The Empty Presidency Rolls Onward

I wrote a two-piece series (part 1, part 2) a bit more than a year ago on the fundamental novelty of the Trump administration: the Empty Presidency.  The President, given his limited understanding of policy issues and institutional weakness, cannot credibly claim to speak for the American state.  However, other institutional actors (e.g., Cabinet secretaries, Congress) cannot claim to speak for the American state either; executive power is vested elsewhere.  I was thinking of this today due to two remarkable publications.

The first was an anonymous op-ed by a “Senior Administration Official” describing a campaign of passive resistance to the President by his staff.  The op-ed is light on details, with the main concrete example being given of the Cabinet compelling the President to expel Russian spies.  The subject matter is a bit…odd, but the basic story is that of normal politics.  The revelation that the Cabinet discussed removing the President via the 25th Amendment due to his basic unfitness is considerably more unusual, and leads into the truly shocking behavior exhibited in the second publication.

Excerpts from Bob Woodward’s upcoming book Fear show a White House in open rebellion against the President.  Economic advisor Gary Cohn (claims he) prevented withdrawal from the Korean free trade agreement by stealing an unsigned executive order from the President’s desk (and may have done the same with NAFTA).  Defense Secretary James Mattis outright ignored an order from Trump to assassinate Bashar Assad, and instead conducted a symbolic airstrike on an empty runway.

Both stories are perfect examples of the Empty Presidency – they don’t show a “coup” by the bureaucracy, but instead a dissipation of executive authority.  In both cases the staff stymied the President mainly through obfuscation and disobedience – but crucially, the President lacked the attention or will to press the issue.  An assassination order isn’t easily forgotten – nor is the commitment to withdrawing from a trade agreement the President has been bashing for years.  So what happened?  Did he get distracted and forget about it?  Was the order serious?  Does he think it was carried out (for KORUS)?

None of these possibilities are comforting to ponder – they paint a picture where executive authority isn’t being seized by staff, but simply fading away because the nominal holder isn’t able to act instrumentally in service of policy ends.  It raises serious questions about the legitimacy of orders from the executive – not the legal legitimacy but the theoretical legitimacy.  It becomes almost non-sensical to speak of e.g. the American government’s policy towards Russia, because there is no one body unifying both legal authority and a policy that is both internally consistent and consistent from moment to moment.

That this hasn’t yet resulted in disaster is more or less luck.

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