Nothing Donald Trump has done since becoming President is particularly surprising. The attacks on judges and the press, the clash of civilizations worldview, the ignorance of public policy, the blurring of government service and private gain, the endless lying, the incompetence, the chaos—all were vividly foreshadowed during the campaign. The Republican-led Congress’ refusal to challenge Trump was foreseeable too. The number of Republicans willing to oppose Trump’s agenda pretty much equals the number who refused to endorse him once he became the GOP nominee.
Less predictable has been the response of other elements of the American political system: The bureaucracy, the press, the judiciary and the public. Here, the news is good. So far, they’re not only pushing back, they’re having some success.
The latest example is the resignation of National Security Advisor Michael Flynn. Flynn’s resignation is a welcome development both because he held crudely bigoted views of Muslims and because he was unable to competently manage the foreign policy process. But that’s not why he lost his job. He lost his job because of an independent bureaucracy and a vigorous press.
CNN’s Brian Stelter has reconstructed the chain of events. On January 12, a “senior U.S. government official” told Washington Post columnist David Ignatius that, “Flynn phoned Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak several times on Dec. 29, the day the Obama administration announced the expulsion of 35 Russian officials as well as other measures in retaliation for the [Russian] hacking” of the presidential election. Three days later, CBS’ John Dickerson asked Vice President Mike Pence about the call, and Pence insisted that Flynn had not discussed “anything having to do with the United States’ decision to expel diplomats or impose censure against Russia.”
But the Washington Post followed up, citing “nine current and former officials” who claimed that Flynn had discussed exactly that. The New York Times reported that there was a transcript of the call. Eventually, it became impossible to deny that Flynn had lied, and caused Pence to lie. If the Trump administration had been able to deny reality, as it so often does, Flynn would likely still have his job. But good reporters, aided by government sources, made that impossible. As the Columbia Journalism Review notes, “it wasn’t the lying that got him [Flynn] fired; it’s that his lying leaked to the press”
That’s been happening a lot. “Leaks,” notes CJR, “are coming out of the White House at a seemingly record pace,” and “some of these leaks have halted a Trump appointment and controversial policies in their tracks.” According to The New York Times, leaks led Defense Secretary James Mattis to shelve plans to have US sailors board an Iranian ship in an attempt to stop Tehran from arming the Houthi rebels in Yemen—an act that could have led to war.
Another leak to the Times forced the Trump administration to abandon an executive order re-opening the CIA “black sites” that the Bush administration used to torture suspected terrorists. And according to the Times, it was a leak that alerted Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner to a draft executive order repealing protections for LGBT federal employees, which they then quashed. Trump and his top advisors are so alarmed by the leaks that, according to Politico, they’re searching the phones and computers of NSC staff.
But no president faced with a dissatisfied bureaucracy and a vigorous press has been able to keep the internal workings of government secret. And Trump is facing the most energized American press corps in decades. America’s prestige newspapers have seen dramatic increases in circulation over the last year. The Post alone recently announced that it was hiring sixty new journalists. Trump, in Jack Shafer’s words, “is making journalism great again,” and great journalism is, to some degree, restraining his power.
The other forces restraining his power are the judiciary and the progressive public. During the campaign, some observers suggested that Trump might cow the courts. In a New York Times op-ed last June, University of Chicago law professor Eric Posner warned that Trump would benefit from the judiciary’s “longstanding practice of deferring to the president in matters of foreign affairs and domestic regulation.” And even if the courts “declare an entry bar on Muslims unconstitutional,” Posner worried, “it’s hard to predict how Mr. Trump would respond.” So far, Posner’s fears have not come true. Trump has tried to implement a limited Muslim ban. But he’s been rebuffed by a series of federal judges, some of them appointed by Republicans. And neither Trump nor his staff have responded by refusing to abide by the courts’ rulings. To the contrary, they’re reportedly recasting the travel ban in hopes that it will pass judicial muster.
Finally, the progressive public, which remained relatively sedentary during the campaign, is mobilizing in remarkable ways. Donations to progressive causes and Democrats have grown exponentially. Liberals are mobbing congressional town halls. And as Matthew Yglesias has noted in Vox, the protests are having some effect. The Trump administration has reversed itself and allowed advertising for enrollment in the Affordable Care Act to continue. Even before the courts stepped in, public outrage forced the White House to allow exemptions to its travel ban for green card holders, dual citizens and Iraqis who worked for the US military. Congressional Republicans have shelved bids to weaken the Congressional Ethics Office and sell-off public lands.
Obviously, Trump’s presidency is young. He can still do enormous damage. The liberals protesting him may tire. Independent-minded bureaucrats may grow demoralized or leave the government. Trump may appoint more competent aides, who find ways of implementing his agenda without triggering judicial review. A terrorist attack could massively boost his power.
But, so far, the institutions designed to restrain him are not only holding firm, they’re growing stronger. Imagine what they could do if America had an independent legislative branch too.