In 2018, international relations scholars did not think Trump had gone too far
Since President Trump took office, many observers — commentators, legal analysts and the courts — have questioned whether his various foreign policy initiatives were legal. His trade, immigration and national security efforts have been fiercely debated — particularly the question of whether the president had overstepped his legal authority or had simply exercised the foreign policy powers granted by the Constitution and delegated by Congress, albeit in unconventional ways.
In October 2018, we asked U.S. scholars of international relations, many of whom study U.S. foreign policy, whether Trump had overstepped the foreign policy powers of the president. We sent our survey to over 4,700 scholars via email and received 1,157 responses for a response rate of 23.68 percent. Of those 1,157 scholars, just 42 percent thought he had gone too far, while 49 percent said he had not. Despite Trump’s unilateralism in issues ranging from nuclear policy to enforcing the Uniform Code of Military Justice, these scholars didn’t see any real change in the powers of the presidency since Trump’s inauguration: less than a third said presidential powers had expanded, while about 49 percent said those powers had not changed.
That is striking, since these scholars tend to be more liberal than the average American and overwhelmingly disapprove of both Trump’s general foreign policy approach and many of his specific policies. International relations scholars believe, for example, that the president’s unpredictable style is bad for U.S. interests; consider declining international respect for the U.S. since Trump took office to be a “major problem”; believe his strategy toward North Korea is unlikely to be successful; and think his tariff policy is “bad for the United States.”
These scholars have changed their minds
As you can see in the figure below, that’s changed. In October 2019, after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) announced an official impeachment inquiry but before articles of impeachment were issued, we asked the same question to the same group. And the Ukraine events apparently changed the views of these experts.
In late 2019, we invited the same pool of over 4,700 U.S.-based international relations scholars to take our survey on foreign policy issues; this time, 971 responded, for a response rate of 20.43 percent. These respondents broadly resembled international relations scholars as a whole in gender, rank, and type of university where they are employed. Of these, about 74 percent said they believed that President Trump had overstepped his presidential powers, a dramatic 33 percent increase from the previous year.
Given recent events, we made one important change to our 2019 survey. In our 2018 survey, we had not asked whether the President had “abused” his power, only whether he had “overstepped” his foreign policy authority.
In this more recent survey, however, we also asked whether President Trump had abused his authority, as charged in the articles of impeachment. To do this, we assigned our respondents at random to one of two versions of the same question, thus: “In your opinion, has President Trump [abused/overstepped] the foreign policy powers of the Office of the President?” This allows us to see whether the semantic difference between “overstep” and “abuse” changed our results. You can see the results in the figure below.
A strong majority of scholars answered “yes” in both conditions, but there was a sizable difference in the percentage of respondents who believe that the President had “abused” his powers (about 92 percent) and those who agreed he had “overstepped” (about 74 percent) his authority.
These results suggest that a significant proportion of our experts believe the President’s motivation and purpose in withholding aid to Ukraine were wrong, even if they thought the action itself was not, in the most narrow sense, illegal. As the graph below shows, we observe this difference regardless of respondents’ ideology.
Strikingly, even a large majority of conservative international relations scholars (73 percent) view the president as having abused his power. This contrasts with conservative members of the public, who overwhelmingly do not believe that Trump abused his powers. This difference suggests that these scholars are guided more by their expertise on U.S. foreign policy than by their political beliefs.
Abuse of power and the imperial presidency
What explains the difference in perceptions of the president abusing vs. overstepping his authority? One possible explanation concerns the concept of the “imperial presidency,” described in Arthur M. Schlesinger’s 1973 book by that name, which argued that presidential powers have expanded well beyond those originally granted by the Constitution.
Schlesinger detailed how Congress abdicated its powers bit by bit, giving the presidency expanded foreign policy powers, particularly the power to wage war with limited oversight. In recent years, scholars have built on Schlesinger’s work, arguing that the gulf between the foreign policy powers of Congress and the president has deepened, partially because of legislation enacted after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
As political scientists observe the powers of the presidency grow, presumably, they see that it’s harder to overstep those powers, but easier to abuse them for personal gain.
Emily B. Jackson (@emilybjack) is a project manager for the Teaching, Research, and International Policy (TRIP) Project at William & Mary.
Eric Parajon (@EricParajon) is a project manager for the Teaching, Research, and International Policy (TRIP) Project at William & Mary.
Susan Peterson is the Wendy and Emery Reves Professor of Government and International Relations and co-director of the Global Research Institute at William & Mary, and a co-editor of Bridging the Theory-Practice Divide in International Relations, forthcoming from Georgetown University Press.
Ryan Powers (@rmpowers) is an assistant professor of international affairs at the University of Georgia's School of Public and International Affairs and a co-editor of Bridging the Theory-Practice Divide in International Relations, forthcoming from Georgetown University Press.
Michael J. Tierney (@MikeTierneyIR) is the George and Mary Hylton Professor of International Relations and co-director of the Global Research Institute at William & Mary, and a co-editor of Bridging the Theory-Practice Divide in International Relations, forthcoming from Georgetown University Press.