President Donald Trump’s critics have been on the lookout for signs he is an authoritarian since before he became president, and he has given them plenty - most recently in his declaration at a White House press briefing that “when somebody is president of the United States, the authority is total."
It was a disturbing comment. But it was also one that can mislead us about the peculiar challenge that this presidency poses to our political system.
During his exchange with a reporter, the president later clarified that he was referring only to "the authority of the president of the United States having to do with the subject," namely state lockdown orders. The president had earlier in the day tweeted that whether the states reopened was his decision.
Even this narrow claim is, as a million journalists and commentators have pointed out, untrue. The states imposed the lockdowns, and they have the power to extend, modify or end them.
No provision of the Constitution or any statute gives the president the power to make these decisions, although he is free to exert political pressure on governors to get what he wants. Lawyers in the administration will have their work cut out for them saving face for Trump.
Our political culture, focused as it is on the presidency, sometimes creates the impression that the president is in charge of the country.
He is in truth only in charge of the administrative branch of the federal government.
What takes some of the menace out of the president’s pretensions is that in practice he has not always been in charge of even that. Trump exerts less control over his White House, his administration and even his party than most presidents do. His aides are, on any day, bad-mouthing him in the press in a way that none of the appointees of George W. Bush or Barack Obama ever did.
When Trump makes a comment about, say, his desire to ban young adults from buying rifles, nobody in his employ feels any need to try to make good on it.
The Mueller report offered one example after another of Trump underlings who ignored his orders, sometimes for his own good.
Republicans in Congress are frequently said to be in thrall to Trump.
But even when it comes to them, his influence is exaggerated. When he took office, congressional Republicans moved forward with their own agenda, not his. They chose to spend his first year trying to legislate on health care and taxes rather than such campaign mainstays of his as a border wall and infrastructure spending. They designed those bills without much input from the administration.
When Trump wanted Congress to slash legal immigration, 14 Senate Republicans voted against him. None of them suffered so much as a mean tweet for it. One Trump nominee for the Federal Reserve board after another has languished without a vote and had to withdraw from consideration.
The Republicans will not actively rein in the president, but their passive resistance means he can’t get anything that requires their support if they don’t agree with it. Bush got a lot of Republicans in Congress to vote for legislation they disliked, from the No Child Left Behind Act to a prescription-drug benefit. Trump hasn’t been able to do that.
Trump has been enormously successful in directing news media and public attention to whatever he is saying. The controversies of his presidency have therefore often focused on the disruptive and extra-constitutional role he plays as the nation’s commentator in chief. The comedian John Mulaney was thinking of this role when he likened Trump to a horse loose in a hospital.
What gets less attention, by its very nature, is all the ways Trump doesn’t do the usual work of the presidency: coordinating the bureaucracy, setting a policy agenda, making deals on Capitol Hill. These are tasks that require self-discipline, clear priorities, steady attention and an understanding of formal and informal constraints. That’s not this president’s skill set.
The result is a weak but boastful presidency. Trump claims vast powers he doesn’t have while not wielding the ones he actually has effectively. And this seemingly unlikely combination is not an accident. To make the most of his presidential powers would require Trump to have a sense of what they are and are not. But he appears to lack even a civics-textbook familiarity with their dimensions. His claim of “total authority” over the nation’s response to the coronavirus is a case in point.
Governors may be exasperated or baffled or angry at what the president says and does.
They need not feel intimidated.
Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a senior editor of National Review and the author of "The Party of Death: The Democrats, the Media, the Courts, and the Disregard for Human Life." To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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