Opinion: The impotent executive

Amid the Resistance-y funeral rites of John McCain, the president’s latest Twitter rants against his attorney general and the wild White House stories being circulated by Bob Woodward’s latest book, it’s a good time to revisit a familiar and crucial subject. To what extent is Donald Trump an extraordinarily dangerous president whose authoritarian style is constantly enabled by his advisers and his party? Or, alternatively, to what extent is he an extraordinarily weak president, constrained by his appointees and his notional allies at almost every turn?

I’ve made the case for the second narrative before, arguing that Trump isn’t really in charge of his own presidency, and that the Republican Congress — or at least the Republican Senate — has constrained his behavior more than many Resisters acknowledge.

A year into his administration, I ran down the list of destabilizing or immoral moves that Trump promised during his campaign and pointed out almost none had actually happened — no return to waterboarding, no exit from NATO or NAFTA, a hackishly implemented travel ban that only gestured at the promised Muslim-immigration shutdown, no change to the libel laws to shutter hostile newspapers, no staffing of the Cabinet or the judiciary with unqualified cronies, no practical concessions to Vladimir Putin in Russia’s near abroad, and more. In general the Trump of early 2018 looked like a Twitter authoritarian but a practical weakling, hounded by a special counsel and unable to even replace his own attorney general because Senate Republicans said he couldn’t.

But the last six months have tested that argument. Trump has asserted more control over his presidency’s staffing decisions, ejected obvious establishment plants like H.R. McMaster and Gary Cohn in favor of faces he likes from cable TV. He’s pursued a version of the trade wars that he touted on the hustings; he’s disrupted summits with allies and fallen prostrate before Putin; he’s conducted diplomacy with North Korea in a reality-television style; he’s attacked the Mueller investigation constantly and hired surrogates to take the attacks all the way to 11; he’s pursued a family-separation policy at the border that’s exactly the kind of cruelty his campaign promised and that many Republicans promised to restrain.

So is it still fair to describe Trump as a hemmed-in weakling, a Twitter terror but otherwise constrained? My answer is still a qualified yes. The president has torn through a few of the restraints that bind him, and some of the stories that Woodward’s book tells (in which Cabinet officials behave like Nixon’s Cabinet in the waning days of Watergate, doing everything possible to sideline their boss) may belong more to the era of Cohn and McMaster than Larry Kudlow and John Bolton.

But Trump is still extraordinarily weak. Some of that weakness is invisible because we simply take it for granted; it’s just part of the scenery, for instance, that this White House has no legislative agenda, no chance of advancing any policy priority on the hill, barely two years into the president’s first term.

Some of the weakness shows up in his attempts to play the tough guy. The child-separation policy, for instance, was abandoned scant days after it was publicized, because the president lacked the support within his own party and within his own White House to actually see a draconian measure through.

Some of the weakness is implicit in Trump’s attempts to reassert himself against restraints imposed by his allies or advisers. The rants against Jeff Sessions for failing to be his wingman are at once a dereliction of normal presidential duties and an admission that the Senate won’t let him replace his own Cabinet officials.

And some of his weakness is presumably visible only behind the scenes and won’t be revealed until the next tell-all book.