The Formidable Checks and Balances Imposing on President Trump

His plans have been complicated by virtually every counterforce, at home and abroad, that can limit a president.

Trump's chair in the White House's Roosevelt Room (Evan Vucci / AP)

Donald Trump wanted to start his presidency with the shock and awe of rapid change. Instead, almost everywhere he looks, he’s stuck in the mud of grinding trench warfare.

Trump’s tumultuous first month has been an extended lesson in the limits of a president’s power—as well as the limits of Trump’s own intellectual and emotional ability to operate within those constraints. Whether he can regroup will depend on whether he can find a more effective response to those limits than the rage, bluster, and disdain he’s exhibited so far.

In his strident appearances on Sunday’s political talk shows, senior White House policy adviser Stephen Miller broadcast the administration’s great expectations of whirlwind advances when he declared, in one interview: “Our opponents, the media, and the whole world will soon see, as we begin to take further actions, that the powers of the president to protect our country are very substantial and will not be questioned.”

But in fact Trump is facing effective questioning from virtually every counterforce, at home and abroad, that can constrain a president. A partial list would include federal courts, the career federal civil service, the “deep state” of the intelligence and law-enforcement communities, spirited investigative-reporting teams, a highly energized public opposition, state and local governments, and other nations. With Republicans determined to bolster Trump, Congress has been conspicuously absent from this list, though the squall of GOP senators demanding broader investigation of the administration’s Russia dealings following the resignation of National Security Adviser Michael Flynn may signal a change.

So far, federal courts have checked Trump most forcefully. That follows the pattern of the past two presidents. Both George W. Bush (mostly on national security and surveillance) and Barack Obama (primarily on domestic issues like immigration) demonstrated that Congress has limited ability to truly stop a president determined to push the boundaries of executive power. But each man saw the courts affirm limits on the president’s authority by blocking key initiatives—as several federal courts, led by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, have already done with Trump, by enjoining his executive order temporarily barring immigration from seven Muslim-majority nations.

Many of the key legal fights against Obama were led by Republican state attorneys general, who repeatedly sued him en masse on initiatives from immigration to climate change. That opened a new front in checking a president; states controlled by the opposite party had not systematically sued Bush or Bill Clinton. Now, Democratic attorneys general have quickly adopted the GOP model, with 15 states joining Washington and Minnesota to sue Trump over the immigration ban. More suits from Democratic-controlled states and cities are inevitable, particularly over environmental issues.

Trump has also faced a swarm of damaging leaks from within his administration, the most consequential of which led to Flynn’s resignation after The Washington Post disclosed he had discussed loosening sanctions with Russia’s U.S. ambassador before Trump took office. Perpetual infighting among the distinct orbits of Trump’s skeletal staff partly explains this daily torrent of unauthorized disclosures. More worrying for Trump is how it reflects resistance to his agenda and endemic skepticism about his competence among career government officials, particularly in intelligence, national security, and law enforcement.

Perhaps the most ominous fact in the Post’s scoop was that no less than nine current and former intelligence officials had confirmed Flynn’s communications. That sends the White House two equally chilling signals: that the broader counter-intelligence investigation into the Trump team’s contacts with Russia during the presidential campaign is progressing, and that at least some involved are fearful it will be shut down without public disclosure. Several other reports reinforce that message, from an under-noticed story from CNN that intelligence officials have confirmed some aspects of the “dossier” on Trump and Russia—though not the most salacious or controversial details—to Tuesday night’s even more explosive New York Times and CNN stories on contacts between Trump advisers and Russian officials during the campaign.

Other nations are asserting limits, too. After loudly questioning the One China policy during the transition, Trump last week quietly reaffirmed it in his first phone call with Chinese President Xi Jinping. That inevitable retreat reflected the U.S. need for Chinese cooperation on other fronts, such as imposing any restraints on North Korea, which baited Trump with a missile test last weekend while he was hosting the Japanese prime minister. Meanwhile, European officials say that Trump’s team, facing near-unified international resistance, has privately acknowledged it will uphold the Iranian nuclear deal he publicly disdains.

Amid all these institutional challenges, Trump is also facing a ferociously mobilized domestic opposition marked by the largest protests and highest disapproval ratings confronting any newly elected president. It took nearly 600 days for Obama’s disapproval rating to reach even 50 percent in Gallup polling; Trump hit 55 percent disapproval in 23 days, far faster than any predecessor. That discontent may not affect Trump’s decisions much domestically or on foreign policy, but it has already pressured congressional Democrats to oppose him more systematically than they—or the White House—initially envisioned. Combined with divisions among Republicans, that hardening resistance may, for example, make repealing the Affordable Care Act as much of a quagmire for Trump as passing it was for Obama.

Presidents have many levers to drive the national agenda and Trump has shown he will use them aggressively. If he can confirm his nominee Neil Gorsuch, a Supreme Court with five Republican-appointed justices might prove cooler to legal challenges against him. Trump’s support remains strong among his core voters, which will encourage congressional Republicans to lock arms behind their joint agenda. But in politics weakness feeds on itself, and it’s usually not very long before a president who cannot master events finds himself at their mercy.