For President Trump's admirers, his disregard for the traditional ways of Washington is just his way of getting things done. “To the new president, Washington niceties are cobwebs on a summer porch, distracting, inconvenient, in the way of his higher purposes,” writes Robert Charles on Town Hall.
But in the past week, Trump’s “higher purposes” have been all but eclipsed, by a week of low deeds that mired his already embattled presidency in a swamp of dysfunction. He fired former ally James Comey as FBI director, all but admitted obstruction of justice by saying he acted to end the FBI investigation into his dealings with Russia, and then shared classified information with the Russian foreign minister. Along the way, he contradicted his own aides’ explanations of his actions, confirming that White House statements cannot be trusted.
All of a sudden, the cobwebs of Washington seem more like spiderwebs, and Trump resembles nothing so much as the fly who can’t extricate himself from its sticky strands.
What Charles calls “niceties” are, in fact, a set of laws and customs that empower and constrain the American president. Imagining that these arrangements are liberal trickery, Trump thinks what he has thought all along: that he can ignore them and achieve his goals.
That was true when his goal was winning the presidency. Now that he is trying to deliver action for his voters and allies in Congress, Trump is learning the price of ignorance: he cannot achieve his “higher purposes" because he doesn't understand the nature of his job.
1. The president is not a CEO.
Actually, the president is not the chief executive officer of the government. Unlike a corporate CEO, Trump has no ownership rights in the enterprise he runs, the federal government. The executive branch is not a family business, despite Jared Kushner’s determination to give Chinese investors a different impression.
The president does have the right to fire the director of the FBI, but the Bureau’s employees do not work for the president. As James Hohmann of the Washington Post notes, FBI agents swear to uphold the U.S. Constitution, not serve the president. The Bureau’s website explains why:
“It is significant that we take an oath to support and defend the Constitution and not an individual leader, ruler, office, or entity. . . . A government based on individuals — who are inconsistent, fallible, and often prone to error — too easily leads to tyranny on the one extreme or anarchy on the other. . . . The American colonists were all too familiar with the harmful effects of unbalanced government and oaths to individual rulers.”
In other words, the authors of the U.S. Constitution wanted to make sure the president was not a king or a CEO. Oblivious to this historical truth, Trump fired FBI director Comey, transforming a man who helped him get elected into an enemy who now wants to go public.
2. The truth matters.
“Leadership that is not deeply rooted in a foundation of truth is leadership destined to fail," says one management consultant. Of course, this elementary principle of running a business did not apply to the Trump Organization, which relied on hype, lies, false statements, and legal evasions to generate the deals that enriched Trump and beggared his customers and employees.
But Trump ignores the principle when running the government at his own peril. Of course, a president can be expected to shade, interpret or rationalize the truth in service of his greater goals, but over time, false statements tend to inspire mistrust and create opposition among people who feel deceived.
To be sure, the cost of false statements may take a while to come due. President George W. Bush did not pay for his false statements about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction or his fatuous "mission accomplished" declaration. Most voters did not care, and he won reelection in 2004. But when he stayed on vacation in the summer of 2005 as Hurricane Katrina drowned 1,000 people in New Orleans, and then praised FEMA director Michael Brown for doing a “heck of a job,” his credibility vanished in the course of a couple of news cycles. After his previous misstatements, even the Republican base voters stopped listening. They no longer gave Bush the benefit of the doubt, and his presidency was over, at least in terms of achieving anything new.
While Trump’s supporters say they would vote for him again, those who defend him on a daily basis are now learning that there is no reward for defending him. The toll is not yet seen, and Trump has not yet encountered his Katrina. If and when he responds to calamity with falsehoods, he will pay for what now costs him nothing.
3. Tax returns matter.
Trump cannot escape the standard set by previous presidents who released their tax returns. On May 12, Trump released a letter from his tax lawyers stating that his tax returns over the last decade do not show any income or debt from Russian sources, with a couple of exceptions.
The president cited the letter in his interview with Lester Holt of NBC News as part of his defense amid a political firestorm over his dismissal of Comey.
The letter inspired predictable skepticism from the left and from experts. More significantly, the letter was ignored by the president’s defenders. Breitbart News ran a wire service story about the letter, but the hard-right site never cited Trump's letter in its ever-changing defense of Trump’s actions around Russia. Thanks to the transparency of his predecessors, Trump’s stunt was simply not credible — not even as propaganda, not even to his admirers.
4. Keeping secrets matters.
The power of the presidency is, in part, the power of secrecy. To be entrusted with all of the government’s most secretive information is to be entrusted with power. Carelessness with secrets is carelessness with power, and that is exactly what Trump demonstrated in sharing Israeli intelligence reporting on ISIS with Soviet foreign minister Sergey Lavrov on May 15.
“'It is another indication that you cannot possibly control this guy,' Wayne White, a senior intelligence official at the State Department during the George W. Bush administration, told Politico. 'There are red lines that even presidents are not supposed to be crossing. He has to be protecting his own assets. It is really frightening for our people, especially the people who managed the relationship in getting the information.'"
Trump tweeted on Tuesday that he had an “absolute right” to share information in the interest of fighting terrorism and called it a “very, very successful meeting” in a brief appearance at the White House alongside Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, his frazzled national security adviser. McMaster all but conceded Trump had shared information that U.S. intelligence officials wished he had not. Then he assured reporters that he was not concerned that information sharing among intelligence partners would stop.
The frantic improvisation of Trump's team sends a clear message: anyone who wants to share confidential information with the U.S. government now has reason to doubt.
“Any country that shares intelligence with American officials could decide it can’t trust the United States with information, or worse, that it can’t trust the president of the United States with information,” said Rep. Adam B. Schiff, D-Calif., ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee.
A European intelligence official is already saying just that, according to the AP.
5. Legislation matters.
Presidents are not judged by their TV ratings, but by the measures they implement to advance their agendas. Not only did Trump accomplish relatively little by historical standards in his first 100 days, he also alienated potential allies who might have enabled him to achieve more.
Unfamiliar with the details of health care reform, Trump endorsed a House Republican plan to gut Obamacare and deprive millions of people of their health insurance. The bill died without a vote. Eager for a victory, any victory, Trump endorsed another House Republican plan before the Congressional Budget Office could even assess its impact.
Without a consistent message, Trump has trouble attracting followers. The Republican senators immediately announced they would “start over” in writing health care legislation. Trump’s uninformed opinions about health care will not have any effect on what, if anything, the Senate does.
The same dynamic has killed Trump’s job-creation agenda, perhaps his most politically effective issue during the campaign. In February, Trump endorsed a border adjustment tax to stimulate domestic production. By April, he had adopted a new tax reform agenda in which the BAT went unmentioned.
On Tuesday, a team of retail industry lobbyists met with Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin.
"The CEOs reinforced to the secretary the industry's deep opposition to the border adjustment tax," said Brian Dodge, a senior executive for the Retail Industry Leaders Association, which organized the meeting. Mnuchin, who has never liked the idea of an import tax, did not defend the proposal, and Trump’s jobs agenda continues to recede.
Trump has become a spectator of the legislative process.
6. Impeachment matters.
Impeachment is written into Trump’s job description. The American president is subject, not superior to, the law, according to the U.S. Constitution. In creating the presidency, the Founding Fathers stressed the holder of the office “would be liable to be impeached, tried, and, upon conviction of treason, bribery, or other high crimes or misdemeanors, removed from office; and would afterwards be liable to prosecution and punishment in the ordinary course of law.”
The American presidency contrasted with the British monarchy, wrote Alexander Hamilton in the Federalist Papers: “The person of the king of Great Britain is sacred and inviolable; there is no constitutional tribunal to which he is amenable; no punishment to which he can be subjected without involving the crisis of a national revolution."
By ignoring the emoluments clause of the Constitution which bars the president from accepting payments from foreigners, Trump acts as a king, as if there is “no punishment to which he can be subjected without involving the crisis of a national revolution.”
By ignoring the law on obstruction of justice in firing Comey, Trump invites another article of impeachment.
The Republican majority in Congress can protect Trump from impeachment for the moment, but they cannot eliminate the possibility that accountability will lead to impeachment.
Trump’s firing of FBI director Comey revived memories of President Nixon firing the Watergate special prosecutor in October 1973. Of course, there are key differences: Nixon faced a Democratic Congress and a uniformly hostile media, while Trump has a Republican majority and a powerful conservative media sector that is still loyal.
What hasn't changed is that advocates of a lawless presidency have the tool of impeachment to rally public opinion. In October 1973, Nixon also enjoyed solid support from the Republican base and Republican lawmakers confidently rejected talk of impeachment, just as Trump's supporters do today.
Ten months later, Nixon’s lies caught up with him; Democrats drew up a bill of impeachment, and Nixon's base abandoned him. The elected Republicans soon followed. Impeachment and conviction were suddenly all but certain and Nixon resigned. It's another lesson Trump hasn’t learned.