Childproof the presidency
Will Trump's implosion finally lead to a reform of America's imperial presidency?
America is dusting off some of its favorite old political words. The "W" word: Watergate. The "O" word: Obstruction. And even the "I" word: Impeachment. We've even got a special prosecutor to look into Trump's Russia connections.
It's no wonder. President Trump's scandals seem to be reaching escape velocity. First there was the allegation that Trump gave extremely sensitive classified information to the Russian foreign minister. Then the allegation that he leaned on his FBI director to stop an investigation into him. And then, presumably, fired him for failure to comply — and, crucially, that said director has evidence to support this allegation.
The whole things has a "Keystone Kops meet Watergate" feel. Say what you will about Tricky Dick and Slick Willie, at least they had tradecraft.
At this point, it's hard to see how Trump's presidency doesn't end in impeachment or resignation. Probably not tomorrow, or the day after tomorrow. But at some point before the end of Donald J. Trump's first term as president of the United States.
Why? Because these scandals have ways of building upon themselves. The more you dig, the more you find.
Even Republicans are starting to demand investigations. And once the hearings start, once the subpoenas start flying, once the leaking intensifies, the process will become self-sustaining. Each new investigation or scandal will yield another scandalous nugget which will yield another investigation, another subpoena, another hearing. Then there's the fact that Trump is an erratic, incompetent, cowardly, and mentally unbalanced simpleton who is sure to make all of this worse.
Though the paths are many, the ultimate destination is clear. Maybe we'll have to wait until 2018, and for Republicans to lose Congress — which they're sure to if things get worse for the White House, which they will — for impeachment proceedings to start in earnest. Or maybe Republicans will finally find their big boy pants and not just realize that Trump is an albatross — which they've known all along — but actually find ways to smother him. Maybe we'll get an actual impeachment, or maybe we'll get a resignation. Maybe there will be some actual catastrophic revelation, such as evidence of actually treasonous collusion with Russia, which would bring things to a head immediately, or maybe it will just be a slow buildup whose effect is cumulative.
Regardless, the outcome is assured: Trump's presidency is dead. He just doesn't know it yet.
Now, one of the biggest reasons why the election of Donald Trump to the presidency has been so terrifying is that the executive branch has accrued massive powers in domains both foreign and domestic. This is true as a matter of law, with the endlessly growing power of executive orders, but also as a matter of culture. Part of the reason why Republicans in Congress haven't been able to do anything is because they're incompetent and don't know how to translate their instincts and their electorate's instincts into policy. But it's also partly because the legislative process has been driven by the executive for so long that nobody knows how to do it any other way.
That is not what America's founders intended.
The defenestration of Donald Trump must be followed by two things: a major bipartisan commission to rein in and childproof the office of the presidency, and more profoundly, a major bipartisan commitment to stop treating the presidency as a kingly office.
The first might really happen.
This bipartisan commission could and should look at a number of legal devices designed to rein in the president, his office, and the executive branch overall. The first and most obvious item is a reform of the post-Vietnam War Powers Act and the post-9/11 Authorization for Use of Military Force, which have enabled presidents to use American military force unilaterally and almost without any check. The president should also only be able to authorize assassinations of enemy combatants on warrant by a special court, as is the case in Israel.
This commission must also limit the legal scope of executive orders and action. One of the leaders on this issue is Utah Sen. Mike Lee (R), whose ideas ought to have bipartisan appeal. He has started a working group called the Article I Project to outline legislation that would cut down the executive branch a peg or two; thus far, all the members are Republicans, but there's no reason why these ideas couldn't appeal to Democrats as well. Take, for instance, the so-called REINS Act, which would mandate that every regulation with an expected economic cost of $100 million or above would have to be voted on by Congress.
Now, to ensure a major bipartisan commitment to stop treating the presidency as a kingly office — which requires sustained, cohesive effort — would be much harder. But if Trump doesn't scare us straight, America will remain open to a head of state as demagogic, authoritarian, and remorse-free as Trump, but with the savvy to actually accomplish his goals. That's exactly what the United States Constitution is supposed to make impossible.
Watergate was an enormous scandal, but it also had a good outcome: the first serious effort since the end of the Progressive Era to rein in the powers of the executive branch. In the decades since Nixon's fall, America's imperial presidency has once again ballooned in power and scope. We must change that.