But legal experts The Fix spoke to also say Trump is rapidly expanding presidential power, and most of the Republican Party is cheering him on — even as it happens at the expense of their own power to hold future Democratic presidents accountable.
On Thursday, the House voted to limit what Trump can do in Iran without Congress’s permission. Most Democrats supported it, and most Republicans opposed the measure, designed to reassert Congress’s role in making these decisions.
“The president is taking what was a slow creep and trying to set a bomb off in terms of expanding executive authority,” said Loyola Law professor Jessica Levinson. “At some point, you’re going to have a Democratic president, and they’re going to give that person all this power.”
Trump is not even trying to appease Congress on Iran. After not notifying congressional leaders privy to classified information about it, he said a tweet should satisfy the requirements of a nearly 50-year-old law mandating him to get Congress’s approval to escalate things further.
And when members of his administration briefed Congress about the strike a week after it happened, some senators said they were told not to debate its merits in public and to just trust that Trump had a reason to take out a top Iranian military leader.
Two Republicans in particular were mad enough to speak out after that briefing. “Very insulting,” is how Sen. Mike Lee (Utah) on Wednesday described what Trump officials told Congress. He said officials could not give senators examples of when they would come to Congress about military action with Iran. Lee and another libertarian-leaning senator, Rand Paul (Ky.), decided to support Democrats on a resolution to curb Trump’s powers.
But Lee and Paul are paying a price for prioritizing their own power. After being accused by one of his colleagues of emboldening Iran, Lee gave an interview Thursday on Fox News blaming the briefers — rather than the president they were representing — for not respecting Congress’s role in all this.
They “didn’t share this president’s view that has been very respectful toward his commander-in-chief power,” Lee said, adding: “I applaud this president. I support this president.”
This is the second time in as many months that Republicans have given deference to Trump’s extreme read on presidential power. As Trump was being impeached, Republicans in Congress defended his decision to wholesale ignore congressional subpoenas, a decision that strikes at the heart of Congress’s ability to be a check on the executive branch.
Subpoenas are supposed to be legally binding, but Republicans were effectively saying that a president can ignore them until Congress sues to enforce them. (It’s not hard to see how that could backfire when there’s a Democratic president.)
“I’m not aware of other cases where a president had said ‘I’m just not categorically cooperating any way at all,’” Ilya Somin, a libertarian law professor at George Mason University, said about Trump’s interaction with Congress.
Trump had already made it a practice of stonewalling Congress, blocking some 20 other congressional investigations. He sued Congress and a private company to avoid having his tax returns and financial records turned over. It prompted one former lawyer for the House of Representatives to warn of an “imperial presidency” if the courts okay that behavior.
Republicans in Congress have also largely acquiesced to Trump’s decision to reroute money they gave him to pay for things they didn’t approve of, like building a border wall or freezing military assistance to Ukraine.
There was some Republican resistance on the border wall. As Trump declared a national emergency last year to take money from the military to start constructing the wall, Republicans like Sen. John Cornyn of Texas called the move “a dangerous step.”
A dozen Senate Republicans joined with Democrats to pass a resolution that would stop Trump from spending the money on the border wall. It was a significant amount of opposition to the president from his own party. But a majority of Republicans in Congress sided with Trump and didn’t choose to rebuke him, and in the end Trump got his way.
And last year, the Senate, including seven Republicans, voted to invoke the War Powers Resolution and stop Trump from supporting military action in Yemen.
Trump is taking advantage of a dynamic that existed before his presidency. Reflexive partisanship in Congress has been growing over the past decade and peaked under President Barack Obama, said Joshua Huder, a government affairs expert at Georgetown University. Democrats did not rush to oppose Obama taking unilateral military action in Syria and Libya, for example. “In today’s age, it seems like no matter what happens with the president, he’ll have partisan support,” he said.
And these things are cyclical. Some experts pointed out that when Obama got the United States involved in conflicts in Libya without congressional approval, there was no mass objection on the part of Democrats.
But Trump takes things further at all levels of presidential power. So far, there doesn’t seem to be a line he can cross that’s too far for Republicans in Congress. He’s popular with Republican voters, and thus he gets an extreme amount of deference among the politicians who represent those voters.
“It’s not quite literally true he could shoot someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue and his base wouldn’t turn on him,” Somin said. “But a wide range of stuff that’s only modestly less blatant than that, he can do, and most of his base still sticks with him.”
And so far, so will most Republicans in Congress, even as it comes at the expense of their own ability to exercise power.