Shrink the presidency to fit Trump's smallness

Diminishing the president's moral authority requires diminishing his actual authority

Shrink the presidency.
(Image credit: Illustrated | Images courtesy Win McNamee/Getty Images & Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images)

In the wake of Tuesday's press conference, President Trump proclaimed himself "liberated" from the bit and bridle of aides and advisers who have labored to break him to the expectations of the office. Those aides are now busily telling reporters how glum they are to have failed in that mission, while outside advisers like the council of CEOs have abandoned ship. Even strategist Steve Bannon, who made Breitbart News into a self-described clearing house for the "alt-right," took the time to deride white supremacists when he tried to cultivate a notable left-wing journalist — the mere fact of his impromptu call an admission that he can't advance an agenda without help from outside the administration.

The court is paralyzed by the struggle to win the king's ear, while the king just wants to golf and tweet in peace.

Well, what if they let him? What if they let Trump be Trump?

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By saying this, I don't mean, what if the more sober-minded members of the cabinet resigned, and Trump surrounded himself with a fully sycophantic crew that catered to his worst impulses. Rather, I mean, what if everybody stayed on, and mostly ignored their nominal boss?

That's already what's happening to a certain extent, most especially among the military brass, which has been exceptionally vocal in denouncing the very forces that the president pussyfoots with. Institutionalized insubordination is going to create a huge headache for the next administration, but in the meantime it is promoting the impression, both in the services and in foreign capitals, not so much that the military is taking charge but that nobody is in charge, and that policy is on auto-pilot. The same may be happening on the civilian side of the equation, as the permanent bureaucracy and the congressional leadership increasingly ignore presidential pronouncements altogether.

The question of whether it's finally time for Republicans in Congress or their supporters in the media to "distance" themselves from the administration is usually phrased in moral terms — how can they recover from the taint of association with a president who can't convincingly denounce neo-Nazis. But the real problem is a practical one: How can the government function with an executive who spends more time with internet trolls than with briefing books?

And the moral problem ultimately devolves into the same practical one. Twisting the president's arm to get him to mouth the necessary words, so that we can all pretend nothing fundamental has changed, has the opposite of the intended effect. It reinforces the moral authority of the president's words, such that his subsequent reversals have a greater impact. And Bannon is right that so long as every day the battle is over whether the president has said something outrageous — even when it's as outrageous as saying some who joined a protest featuring Nazi flags and salutes are "fine people" — then the battle is being fought every day on the president's preferred terrain.

What's needed is a diminishment of that very moral authority, for the routinization of the sentiment that the president doesn't speak for his party or even for his government, but only for himself. And diminishing the president's moral authority requires diminishing his practical authority. Yes, his signature is needed for a bill to become law — and if Congress ever gets around to passing laws, that need will become a relevant consideration. Yes, his orders are necessary to initiate military action — and if the military ever gets around to proposing such actions, they'll need to get him to sign off.

But if the laws are actually necessary and popular, why assume that the president would take the risk of vetoing them? And if the actions are clearly a prudent response to a present danger, why would they fear the president would take the risk of rejecting them? Boxing in the president only gets easier if everyone's ambitions are limited and care is taken to hew to policy prescriptions that, while they may be wrong-headed, are widely-embraced.

Meanwhile, there is plenty of scope for Congress to reassert its own prerogatives, over policy-making and over the operation of the administrative state. Constitutionally, they can't go as far as, say, the Toronto city council did in insulating the city from their Trump-like then-mayor, Rob Ford. But they can do more than they have — and the more they do to institutionally trim the presidency, the more plausible it will be to argue that life goes on when the president says or does something appalling.

For a long time, the president has bestrid the world like a colossus. Now we have a bad emperor on the throne, and unlikely to be removed any time soon. Rather than continue to strain to elevate him to the stature the office has historically demanded, isn't it time to accept the smallness of the man, and cut the office down to fit?

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