But for all the lip service he pays to the idea, Trump is not defending the external sovereignty of the United States. He has dismissed evidence, produced by the security agencies he supervises, of Russian interference in the 2016 American election—a straightforward violation of U.S. sovereignty. More recently, according to a whistle-blower in the intelligence committee, he pushed Ukraine to intrude in the 2020 campaign on his behalf. On the very same day the president was at the UN defending the idea of sovereignty, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced an impeachment investigation because, in the Ukraine case, Trump had done the exact opposite.
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In his deeds, rather than in his words, Trump is concerned only with internal sovereignty, which has to do with the question of who has the final legitimate authority within a state. And he is advancing a particularly self-serving version of that idea—one in which he is the sovereign, free not so much from foreign interference, but from the internal institutions that exist to scrutinize and curb his executive power. This kind of sovereignty is an enemy of democracy, not its ally.
Trump has never been shy about his contempt for the fact that his presidential powers are constrained by Congress and the courts. He bypassed the former whenever he could with executive orders and denigrated judges who ruled against his policies as politically motivated, in an attempt to undermine their legitimacy. He has sought to discredit the journalists who report on his administration, and has routinely described investigations of his connections with Russia as a witch hunt. On Thursday, the Los Angeles Times reported, Trump described “the person who gave the whistle-blower the information” as “close to a spy.” He went on to imply that informants should be swiftly punished: “You know what we used to do in the old days when we were smart? Right? The spies and treason, we used to handle it a little differently than we do now.”
Trump isn’t the only world leader who cites the principle of external sovereignty while trying to sweep away internal constraints. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson regularly makes appeals to sovereignty; it was one of his main arguments for why his country should leave the European Union. But as Johnson’s unlawful attempt to suspend Parliament showed, what he really wanted was to be able to push Brexit forward unimpeded by parliamentary scrutiny.
The foreign strongmen whose ways Trump appears to admire—authoritarians such as Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin—rule their countries without pesky internal constraints. On the international stage, these regimes, too, insist upon the sanctity of their national sovereignty, which in their cases includes the power to have domestic opponents exiled, imprisoned, forcibly reeducated, or killed.