All presidents chafe at the limits of their authority. You win election to the most powerful position in the world, then you find yourself constrained by Congress and the courts and the law and international treaties, not to mention public opinion and media coverage and even norms and traditions.
Consider some of Trump’s statements and actions from just the last few days. Again and again, he has asserted authority he does not possess, claiming he will quickly solve some problem or bend others to his will:
- With talks over the next pandemic rescue package stalled, Trump has said he might cut payroll taxes — a move that both Democrats and Republicans agree is nearly useless in our current economic crisis — on his own. “I can do that also through an executive order,” he said on Monday.
- With an absolute tsunami of evictions on the horizon, Trump also claims he can unilaterally put a stop to evictions. “I’ll do it myself if I have to,” he also said on Monday. “I have a lot of powers with respect to executive orders, and we’re looking at that very seriously right now.”
- Trump proposed banning the social media app TikTok, but after apparently being persuaded that he lacked the authority to do so, he shifted to pressing for its Chinese parent company to sell the app to an American firm. Now he is insisting that the sale involve a payoff. “A very substantial portion of that price is going to have to come into the treasury of the United States,” he said. This bizarre idea sounds a lot like extortion, and will clearly never happen.
- Asked about issuing some kind of executive order to put his antipathy toward mail-in ballots into action, Trump responded, “I have the right to do it. We haven’t gotten there yet, but we’ll see what happens.” While he didn’t clarify what “it” is, the president has no authority to restrict mail balloting: Those rules are set by each state.
- Trump suggested delaying the election because there are too many mail ballots, an idea so appalling that the co-founder of the right-wing Federalist Society wrote that “this latest tweet is fascistic and is itself grounds for the president’s immediate impeachment.”
You can see the pattern: Trump becomes frustrated by some problem, but realizing he can’t actually do much (or anything) about it, he claims he can, then says something like, “We’re looking at that very strongly.”
To be clear, there are many ways in which Trump has succeeded in using the powers he does have to cause chaos and destruction. For example, while he can’t ban mail voting, he has waged a long public campaign to discredit the U.S. Postal Service, which culminated in the appointment of GOP mega-donor Louis DeJoy as postmaster general. DeJoy has very quickly used his position to eviscerate the USPS, banning overtime and taking other steps that have dramatically slowed mail delivery across the country.
These avoidable and intentionally created delays will likely cause untold numbers of mail ballots to arrive late to election officials, disenfranchising thousands or even millions of Americans. Which is just what Trump wants.
Elsewhere, while Trump failed in his efforts to add a citizenship question to the census, then issued a bogus executive order saying that undocumented immigrants shouldn’t be counted for reapportionment (a laughable violation of the 14th Amendment), his Commerce Department appointees have now decided to cut short the counting, at precisely the time when the pandemic has made counting all Americans so challenging. It seems clear that the purpose is the same one Trump has pursued all along: to leave immigrants, minorities, and poor people uncounted to limit their access to resources and representation.
There are other ways in which Trump simply ignores limits on his authority: for instance, he has practically stopped seeking Senate confirmation for his appointees. When some grifter or bigot he wants to install to a high-ranking position becomes too controversial even for Republicans, he simply puts them in the job and tells everyone to buzz off.
But the broad picture is one in which Trump yearns for unlimited power, gets stymied by the law or the lack of a mechanism to do what he wants, and settles for enacting a performance of authoritarianism.
Meanwhile, at least 152,000 Americans are dead from covid-19, and instead of using his power to design and implement a national strategy to address it, he tries to convince everyone that his passivity is actually masterful action.
Between now and November, you can be sure the president will try to use what authority he has to turn the election in his favor — Attorney General William P. Barr’s “investigation” of Joe Biden should be on its way any day now. But more often, Trump will simply claim to be all-powerful, saying that every problem we face will soon be solved by the irresistible force of his will. As if we don’t see what he really is.