the U.S. time to shoot it down. Detecting such a missile launch in Alaska would take 15 minutes, which could be a fatal time difference. For these and other reasons, withdrawing from the free trade agreement with South Korea could have disastrous consequences. On September 1, Trump said: "All right, we're not going to do it today. It's not that we're not going to do it, but all right, we won't do it today" (265).
But some of Trump's advisors--particularly Peter Navarro and Wilbur Ross--were opponents of free trade agreements who urged Trump to leave KORUS. On September 5, Cohn, Porter and others saw a draft letter on Trump's desk in the Oval Office--probably written by Navarro and Ross--that gave notice to the President of South Korea that the U.S. would withdraw from KORUS. Cohn removed the letter. "I stole it off his desk," Cohn later said. "I wouldn't let him see it. He's never going to see that document. Got to protect the country." Trump's mind was so disordered that he never noticed the missing letter (xviii-xix).
Woodward concludes from this:
"The reality was that the United States in 2017 was tethered to the words and actions of an emotionally overwrought, mercurial, and unpredictable leader. Members of his staff had joined to purposefully block some of what they believed were the president's most dangerous impulses. It was a nervous breakdown of the executive power of the most powerful country in the world" (xxii).The fundamental problem here is that the Congress has in many ways abdicated its constitutional responsibilities by delegating its powers to the president. In Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution gives Congress the power to "lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts, and excises," to "regulate commerce with foreign nations," and to "make all laws which shall be necessary and proper" to carry out these specific powers. And while the President has the power to negotiate treaties with foreign nations, the ratification of treaties requires a two-thirds vote of the Senate (Article 2, Section 2). So this clearly gives Congress the legislative power over foreign trade agreements. But in some of its legislation for foreign trade agreements, the Congress has given the President discretionary power to renegotiate or withdraw from trade agreements, which has created the possibility that the President could withdraw from a free trade agreement without Congress's approval.
Most international free trade agreements have been approved as congressional-executive agreements by a majority vote of each house of Congress. All of these agreements include clauses allowing for withdrawal from the agreement after advance notice to the other parties. The Trade Act of 1974 applies to most free trade agreements, and one provision in Section 125 of that Act states that "The President may at any time terminate, in whole or in part, any proclamation made under this chapter." It is not clear whether Congress could prevent the President from terminating a trade agreement. Other legislation seems to give the President broad authority in this area. The Trade Expansion Act of 1962 authorizes the Secretary of Commerce to investigate whether imports threaten the national security of the United States, and based upon the Secretary's report, the President can "take such other actions as the president deems necessary to adjust the imports of such article so that such imports will not threaten to impair the national security." This has allowed President Trump to declare high tariffs against Canada and other countries because imports from those countries threaten the national security of the United States. (Some of these questions about the relative powers of the Congress and the President over free trade agreements are taken up by Brandon Murrill in a paper for the Congressional Research Service.)
In any case, it is clear that the Congress has the constitutional power to alter existing laws or to pass new laws that prohibit the President from changing trade agreements without congressional approval. The question, however, is whether the Congress has the will to exercise its constitutional powers to constrain the President. If the Congress refuses to do this, then those people in the White House who see the danger to the country from a man like Trump must act to frustrate his plans, which creates the chaos that we now see in the White House.
Another example of the unconstitutional turn away from Republican Government to Presidential Government is the Congress's allowing the President to usurp the congressional power for declaring war. Declaring war is one of the clearly enumerated powers of the Congress. In the debates over the ratification of the Constitution, some critics charged that the Constitution would set up the President as an elected monarch. In The Federalist, Alexander Hamilton answered this charge by pointing out the powers of the British Monarch that the President would not have--most importantly, the power to declare war, which belonged to the Congress.
Remarkably, in teaching college courses in American politics, I have asked students who has the power to declare war; and many say it's the President. Despite what the Constitution says, this is correct! Because the Congress has given this congressional power to the President.
Consider, for instance, the war in Afghanistan. It's the longest war in American history--soon to be 17 years--with no end in sight. There has never been a congressional declaration of war for Afghanistan, and therefore there has never been any formal deliberation by Congress about whether that war is justified. After the attacks of September 11, 2001, George W. Bush attempted to get a formal declaration of war from Congress comparable to the declaration of war after the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. He failed to get this declaration. But he did persuade Congress to pass the "Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Terrorists," which was passed as a joint resolution by Congress three days after the 9/11 attacks.. This resolution declares that "the President is authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations, or persons."
Two months later, George W. Bush used this authorization to launch an invasion of Afghanistan, although there was no evidence that the state of Afghanistan had attacked the United States or approved any such attack. Of the 19 people said to have committed the 9/11 attacks, 15 were from Saudi Arabia! Although the government of the Taliban was overthrown, the U.S. with its NATO allies has never been able to defeat the Taliban insurgency. Moreover, it was never clear as to exactly what the mission of the U.S. was in Afghanistan.
When Obama came into office in 2008, he promised to end the war. Instead, U.S. troop levels increased to 100,000 in 2011. After trying to completely withdraw, Obama decided to return. When he left office in 2016, there were over 8,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
Trump had campaigned on a promise to end the war in Afghanistan because it was a waste of money and lives in a war that could not be won. Then, on August 18, 2017, Trump met with the National Security Council to decide on a new strategy for the war. Jeff Sessions and Keith Kellogg argued for pulling out of Afghanistan. CIA Director Mike Pompeo argued for expanding the CIA paramilitary role to replace the regular military soldiers. H.R. McMaster, the National Security advisor, and Jim Mattis, the Secretary of Defense, argued for continuing the war while adding 4,000 troops.
As Woodward indicates, Trump was adamant in declaring "I want to get out." But he was finally persuaded by Mattis that withdrawal from Afghanistan would create a sanctuary for terrorists, who could use their base in Afghanistan to launch another 9/11 style attack on the U.S. Trump approved a 60-page strategy memo signed by McMaster. On August 21, he gave a nationally televised speech endorsing this new strategy and insisting three times in the speech that the goal was to "win."
Trump did not read McMaster's strategy memo, because Trump refuses to read anything longer than one page. So he did not see the statements buried in the memo saying "Stalemate likely to persist in Afghanistan" and "Taliban likely to continue to gain ground" (258). And, indeed, one year later, the Taliban has continued to gain territory.
Woodward reports that after Trump's NSC meeting on August 18, Trump called Senator Lindsay Graham:
"'You're the first person I called,' Trump told Graham. 'I just met with the generals. I'm going to go with the generals.'"
"'Well, Mr. President, that's probably the smartest thing any president could have done.'"
"'That was a hard one,' Trump said. 'It's the graveyard of empires.' It was a reference to a book by Seth G. Jones on Afghanistan."
"'It's my luck the only book you ever read was that one,' Graham joked."
"Trump laughed along" (259).It's clear, however, that neither Graham nor Trump has read Seth Jones's book--In the Graveyard of Empires: America's War in Afghanistan (2010). Jones tells the history of Afghanistan over thousands of years in which colonial invaders--from Alexander the Great to the British and the Russians--have failed to win in a country dominated by tribal warlords. And he shows how the U.S. has failed to learn the lessons of that history in sinking into a quagmire of endless war with no possibility of victory.
Donald Trump is incapable of seriously deliberating about any issue of policy, such as trade agreements or the war in Afghanistan. Secretary of State Tillerson has said: "He's a fucking moron" (225).
But the real problem is not that Trump lacks the moral and intellectual virtues necessary for deliberation. The problem is that the Constitution designed a Republican Government in which the Congress would be the primary deliberative body. There is no reason to believe that any President can take the place of Congress in providing deliberation.
As citizens in a Republic, Americans should not demand great leadership from their presidents. They should demand that their presidents serve a republican structure of government in which deliberation on policy is found primarily in the Congress.
Some of my previous posts on Trump's chimpanzee personality can be found here, here, here, and here.