It looks like this is going to have to be the era of the civics lesson, because nobody can be bothered any more to gain a basic knowledge of how our government is supposed to work and why it was designed that way. Not even the president of the United States.
I know this isn’t going to be a surprise to anyone, but that’s the takeaway from two recent interviews with Donald Trump.
In one, Trump expresses frustration that the FBI and the Justice Department are not putting Hillary Clinton in jail already, just as he promised during one of his debates with her during his campaign last year. He said then that he would instruct his attorney general to prosecute her, but he is now finding that it’s not so simple.
The saddest thing is, because I am the president of the United States, I am not supposed to be involved with the Justice Department. I’m not supposed to be involved with the FBI. I’m not supposed to be doing the kind of things I would love to be doing and I am very frustrated by it. I look at what’s happening with the Justice Department, why aren’t they going after Hillary Clinton with her emails and with her dossier, and the kind of money?… It’s very discouraging to me. I’ll be honest, I’m very unhappy with it, that the Justice Department isn’t going…maybe they are but you know as president, and I think you understand this, as a president you’re not supposed to be involved in that process. But hopefully they are doing something and at some point, maybe we are going to all have it out.
The good news is that his people have been telling him not to get involved in directly dictating Justice Department decisions. The bad news is that he doesn’t seem to understand why this is necessary.
This is reinforced in an interview with Laura Ingraham in which he talks about how he “instructed Congress” to do something, despite the fact that Congress does not take orders from the president. He also has a curious angle on why he hasn’t appointed staff to fill positions at the State Department, including that of Assistant Secretary of State: “But let me tell you. The one that matters is me. I’m the only one that matters because, when it comes to it, that’s what the policy is going to be.”
Now I think it’s safe to say that when Donald Trump is building a new building, he doesn’t do it all by himself. He hires people to do virtually all of the work, only personally weighing in on a few key decisions. So presumably he should understand that he needs staff members to run the State Department. He can set all the policies he wants, but he needs people to implement them, and it’s not like there’s a shortage of events in the world that require America’s attention.
But more broadly, Trump doesn’t seem to grasp the difference between our system of government and one-man rule, in which all decisions are dictated directly by a supreme leader.
In the American system of government, it’s not just that the president needs to have other people to help him implement his policies. The point of our system is that the president has to act through other people. He doesn’t run the Justice Department, the Attorney General does. He doesn’t run the State Department, the Secretary of State does. The president gives guidance and makes big decisions where appropriate, but the day-to-day management is in the hands of his cabinet officers.
The reason for this system was to indirectly limit the power of the chief executive. This system emerged from the battles between the British Parliament and the king. If the king is required to act through his ministers, and those ministers are approved (or chosen outright) by Parliament, then Parliament can control the policies of the king. The US Constitution borrowed a key element of that system when it required the president to appoint his cabinet officers with the “advice and consent” of the Senate.
In practice, this means that the president can’t just appoint a flunky to these positions who owes personal loyalty to the president and whose whole career is based on whether he serves the president’s personal interests. To get Senate approval, the president has to appoint known and experienced figures, politicians and administrators who had careers before the president rose to power and presumably will still have careers after he leaves office. In other words, the people who make the day-to-day decisions in the executive agencies are people who enjoy a certain degree of independence from the president—and who are, therefore, much less likely to abuse their powers at his behest. This system prevents things, for example, like having the president personally order the prosecution of his political rivals.
I have made this point before during the Obama administration, when I defended the supposed “disloyalty” of a former administration official by pointing out that cabinet officers are not supposed to be personally loyal to the president. They are supposed to serve the country. I also pointed out how Obama sought to undermine the system by appointing “czars” who were answerable only to him.
It looks like the current president has the same problem understanding how the executive is supposed to work and his powers are different from those of an authoritarian strongman.
I’m not concerned that we are in imminent danger of dictatorship, because Trump seems to lack the focus and discipline (and the public support) to do the active work of creating an authoritarian system. I’m more concerned about the widespread ignorance about how our system is supposed to work, which puts it in danger of steady erosion over multiple administrations—which is why this is going to have to be the era of the civics lesson.