As Donald Trump marches towards the GOP nomination, it’s worth pointing out two stories from this past week about what the next president can do as the foreign policy leader of the nation.
In The Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf discusses what the president can do on the security front without any congressional constraint… and walks away terrified:
Let me put things more starkly: Under current precedent, the commander in chief can give a secret order to kill an American citizen with a drone strike without charges or trial.
Should Donald Trump have that power?…
Before moving into a new house, parents of small children engage in child-proofing. Before leaving the White House, Obama should engage in tyrant-proofing. For eight years, he has evinced a high opinion of his own ability to exercise power morally, even in situations where Senator Obama thought that the president should be restrained. At this point, better to flatter his ego than to resist it. You’ll be gone soon, Mr. President, and for all our disagreements, I think your successor is highly likely to be less trustworthy and more corruptible than you were.
Meanwhile, in the Wall Street Journal, Greg Ip looks at the protectionist powers of a sitting president… and walks away terrified:
As Mr. Trump closes in on the Republican presidential nomination by promising voters he’ll crack down on foreign competitors, the rest of the world should take stock of the extraordinary power a president has to take the country in a protectionist direction….
While the candidates haven’t delved into the details of trade enforcement, a president has enormous leverage through several broader powerful tools, such as Section 301 of the Trade Act of 1974, which authorizes the president to take “all appropriate and feasible steps” against any “unjustifiable or unreasonable” discrimination against U.S. exports, and Section 201, under which he can seek to protect industry from surging imports….
Though the law is murky, a president can probably pull the U.S. out of the WTO or Nafta on six months’ notice, says Gary Horlick, a veteran trade lawyer, though that would leave in place many of the laws enacting their provisions, such as on tariff cuts and intellectual-property rights.
So, in other words, over time the president has amassed significant levers of power with fewer checks and balances than Americans commonly realize. [To be fair, there have been valid reasons for some of these shifts in power from the legislative to the executive. If you think presidents are bad at foreign economic policy, you haven’t paid attention to legislative history. But still, this is a thing.]
As much as Obama decried overreaching executive power as a candidate in 2008, he has become part of the problem as president. This president has concentrated control over foreign policy within the White House to a far greater degree than anyone since Richard Nixon. In response to an actively hostile GOP-controlled Congress, Obama has simply bypassed the legislative branch through executive action. While many of Obama’s supporters embraced this strategy in the face of an implacable Congress, it creates an office ripe for abuse if, say, a vainglorious blowhard were to get elected.
I’m probably overreacting to the concentration of power in the executive branch. The system is designed for the president to think about the national interest more than other elected officials. And for obvious reasons, Trump probably won’t win. Probably.
But even if the next president is Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders, it is worth thinking hard about whether the prerogatives of foreign policy have become too concentrated over time.