Pause for a moment over those words. A subordinate officer of the U.S. government declared—in public and without consequence—that the president of the United States did not speak for the country, the government, or the officer himself. Trump later fired Tillerson, but not for this.
As the scandal over the president’s interactions with Ukraine unfolded, executive-branch officials openly defied his direction to not testify before Congress. Not only did these officials ignore their boss’s instruction by appearing in the House, they went on to contradict the White House’s account of the facts. They then returned to their posts, carrying out the regular business of the executive branch.
In the American constitutional structure, this sort of executive defiance of the president is akin to a body’s rejection of a transplanted organ. The consequences may be a presidency that will be much harder to manage in the future. Trump complains of a “deep state” that operates independently of the president. The slander has a quality of self-fulfilling prophecy. One of the consequences, after all, of Trump’s mismanagement is a presidency with less control over the government; the bureaucracy today is far from a “deep state,” but its actions are less transparent than before. None of this is good.
It might be temporary. If the presidency returns to the mean, the executive branch may snap back toward unity too. There is some reason to expect this. After all, the formal authorities of the president have not changed. A future president could restore the executive to unity by being intolerant of executive freelancing. The executive has fractured only because Trump has let it fracture, because he tolerates a chaotic disunity that other presidents have not allowed and that future presidents can choose not to allow. It’s hard to imagine, in fact, future presidents tolerating the kind of insubordination Trump experiences daily, from which he seems to benefit so little and suffer so much.
But there is an alternative possibility, which is that Trump’s highly expressive presidency, a presidency that has the president in the role of entertaining and engaging the public, may have staying power, and that lessened presidential control over the executive branch is, to one degree or another, an organic feature of the expressive presidency.
There’s a quieter side to the breakdown of the unitary executive—one that is less visible than the public defiance. That’s the daily efforts to manipulate the president and maneuver around him by staff and cabinet alike. The comic side of this is the sort of infantilization that shows up in the toddler-in-chief thread. But there’s a less comic side, too.
In the summer of 2018, The New York Times reported on the machinations of John Bolton—the president’s then national security adviser—to get NATO countries to agree on their joint communiqué before the NATO summit in Brussels, which Trump was planning to attend. The reason? “To prevent President Trump from upending a formal policy agreement” by throwing the kind of tantrum at the summit that his own staff suspected he might. The feverish diplomacy to get an agreement before the summit event began, the paper reported, was “a sign of the lengths to which the president’s top advisers will go to protect a key and longstanding international alliance from Mr. Trump’s unpredictable antipathy.” Bolton, a highly controversial figure, at the time faced little public criticism for shielding U.S. alliance policy from the personality of the president he served.