One year ago, I wrote my morning-after column about whether America’s system of government could weather an elected demagogue:
What is noteworthy about the American system of government is not what it can do but what it cannot do. The president is not a tyrant. The separation of powers puts important legal constraints on the executive branch. Federalism puts important legal constraints on what the federal government can impose on the states. The Bill of Rights puts important legal constraints on what any level of government can do to the American people.
Layered on top of those legal constraints is a whole set of bureaucratic norms and procedures that can make it difficult for a president to manage even the executive branch. There are civil service protections for bureaucrats. There are standard operating procedures that officials are loath to contravene. For eight years Barack Obama and his White House staff have struggled with the “Blob” of the national security state, and sometimes lost.
When Trump is sworn into office, he will face all of these legal and bureaucratic constraints and more.
It seem appropriate to consider just how well the republic has handled President Trump. My tentative conclusion is that, so far, the system is working.
This is, to be clear, no thanks to Trump himself. One way the system could have worked was if the president learned the norms and rules of the presidency and adapted to them. That hasn’t happened — if anything, the opposite has occurred. Trump’s behavior has gotten worse. He clearly views himself as a monarch more than a president, taking credit for anything good and claiming he has powers that he does not. He has tried to cajole the FBI and Department of Justice to investigate his political opponents. This tweet sums up his personal theory of how the federal government should work:
Trump remains the most illiberal president since James Buchanan. There isn’t a political norm or protocol he has not flouted.
Nonetheless, the system has still functioned pretty well. The best evidence for this so far is the Trump White House’s abysmal record of accomplishment. Congress has not done what Trump wants it to do, whether from repealing Obamacare to eliminating the filibuster to easing sanctions on Russia to rolling over on the 2016 campaign investigations. The judiciary has also refused to let Trump do what he wants on matters ranging from his attempted Muslim ban to his attempted transgender ban in the military to his attempted interference in the military court system.
Trump’s pressure on FBI and Justice reveals his weakness as president, not his strength. As Peter Baker noted last week:
The repeated assaults on law enforcement cross lines that presidents have largely observed since the Watergate era, raising questions about the separation of politics and the law. But as extraordinary as Mr. Trump’s broadsides are, perhaps more striking is that investigators and prosecutors are so far ignoring the head of the executive branch in which they serve while military judges and juries are for the most part disregarding the opinions of their commander in chief.
Toronto Star reporter Daniel Dale, an indispensable resource for tracking Trump’s myriad lies, agrees with Baker:
Trump does not have the power to revoke broadcast licenses to punish people for critical speech. Nobody at the Federal Communications Commission took any action to try. The story about Trump’s extraordinary breach of democratic norms vanished in 48 hours, replaced by other Trump stories.
The pattern has been repeated itself throughout Trump’s presidency.
Showing the instincts of an authoritarian, the president expresses a desire to do something profoundly contrary to the norms of democratic societies. Then he is constrained by democratic institutions.
He talks like a strongman. He is, in practice, a weak man.
Washington Examiner columnist Philip Klein reaches a similar conclusion:
When Trump was elected, many of us feared what would happen when the power of the presidency was put into the hands of somebody with a lack of impulse control, thin grasp of the limits on executive power, praise for international strongmen, and a background as a CEO who typically got his way. The big question for many of us Trump critics was whether the United States’s institutions were strong enough to resist Trump’s authoritarian streak. So far, the answer has largely been yes, and the fact that Trump is left tweeting into the wind in frustration like the rest of us, because he can’t get law enforcement to behave in his preferred way, is evidence of that.
Sure, Trump fired the director of the FBI. And sure, he appointed a loyal ally who was a key part of his campaign and biggest early endorser, to run the Department of Justice. But even after taking those actions, he hasn’t been able to get those agencies to behave in his preferred manner.
I would go even further than Klein. Trump’s most egregious move — firing James B. Comey — backfired badly. It led directly to Robert S. Mueller III being appointed to the special counsel position. Mueller is draining the swamp more effectively than Trump.
As I type this, the off-year election outcomes are proffering even worse news for Trump. Virginia just handed Republicans a tidal wave of defeats, encouraging Democrats to run everywhere in the midterms and chastening even the Trumpiest of Republicans.
The news is not all good for America’s checks and balances. There are areas where Trump has been able to push back against constraints. He has managed to secure the fealty of a lot of Republicans through his cabinet and judicial appointments. He has been more successful in altering how regulations are made. He has empowered some of the worst bureaucracies in the federal government, such as Immigration and Customs Enforcement. His antipathy to career civil service officials has triggered an exodus of human capital from key agencies like the State Department.
Perhaps the most pernicious effect of Trump has been the way he has caused honorable men to act dishonorably. White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly has had an atrocious two weeks, capped by his defamation of a Democratic member of Congress (and his refusal to apologize for his lie). Buried in this Reuters story about Rex Tillerson’s incompetency is quite an H.R. McMaster anecdote:
At a recent meeting of former national security advisers, former secretary of state Colin Powell told H.R. McMaster, Trump’s national security adviser, that the administration was gutting State. McMaster replied that there were people who did not support the president’s agenda, two people present told Reuters.
For most of 2017 the talk in Washington has been about grown-ups disciplining and cocooning the reins of power from Trump. It would appear that, instead, the president has managed to coarsen his advisers.
Going forward, Trump remains politically weak and unpopular, and last night’s election results will weaken him further. Because he is not learning at the job, he will not get any better at it. Other components of the federal government look poised to constrain him. While he has had some successes, they have been pretty meager relative to every other postwar president.
The good news is that the system is working under Trump. The bad news is that parts of it are showing signs of stress. And we have at least three more years to go.