Two hundred years ago, George Washington voluntarily gave up the presidency. No law required him to do so. Rather, Washington explained that a democratically elected leader should not lead for life. His decision established a precedent, formalized only in 1951, that U.S. presidents serve just two terms.
Experts around the world say term limits are an essential hallmark of a functional democracy, a tool to check corruption and promote accountability. In a 2015 speech in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, President Barack Obama told the African Union that democracy depends on limits. “Africa’s democratic progress is also at risk when leaders refuse to step aside when their terms end,” Obama said.
On Saturday, President Trump hinted that he may have other ideas.
In a freewheeling speech to Republican donors at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida, Trump praised Chinese President Xi Jinping for ditching term limits. (A recording of the speech was obtained by CNN.)
Xi’s Communist Party recently proposed scrapping the part of the Chinese constitution that limits presidents to no more than two terms. The proposal will almost certainly pass, meaning Xi could retain power after his second five-year term ends in 2023. “It is the strongest sign yet that Xi intends to hold on to power, potentially taking China back toward one-man rule,” my colleague Emily Rauhala noted.
Xi has shown a flair for authoritarianism in other ways, too — under his leadership, China has purged thousands of his political opponents, strangled civil society and established a 21st-century surveillance state. Not exactly the stuff of the American idyll.
But in his closed-door speech on Saturday, Trump joked about the term-limits move, saying Xi is now “president for life. President for life. No, he’s great. And, look, he was able to do that. I think it’s great.”
“Maybe we’ll have to give that a shot someday,” Trump went on.
It’s a strange jab from a leader who has earned a reputation as cozying up to dictators.
Trump has repeatedly praised Xi, as well as Russian President Vladimir Putin (Trump said Putin gets an “A” in leadership), Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. Duterte’s notorious war on drugs has killed thousands of people — most of them on the streets by police, with no opportunity for a fair trial or protection. In May, Trump said Duterte was doing an “unbelievable job on the drug problem.”