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Donald Trump and the Absolute Power Presidency

One thing we're learning during impeachment hearings is that the president and his cronies are deeply invested in an uncheckable executive branch.

Zach Gibson/Getty Images

Those who tuned in to last week’s congressional testimony from Marie Yovanovitch, the ousted U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, heard an awkward phrase over and over again: that political appointees “serve at the pleasure of the president.” For most of those present, the idea that President Donald Trump can lawfully remove ambassadors and other top federal officials at will was a concession to legal and constitutional reality. For others, it was a justification all its own.

When Adam Schiff noted this, for example, one House Republican wrote on Twitter that the House Intelligence Committee chairman had been “forced to admit that the president can recall the ambassador,” as if that had ever been in dispute. Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel made the same dismissive point: “Last time I checked, ambassadors serve at the pleasure of the president.” So did the president himself. “It is a U.S. President’s absolute right to appoint ambassadors,” Trump wrote on Friday. “They call it ‘serving at the pleasure of the President.’”

The phrase is as old as the republic itself. But when Trump’s defenders invoke it these days, they aren’t using it to defend the president against allegations that he couldn’t use his powers. They instead cite the ability to do something to dismiss concerns that the president shouldn’t do something. In effect, Republicans are arguing not that Trump didn’t abuse his power in the Ukraine scandal, but that he can’t abuse his powers, no matter how he exercises them. Combine these views with other conservative arguments about the executive branch, and Trump and his supporters are effectively arguing for an elective monarchy.

This line of thinking flows from the top. When Trump is challenged on his actions, he often insists that he has the “absolute right” to do what he likes. He used the phrase in April to note that while he had never “ordered anyone to close our southern border,” he could do so if he wanted. Last June, he asserted that “numerous legal scholars” had concluded that he has “the absolute right to PARDON myself,” a dubious and anti-constitutional idea at best. And when he came under criticism for revealing classified information to Russian officials in 2017, Trump again took to Twitter to claim his “absolute right” to release that material to foreign powers.

Given this track record, it’s unsurprising that Trump has adopted the same all-or-nothing approach for the Ukraine saga. His supporters have whirled through a cavalcade of defenses over the past two months to explain why the president shouldn’t be impeached for inviting a foreign government to sabotage a domestic political rival. Trump doesn’t bother with the Olympic-level mental gymnastics shown by Fox News hosts and South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham. He has said over and over again that his call with the Ukrainian president was “beautiful” and “perfect,” and that any doubters should simply “read the transcript.” (In it, he asks Volodymyr Zelenskiy for a “favor” and says Zelenskiy should investigate the Bidens.)

Trump’s defenders have also embraced absurdity. Matthew Whitaker, who briefly served as acting attorney general earlier this year, told Fox News’s Laura Ingraham last month that he’d seen no evidence of wrongdoing on Trump’s part in the impeachment inquiry. “What evidence of a crime do you have?” he said, posing a rhetorical question for House Democrats. “Abuse of power is not a crime.” Ingraham herself insisted last week that Speaker Nancy Pelosi was wrong to accuse Trump of bribery, countering that even if Democrats were right about the facts of the case, “attempted bribery is not in the Constitution.” The Constitution lists bribery as a specific crime that warrants impeachment, and federal law does not draw Ingraham’s distinction between attempted and completed versions.

One can’t help but be reminded of Richard Nixon explaining his actions to David Frost in 1977, three years after he resigned the presidency during the Watergate crisis. In the interviews, Nixon articulated a stark vision of executive power. Frost described how Nixon’s administration had resorted to unconstitutional methods to carry out an unauthorized war in Cambodia and illegally monitor domestic anti-war and civil rights groups. “Would you say that there are certain situations,” Frost asked, “where the president can decide that it’s in the best interests of the nation, and do something illegal?” Nixon’s reply became infamous. “Well, when the president does it, that means it is not illegal,” he said.

Trump lacks Nixon’s intellect but shares his vision of American governance. Earlier this year, he described the portion of the Constitution that frames the executive branch’s powers in his usual blunt manner. “I have an Article II, where I have the right to do whatever I want as president,” he told the crowd at a D.C. summit for young conservatives earlier this year. That interpretation is apparently shared by Attorney General Bill Barr. The nation’s top law-enforcement official gave a speech at a Federalist Society dinner last week that lauded the executive branch as the Founders’ great innovation and castigated Congress and the judiciary for imposing checks upon it.

“I am concerned that the deck has become stacked against the executive,” Barr told the conservative legal organization. “Since the mid-’60s, there has been a steady grinding down of the executive branch’s authority, that accelerated after Watergate. More and more, the president’s ability to act in areas in which he has discretion has become smothered by the encroachments of the other branches.”

Watergate was indeed an inflection point for presidential authority, albeit in ways that most Americans likely favor. The Justice Department and the FBI began to operate at arm’s length from the White House to avoid the partisan abuses of their law-enforcement powers that felled Nixon. Congress also passed a series of measures to increase government accountability and reduce corruption, including federal campaign-finance laws and the Freedom of Information Act. Lawmakers also imposed the inspector-general system to monitor executive agencies, created select committees to oversee the intelligence community, and more.

“I do not deny that Congress has some implied authority to conduct oversight as an incident to its legislative power,” Barr graciously conceded. “But the sheer volume of what we see today—the pursuit of scores of parallel ‘investigations’ through an avalanche of subpoenas—is plainly designed to incapacitate the executive branch, and indeed is touted as such.” He complained that, with FOIA, Congress has “happily created a regime that allows the public to seek whatever documents it wants from the executive branch at the same time that individual congressional committees spend their days trying to publicize the executive’s internal decisional process.” Allowing the people and the people’s representatives to see and know what their government is doing is, in Barr’s eyes, a constitutional breach.

If Barr merely had an extreme view of executive power as a matter of principle, his perspective could be assessed on some academic level. But it’s clear that he’s driven by unabashedly partisan concerns. Trump’s Muslim ban is defended as a reasoned and principled security measure, while Barack Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program is described as “an aggressive use of executive power.” He insists that Trump, who dangles pardons in front of his co-conspirators and redirects government contracts to his family business, has done nothing to undermine the rule of law. And he sharply criticizes the “resistance” for what he describes as an illegitimate attack on American democracy. Those purported attacks, Barr argues, are part of a deeper pathology for the left.

“In any age, the so-called progressives treat politics as their religion,” Barr said. “Their holy mission is to use the coercive power of the State to remake man and society in their own image, according to an abstract ideal of perfection. Whatever means they use are therefore justified because, by definition, they are a virtuous people pursuing a deific end. They are willing to use any means necessary to gain momentary advantage in achieving their end, regardless of collateral consequences and the systemic implications. They never ask whether the actions they take could be justified as a general rule of conduct, equally applicable to all sides.”

If Barr projected any harder, he would reach the astral plane. Taken all together, he, Trump, and the president’s other defenders argue that because the president can do something, he cannot do it wrong. Raw power is detached from any civic or ethical justifications beyond self-preservation. It’s one thing to state that Marie Yovanovitch served at the pleasure of the president. It’s something else entirely to argue that the country should adopt the same level of deference to him as well.