The Disintegration of the American Presidency

The president’s job is to oversee the whole of the executive branch, but under Trump the inverse is happening.

Klara Auerbach / The Atlantic

On January 13, 2020, a political scientist named Daniel Drezner tweeted a screenshot of a Washington Post article, along with a cheeky comment: “I’ll believe that Trump is growing into the presidency when his staff stops talking about him like a toddler.” The screenshot showed a quotation about handling the president from a former senior administration official: “He’d get spun up, and if you bought some time, you could get him calmed down, and then explain to him what his decision might do.”

Drezner’s tweet was part of a lengthy thread. A very lengthy thread. The tweet, in fact, was the 1,163rd entry in a thread that began back in April 2017, with the same comment appended to a screenshot from The Washington Post: “Trump turns on the television almost as soon as he wakes, then checks in periodically throughout the day in the small dining room off the Oval Office, and continues late into the evening when he’s back in his private residence. ‘Once he goes upstairs, there’s no managing him,’ said one adviser.” Drezner had highlighted the quotation from the adviser.

The “toddler-in-chief thread” is surely the most quixotically lengthy Twitter thread in the history of the American presidency. Every time a White House adviser or a Republican member of Congress speaks about Trump in a news story as though he or she were talking about handling a small child, Drezner tweets the relevant passage with the same sentence, adding it to the thread.

Each entry separately documents a news story in which someone—usually a member of the executive branch—talks about managing the president, not the other way around, and talks about doing so in an explicitly infantilizing fashion. The collection is now the subject of a forthcoming book.

The thread is a source of humor, but Drezner is onto something profound. Whereas the president’s job is to supervise the White House staff and the executive-branch agencies that report to the White House, in the Trump presidency the inverse is what’s really happening most of the time, and people don’t even bother to pretend otherwise.

Yes, when Trump gives an actual order in a form directed to a subordinate person or agency, that order has to be carried out—or something has to happen that can be said to count as carrying it out—on pain of possible dismissal. But until the moment of an actual order—and even afterward, for those willing to take risks with their jobs—Trump can be avoided, evaded, cajoled, patronized, manipulated, or misrepresented in public by underlings who purport to serve him.

Infantilizing the president is a natural adaptive response to circumstances—if an entirely extra-constitutional one. Staffers and officials have reason to question the integrity of the president’s oath of office or his mental stability. Confronted with a president who rejects traditional executive-branch processes and management in favor of unfiltered personal expression and a merging of the office with his own personality, they have to do something.

But, of course, it wasn’t supposed to be this way. The Constitution creates a unitary executive branch in which, in the pure version at least, the president supervises the staff and they actually do what he tells them to do—or are removed if they do not. Constitutionally speaking, notwithstanding the internal processes that have built up over time, the executive branch is run by the president, and the president at some level supervises the entire branch.

The federal courts are divided regionally and stratified by the three layers of the judicial system—district courts, appeals courts, and the Supreme Court. Congress has two chambers, each with its own formal rules. But the American presidency is a single person. And the executive branch is little more than the people who work for him. There is a debate, of course, about how unitary the “unitary executive” really is, and that debate is wrapped up in a larger set of arguments about the scope and nature and limits of presidential power. But there is a core to the unitary-executive theory that is not in dispute: There is only one president, and he appoints the leadership of the executive agencies, who serve at his pleasure and thus must follow his direction or risk being fired.

Historically, this core unity has always tolerated some degree of fractiousness within the executive branch. One extreme example from early in the republic’s history is that of Thomas Jefferson, who funded and ran an opposition newspaper while serving in George Washington’s cabinet. Lower executive-branch officials often have statutory responsibilities of their own delegated to them by Congress, and civil servants are not appointed and removed at will by the president. The unity fiction became a bit more strained as the executive developed into an immense series of interlocking bureaucracies, including the supposedly independent federal regulatory agencies, over the course of the 20th century. Presidential lack of control over the State Department has long been a source of some consternation. And, of course, regardless of the president’s status as commander in chief, the military is a world of its own. The question of unity has always been one of degree; it is not absolute. That said, the idea of unity remains true in important respects.

When Trump took the oath of office, he assumed certain powers, all of which Article II, Section 2 of the Constitution vested personally in him: He became commander in chief of the military; he became responsible for appointing and supervising all heads of agencies and cabinet departments—including having the power to remove them from office; he was empowered to pardon criminals and those being prosecuted, to reprieve sentences, and to remit fines; he was empowered to make treaties with foreign governments, and thus to withdraw from them; he was given the power to appoint ambassadors and judges with the Senate’s advice and consent; he was given the power to veto legislation. All these powers came to Trump personally—not to his cabinet officials, not to his staff, not to Republican congressmen, but to him.

Alexander Hamilton’s “Federalist No. 70” is the essential starting point in a discussion of the executive branch. “Energy in the Executive,” wrote Hamilton, “is a leading character in the definition of good government. It is essential to the protection of the community against foreign attacks.” The reason? “A feeble Executive implies a feeble execution of the government. A feeble execution is but another phrase for a bad execution; and a government ill executed, whatever it may be in theory, must be, in practice, a bad government.” Translation: If you want government to do things, you have to have an executive capable of it. Designing the executive branch in this fashion was controversial, with many of the opponents of the Constitution arguing that the president’s broad powers too closely resembled the monarchical power the colonies had only recently shaken off.

The modern presidency has powers Hamilton surely never imagined. In particular, the war powers have migrated—to what degree is a matter of debate, but certainly to some degree—from the legislature to the presidency, bringing unity of action and decision making to the powers of war and peace to a degree the Founders certainly did not envision. Similarly, the rise of informal international agreements that are not subject to the demands of the treaty power has concentrated a great deal of foreign-policy authority in the hands of the president. And the growth of the standing, institutional military transforms the commander in chief’s power in peacetime into something much bigger than it was in Hamilton’s time. What’s more, in many areas, Congress has delegated huge swaths of authority to the executive branch.

This article has been adapted from Unmaking the Presidency: Donald Trump’s War on the World’s Most Powerful Office, by Susan Hennessey and Benjamin Wittes.

The basic structure, however, remains more or less as it was in Hamilton’s day, albeit much larger and with important exceptions that limit presidential control over independent agencies and lower-level officials across the government. The executive branch remains, broadly speaking, a vertically integrated organization with a single person at its apex.

The American presidency, in its unity, is profoundly dissimilar from nearly all other executives in democratic systems that have persisted over time. The founders of other democracies have, quite intentionally, decided differently from the founders of this one. For example, in Israel—another democratic country that faces ongoing security issues and fights wars semi-regularly—the power to take the country to war is generally vested not in the prime minister but in the government, a collective body. What’s more, although the government has legislative powers that in this country the president does not have, the government—and the prime minister himself, for that matter—serves at the discretion of the legislature. So not only is Israeli executive power not unified, but the executive can be dismissed for policy reasons alone. Most parliamentary democracies align far more closely with Israel on these points than with the American separation of powers.

In normal times, the American system has a lot to recommend it. It generates not just decisiveness of action but also political accountability for that action—what Hamilton called “a due dependence on the people” and “a due responsibility.” Divide up the executive authority, and nobody really knows who gets the credit for success and who gets the blame for failure.

But the American system gets sticky when you contemplate vesting the executive power in one person who cannot be easily removed when that person is as mercurial and peculiar as Trump. In such situations, the structure can start to seem downright reckless. In concentrating power so that this person directs the federal government to do things—and in making this person exceptionally difficult to depose for a protracted period of time—one has to have a certain amount of confidence in that person’s intentions and abilities.

The result has been that the executive branch’s unity has dissolved before the public’s eye. As the toddler-in-chief thread showed, in important respects the president ceased to be at the helm of the executive branch and instead became its mascot. Trump represented such a massive and radical change that the rest of the executive branch could not simply continue with business as usual; it had to adapt—and resist. Its response was in equal parts understandable and destructive of important constitutional norms.

Consider only a few of the countless examples of the breakdown in the president’s control over the executive branch. He said repeatedly that he wasn’t convinced that Russia had attempted to interfere in the U.S. election in 2016. He said he believed Russian President Vladimir Putin’s denial of any involvement, regularly calling the allegations a “hoax” and the resulting investigation a “witch hunt.” All his top intelligence officials, however, contradicted him—at a single conference, the 2017 Aspen Security Forum. Indeed, over the first two years of Trump’s presidency, not a single one of his senior national security officials publicly backed his claims on the subject.

The FBI contradicted him on electronic surveillance. Asked about Trump’s claims that President Barack Obama had wiretapped Trump Tower, then FBI Director James Comey testified, “With respect to the president’s tweets about alleged wiretapping directed at him by the prior administration, I have no information that supports those tweets and we have looked carefully inside the FBI.” The Justice Department later declared in a court filing that both its National Security Division and the FBI “have no records related to wiretaps as described by [Trump’s] tweets.”

When the White House lent its support to the Saudi-led blockade of Qatar, the State Department and the Pentagon openly contradicted it on the subject. Then Defense Secretary James Mattis quickly reassured the Qatari government that it had the United States’ backing, knowing that U.S. military aviation in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen relies on an airfield on the outskirts of Doha. Mattis signed a $12 billion arms deal with the Qataris days later.

When Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan won a referendum granting him new powers, Trump called to congratulate him. This happened even as the State Department noted “irregularities on voting day and an uneven playing field during the difficult campaign period” and used the occasion to call on Turkey “to protect the fundamental rights and freedoms of all its citizens.” Trump also extended his congratulations to Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte on the success of his controversial anti-drug campaign. The State Department nonetheless released its human-rights report finding the campaign to be rife with human-rights violations, including extrajudicial killings and basic disregard for human rights.

When Vladimir Putin won another presidential term, the intergovernmental Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe released a report criticizing the election as irregular and unfair. Perhaps sensing a theme, White House staffers warned Trump against appearing to endorse the election, writing “DO NOT CONGRATULATE” on the notes for his call with Putin. Trump ignored them and congratulated Putin anyway. While reporters noted the discrepancy between Trump’s apparent position and the OSCE report, the State Department spokeswoman at the time, Heather Nauert, said, “We have every reason to believe that the [report’s] conclusions are correct.”

Perhaps the most dramatic example came in the wake of the white-supremacist attack in Charlottesville, Virginia, that killed a peaceful protester. Trump infamously said that “both sides” were at fault for the violence and refused to treat the entire march as a white-supremacist endeavor. In a highly unusual move, the military chiefs took to Twitter to condemn the attacks and the underlying racism, though they didn’t refer to Trump directly. Meanwhile, then UN Ambassador Nikki Haley and Attorney General Jeff Sessions likewise condemned the attacks without rebuking the president. But Rex Tillerson, the secretary of state at the time, was more direct on the matter. When pressed on whether Trump’s “both sides” comments about Charlottesville reflected American values, Tillerson said, “The president speaks for himself.”

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.

Other examples of this tendency are legion. Perhaps the most famous came in the anonymous September 2018 op-ed in The New York Times, “I Am Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration.” By a writer who claimed to be “a senior official in the Trump administration,” the article asserted “that many of the senior officials in [Trump’s] own administration are working diligently from within to frustrate parts of his agenda and his worst inclinations.” The author described how “many Trump appointees have vowed to do what we can to preserve our democratic institutions while thwarting Mr. Trump’s more misguided impulses until he is out of office.” Most, he or she said, “are working to insulate their operations from his whims.” And while sometimes “cast as villains by the media … they have gone to great lengths to keep bad decisions contained to the West Wing, though they are clearly not always successful.” The anonymous author went on to publish a book-length account, entitled A Warning.

The journalist Bob Woodward’s book Fear is replete with other examples. It opens with Gary Cohn, then Trump’s chief economic adviser, stealing off the Resolute desk (the main desk in the Oval Office) a one-page letter that would have terminated the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement. Cohn was worried that if Trump saw the draft letter, which was dated September 1, 2017, he would sign it. So he removed it and placed it in a blue folder marked “KEEP.”

“I stole it off his desk,” Cohn later said. “I wouldn’t let him see it. He’s never going to see that document. Got to protect the country.” Trump didn’t notice. And when then Staff Secretary Rob Porter discovered that there were other copies, he and Cohn made sure all of them were removed. “Cohn and Porter worked together to derail what they believed were Trump’s most impulsive and dangerous orders,” Woodward wrote. “That document and others like it just disappeared.”

The defiance wasn’t limited to trade deals or White House staff. Early in his presidency, Trump—horrified by the gas attack by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad that killed large numbers of civilians—got on the phone with then Defense Secretary Mattis and declared, “Let’s fucking kill him. Let’s go in. Let’s kill the fucking lot of them.” Mattis agreed and said he would get right on it. When he hung up, however, he said to staff, “We’re not going to do any of that.” The real policy? “We’re going to be much more measured.”

This sort of subterfuge of presidential will is perhaps inevitable when, as Tillerson put it in one argument with then National Security Adviser H. R. McMaster, “the president can’t make a decision. He doesn’t know how to make a decision. He won’t make a decision. He makes a decision and then changes his mind a couple of days later.” Such subterfuge has undoubtedly saved the country from policy disasters. But it’s also poisonous stuff. Nobody elected these men to run the government, after all. One big piece of the argument for the unitary executive is that it creates clear accountability for policy and policy outcomes. But if the president’s staff and cabinet officers openly contradict him and gleefully undermine him internally or just ignore him entirely, who is accountable for what?

The stakes in this question are high. Years ago, while speaking on a panel, Brad Berenson—who served in the White House counsel’s office under President George W. Bush—made an arresting statement about the American presidency. The presidency, Berenson argued, is an office of terrifying power. There is no question, at least as a matter of domestic constitutional law, that the president has the legal authority under some circumstances to order a preemptive nuclear strike on Tehran or Beijing—or any foreign capital of his choosing, for that matter. That decision, and the ensuing consequences for our planet, rests with a single individual.

Berenson observed that there is only one thing more frightening than an American president who has such power in his sole command. And that is an American president who does not have that power. Imagine trying to reach a decision on a nuclear launch by committee in the moment of gravest emergency, the theory goes. The possibilities range from a reduction in flexibility and agility to outright paralysis.

The nuclear-launch power is the ultimate expression of the personal presidency that lies beneath the modern layers of process that have built up around the presidency. By virtue of sheer destructive force, nuclear weapons have a clarifying effect on conversations related to presidential power, unitary command, process, and the conduct of military and foreign affairs.

At noon on January 20, 2017, Trump very personally came into control of the nuclear arsenal. And suddenly a system designed to combine operational effectiveness with accountability—and designed to maximize security benefits—started to seem like not such a great idea after all. The former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper put it succinctly in a television interview: “In a fit of pique, [if] he decides to do something about Kim Jong Un, there’s actually very little to stop him. The whole system is built to ensure rapid response if necessary. So there’s very little in the way of controls over exercising a nuclear option, which is pretty damn scary.”

Reasonable minds will differ on whether Berenson’s argument is generally correct and personal presidential launch authority is the worst idea in the world except for all of the others. But Clapper’s suggestion raises the question of which is scarier: the personal presidency with launch authority in the wrong hands or a non-Hamiltonian executive with its hands tied in a crisis. Clapper’s sentiment was echoed by the commentators and members of Congress who, within weeks of Trump’s taking office, began discussing curtailing the president’s unilateral powers. Some commentators tried to mute the reality that Trump had personal launch authority, speculating that military officers would refuse an illegal or deeply imprudent order to launch a nuclear weapon. Hope springs eternal that process—any process—will save us, after all. But the reality is that the more fateful the decision, the more personal and less process driven the presidency is, or can be.

At least it’s not how the traditional presidency is supposed to work.

But Trump is proposing something new here, even if it’s wholly un-theorized and not thought through. He’s proposing a presidency that does not enforce unity, in which the president imposes no discipline on agencies, staff, or cabinet secretaries—even while demanding unswerving personal loyalty. The executive is characterized less by energy than by mania; meanwhile, the president tolerates the propagation of multiple policies and the undermining of his own authority, thus eroding the core value of accountability that executive control is supposed to bring.

This article was adapted from Hennessey and Wittes’s upcoming book, Unmaking the Presidency: Donald Trump’s War on the World’s Most Powerful Office.