Trump’s power play Thursday revealed one of his many preoccupations a day after the US death toll from the coronavirus pandemic, a disaster unfolding on his watch, passed 100,000.
“If it were legal, if it could be legally shut down, I would do it,” Trump said, as he signed an executive order targeting tech giants he accuses of censoring conservative messaging. “I think you shut it down as far as I’m concerned,” he said.
The President’s move was the latest example of a quickening trend in which he deploys the machinery of government to address personal affronts and to advance a personal agenda rather than a more conventional view of the national interest. In recent weeks, Trump has conducted a purge against watchdog officials inside government agencies known as inspectors general, including several caught up in the impeachment drama.
The President’s new executive order requires a review of a law that grants immunity from liability to social media firms for content they publish. His move might come across as a political stunt given that the order faces a tough road in the courts. It’s highly ironic since he built his political career on a gusher of a Twitter feed brimming with falsehoods and misinformation. And the order is far from the first time that the White House has hurriedly drafted executive language that appears to retroactively justify the President’s assumption of dubious authority.
In just the last few months, the President installed a temporary appointee, Richard Grenell, as director of national intelligence. In his short tenure, Grennell declassified information to bolster his boss’ “Obamagate” conspiracy theory.
This week, Trump’s press secretary and federal employee Kayleigh McEnany has used an official government Twitter account and the White House podium to make misleading claims about mail-in voting. Some states are considering such a system to spare voters a choice between their health and their democratic duty should coronavirus still be a threat in November. But Trump appears to fear that making voting easier could cost him reelection and that it would not favor Republicans. There’s no evidence this is true.
It is perfectly normal for a President to exploit the visibility and advantages of his office in a bid to secure reelection. Every administration shapes policy in an election year to appease vital constituencies — as Trump did this week with an initiative that helped seniors get insulin supplies in a pandemic. State of the Union addresses are packed with initiatives tailored to important voting blocs. There’s no better election asset than sweeping into a swing state on Air Force One.
And previous presidents have often challenged the bounds of their power. Former President George W. Bush’s lawyers declared that enhanced interrogation methods for terror suspects, like waterboarding, were legal in a finding that was politically convenient and legally contentious. Former President Barack Obama once said, “I am not a king” and that he had no power to suspend deportations of undocumented migrants brought to the US as children. Yet he eventually took action that essentially did just that.
But Trump’s bewilderingly frequent uses of expansive executive power and his own statements reveal a belief that he can, at all times, do what he wants as President to further personal and political goals.
A quickening trend
The President’s disregard for the idea that good governance requires distance from personal and political motives was evident from his first hours in office and has deepened ever since. In many ways, Trump has run his White House like the tight knit personal office in Trump Tower, filled with fixers cutting corners and subordinates and family members dedicated to his personal impulses.
For instance, Trump sent a taxpayer-paid official, his first press secretary, Sean Spicer, into the White House Briefing Room to make politicized and false claims about his inaugural crowd on his first weekend in the Oval Office.
And he stood up an official government commission to spare his blushes at losing the popular vote to Hillary Clinton. (The probe was wrapped up quietly after failing to substantiate Trump’s wild claims of millions of stolen votes).
He has still not gotten over the fact that his first attorney general, Jeff Sessions, recused himself from the Russia investigation in deference to his duty to the rule of law.
It was the first inkling that the President believes that government officials — with an obligation to their oaths of office — should actually prioritize loyalty to him.
In recent months, Trump’s far more amenable new attorney general, William Barr, used executive branch power to discredit findings of special counsel Robert Mueller’s independent probe into Russian election meddling. Now, Barr has launched an investigation into Trump’s claims, fueled by conservative conspiracy theorists, that the Obama administration illegally tried to thwart his presidency by “unmasking” former national security adviser Michael Flynn in intelligence reports about his conversations with Russia’s ambassador to Washington. There is little that is more chilling in a democracy than a political leader threatening to use his authority to go after opponents who are no longer in power.
In another apparent case of the President’s political interests and personal proclivities influencing government policy, Republicans backed out of a House of Representatives vote on reauthorizing national security surveillance authorities. They previously supported a similar measure but Trump turned against it in a tweet storm that claimed it would perpetuate his unproven claims that the previous administration spied on his 2016 campaign.
Trump’s power plays can be trivial, farcical and troubling
Sometimes, Trump’s power plays seemed trivial. The New York Times reported, for example, that the Interior secretary relaxed rules so the President could use a spectacular backdrop inside the Lincoln Memorial for a Fox News town hall earlier this month. Trump’s name was also on coronavirus crisis stimulus checks sent to millions of Americans, along with a letter explaining why taxpayers were getting some of their own money back.
At others, his use of his authority was farcical. Last year, he falsely claimed that Alabama could be hit by Hurricane Dorian. To cover his error, the President presented what appeared to be a crudely doctored National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration forecast showing a threat to the southern state. Later, his homeland security adviser sent out a statement vouching for the President’s misleading claims.
Often, however, Trump’s manipulation of presidential authority has appeared far more troubling. The President exploited the presidential megaphone to tout hydroxychloroquine, which studies have shown does not cure or prevent Covid-19 and may hasten death. His campaign elevated a pet theory of the conservative media crowd above the advice of government scientists and public health experts. By implying a treatment was available he also appeared to downplay the severity of the pandemic and boost the case for an economic opening crucial to his fortunes in November.
In its most extreme manifestation, Trump’s use of presidential power has carried authoritarian overtones. He all but admitted on NBC back in 2017 that he fired former FBI Director James Comey because he was overseeing the Russia investigation.
Trump’s pressure on Ukraine, revealed in a transcript of his call with President Volodymyr Zelensky and in the testimony of senior officials, was a direct attempt to hobble his presumptive opponent in November’s election, Democrat Joe Biden.
The President’s lawyers in the Senate impeachment trial hit on the highly contentious defense that abuse of power was not within the constitutional criteria for impeachment. This came after the White House concluded — in a disputed claim that tested the entire idea of checks and balances in the Constitution — that the impeachment probe was illegal.
The arguments prompted counter arguments by Democratic impeachment managers that Trump was effectively claiming for himself unaccountable, monarchial powers that insult the fundamental constitutional underpinnings of the United States.
Trump’s attitude, enshrined in political and legal precedent by the acquittal from the Republican-led Senate, calls into doubt the entire notion of congressional oversight.
But the defense was squarely within the President’s own perception of his scope of powers.
“I have an Article 2, where I have the right to do whatever I want as President,” he said back in 2019, in a self-serving misreading of the Constitution.