The Waning Presidency

Donald Trump’s empire of chaos is weakening the highest institution in the United States.

Donald Trump can’t complain. He received a powerful presidency, one at its peak, in fact. Constitutional experts say the toolbox at the current president’s disposal is the fullest and most powerful imaginable. In addition to controlling the executive branch, Trump’s party has a majority in the House of Representatives and the Senate, and it just filled a vacancy on the Supreme Court, giving a conservative majority to the highest constitutional institution. The problem with the enormous powers the president has is in knowing how to use them, which is quite complicated for someone like Trump.

The key to presidential power lies in understanding a famous line, coined by Richard Neustadt, professor of political science and adviser to Presidents Truman and Kennedy: The government of the United States consists of “separated institutions sharing powers.” We’re talking, of course, about the separation of powers and the famous “checks and balances” that should prevail in a good democracy, to which the United States aspires.

All the presidents until now, with perhaps the exception of Nixon, have understood this complex power structure and have even known how to take advantage of it to increase the dimensions of their presidential power. That’s not the case with Trump, who has turned out to be an incompetent and oafish president with respect to his duties and powers, and a rather untrustworthy one, as far as the people he interacts with are concerned, given the ease with which he lies and cheats.

The latest display of Trump’s difficulties in grasping how the power machine works came this week with the testimony of James Comey, the FBI director Trump fired. Comey was fired because he refused to obey the president’s dictates and didn’t want to end the investigation into Russian interference in the election campaign.

The real estate tycoon is incapable of understanding the nature of government institutions, with their high levels of independence that should be protected zealously by their respective leaders. Nor does it occur to him that he has to share his decisions with anyone. His concept of presidential power has mixed-up and blended institutions, with all the power concentrated in the Oval Office. His awareness of the limits of his own power is nonexistent and he doesn’t go beyond the very simple and ancient idea of command-and-control.

With Trump, institutions are discredited and the separate and independent powers are attacked. Judges, police officers, diplomats, secret agents and journalists are suffering the consequences. The State Department, once a fundamental tool of American soft power, has seen its budget cut by 30 percent. Meanwhile, there are devastating gaps and vacancies in the State Department’s hierarchy of ambassadors and undersecretaries, who are fundamental for U.S. presence in the world. Trump doesn’t trust them, just like he doesn’t trust the FBI the CIA, the judiciary and the attorneys, or The New York Times and CNN, all of which play an important role in spreading the power of American democracy.

Trump’s ineptitude at being president, which he has demonstrated extensively in the half year he’s been in the White House, may bring about an abrupt and undesired end to his presidency. But at this point, it’s already led to several changes in the effective powers of the president and even of the institution. The most obvious is the executive branch’s inability to carry out a single one of Trump’s election promises, a fact which was made clear at the presidency’s 100-day mark.

The executive orders deporting immigrants, challenged and struck down by the courts one after another, are the most glaring examples. This is also the case with the withdrawal from the Paris agreement on climate change, which led the biggest states and cities — California and New York, among many others — to bypass the White House and continue committing to limited emissions goals.

That’s the first paradox of Trumpism. It entered the White House singing the populist refrain that it would limit Washington’s powers. Once inside the famous beltway that surrounds the capital city, Trumpism and its adherents are the ones who lost touch with the real country and find themselves challenged by the cities, the states and the citizens, the true counterweights to Washington’s absolute power.

The history of the presidency over the past 70 years, ever since the victory in World War II, and especially since the Korean War (declared by Truman without the authorization of Congress), is one of a constant increase in the effective powers of the White House. Although the Watergate scandal and the fall of Nixon, oft-invoked these days in relation to the hypothetical impeachment of Trump, brought about a reaction from Congress that led to the weakening of presidential powers, subsequent presidents — especially George W. Bush and also Barack Obama — went about quickly gaining back the lost ground.

The second paradox of Trumpism can be seen in the weakness of a president with so much power, and the erosion, especially looking toward the future, of such a pre-eminent institution. The fears of a new imperial presidency, like the one Nixon hoped to achieve, or an executive branch capable of holding all the power, such as Bush’s lawyers called for after 9/11, are being followed by a president incapable of carrying out his agenda. Furthermore, he has set off all the alarms with respect to the concentration of excessive power in the White House, especially concerning military power and specifically its most troubling component, nuclear power.

Despite everything, Trump still has power, a lot of power, which he sometimes shows, as he did in Afghanistan by dropping “the mother of all bombs,” or in Syria by spraying some of Bashar Assad’s military facilities with missiles. Though it’s a waning power, it’s a power of enormous strategic value which no one can take from him, provided that the momentum which propelled him into the presidency lasts and he doesn’t end up suffocated and constrained by scandals, as many hope will happen as soon as possible. This is the power of disruption: That is, his ability to shake up the pace of events, the agenda and everyone’s expectations thanks to his inopportune remarks, especially those he makes via Twitter — something that some of his advisers, such as Steven Bannon, consider to be his greatest political weapon and which has enormous relevance in the current global geopolitical environment. Just ask Putin or the ruling family of Saudi Arabia.

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