The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The limits of the executive branch

President Trump is encountering the limits of his influence at every turn.

Federal Reserve Chair Jerome H. Powell announces the Fed’s decision to raise interest rates by a quarter-point at a news conference following a Federal Open Market Committee meeting in Washington on Wednesday. (Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA-EFE)
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On Wednesday, Donald Trump took an action that reminded everyone that he and he alone holds the office of the president of the United States. Unfortunately for him, that does not mean as much as it used to, or as much as he thinks it does.

Trump announced, first via tweet, and then via a White House news release, and finally through one of those silly videos, that U.S. forces would be withdrawing from Syria because “We have defeated ISIS in Syria.” That’s a contestable claim, but Trump is the president and he made his call. So that is that.

Except that it isn’t. There are many foreign policy observers who approve of Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. forces as a needed retrenchment of America’s overseas footprint. Even advocates of restraint, however, mostly winced at the way Trump went about it. Unsurprisingly, allies in the region are freaking out over the sudden announcement. And according to The Washington Post’s Karen DeYoung, “His decision was made on Tuesday ... following a small meeting attended only by senior White House aides and the secretaries of defense and state, most of whom, if not all, sharply disagreed.”

The secretary of state and secretary of defense were hardly the only Trump administration officials to be left in the lurch. Last week, Trump’s envoy to the global coalition to defeat ISIS, Brett McGurk, said, “The end of ISIS will be a much more long-term endeavor. … No one is declaring mission accomplished. ... Americans will remain on the ground after the physical defeat of the caliphate … to ensure that that defeat is enduring.” My Post colleague Josh Rogin reported that Trump’s announcement was in direct contradiction to what James Jeffrey, his special representative for Syria engagement, said this week:

Jeffrey said the U.N.-led political process was “very close to a potential breakthrough or a breakdown this week.” He scoffed at the idea that all Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has to do is wait for the United States to throw up its hands and go home. “I think if that’s his strategy, he’s going to have to wait a very long time,” Jeffrey said, calling our military and financial commitment in Syria “something that is certainly sustainable for us.”
Jeffrey didn’t seem aware that Trump was about to announce a complete reversal of the decision he made in September to keep U.S. troops in Syria until the three stated goals were achieved. “The new policy is we’re no longer pulling out by the end of the year,” Jeffrey said at the time. “That means we are not in a hurry. … I am confident the president is on board with this.”

Trump is the president; Jeffrey and McGurk are just his representatives. Trump is the decider. And as one senior administration official put it, “The issue is the president has made a decision, so previous statements... He gets to do that. That’s his prerogative.”

Members of his administration get to carp about it, however, and boy are they ever doing that. CNN’s Jake Tapper heard from one senior administration official, who told him, “Senior officials across the administration agree that the president’s decision-by-tweet will recklessly put American and allied lives in danger around the world. ... It’s a mistake of colossal proportions and the president fails to see how it will endanger our country.” The State Department canceled its briefing, and the Defense Department referred press queries to the White House. Which led to a Möbius loop of press reporting:

Furthermore, the Defense Department has a funny way of resisting White House decisions it does not like. The Daily Beast’s Spencer Ackerman reports that national security officials will try to slow Trump’s roll on this question. Based on how the Pentagon has handled Trump’s preferences for a military parade and a transgender ban, it has a decent chance of succeeding.

What is notable about this decision, beyond how ham-handed it was, is how much Trump’s own executive branch (oh, and Congress, too) is making it harder for the president to get what he wants. Even if Trump is proven to have made the right decision, accusations are flying about his precise motives. They range from an effort to divert attention from the Mueller probe to Turkish President Recep Erdogan blackmailing Trump over the Khashoggi affair. Not all of these rumors can be true — but none of them can be dismissed out of hand, either.

This is of a piece with three other occurrences on Wednesday that highlight the defining limits on Trump’s ability to govern. First there was the Federal Reserve’s decision to raise interest rates by a quarter of a percentage point. This went against the stated wishes of the president, who wants rates to stay low. When Jerome Powell was asked about Trump during his news conference, the Federal Reserve chair replied, “Nothing will deter us from doing what we think is the right thing to do.” The Fed chair asserting his institution’s autonomy is nothing shocking. Clearly, however, Trump hoped that his jawboning would work, and he was proved wrong.

The second came in a CNN story by Kaitlin Collins about Trump’s failure to build the wall on our southern border: “President Donald Trump has become increasingly sensitive to criticism that he’s backing off his signature promise to build a wall along the US-Mexico border, three sources familiar with his concern tell CNN, as aides fear the administration’s chances for securing funding for it have sunset.” Again, it is not surprising that Trump could not get a recalcitrant Congress to go along with his preferences. The only thing that is surprising is that the idea that Trump can be increasingly sensitive to anything.

Finally, Judge Emmet Sullivan ruled against the Department of Justice on its June immigration rule that sharply limited the ability of individuals to claim asylum because of persecution from nonstate actors. Vox’s Dara Lind provides an explainer, and her last two paragraphs stood out:

Sullivan’s ruling might ultimately be less important for its immediate impact than as a new front in the war between the executive and judicial branches on immigration. Over the course of the Trump administration — going back to the ruling against Trump’s first travel ban in early February — federal judges have been the single biggest obstacle to Trump’s immigration agenda. By doing so, they’ve taken a less deferential approach to the executive branch than the judiciary traditionally has — forcing the government to show that decisions were made in good faith, and using the president’s own statements to conclude that his administration’s policies were impermissible.
Many of the Trump administration’s most innovative tactics on immigration have been pushing on the soft parts of the immigration system — the parts where the executive branch has never had firm limits put on its power. The use of “self-referrals” to issue new immigration court precedents was perhaps the best example of this phenomenon. But now, it too is being subjected to the scrutiny of a judiciary that does not trust this administration to faithfully enforce the law.

So, to sum up, on Wednesday the president faced constraints from the Federal Reserve, the judiciary, Congress and his own executive branch on what he wants to do. It would appear that if he’s very lucky, he might get the executive branch to meet him halfway. Otherwise, the Trump presidency has found its limits.

None of this should be terribly surprising to longtime political observers. Presidents cannot dictate terms to the Fed. They cannot reallocate budgets without congressional buy-in. They can’t stretch the rule of law and expect the judiciary to roll over. They can’t even announce an impulsive policy reversal and expect that Cabinet officials will pivot on a dime.

Trump is not a longtime political observer, and all of it seems to be shocking the heck out of him.