Trump Battles Constraints on His Power

Frustrated by restrictions on his authority, the president seems to be finding new ways to pursue his political objectives.

Jim Bourg / Reuters

President Trump has never been shy about making his displeasure known—on any given subject—and last week, he offered criticism regarding the limits of his executive power. In a radio interview, the president declared:

You know, the saddest thing is that because I’m the president of the United States, I am not supposed to be involved with the Justice Department. I am not supposed to be involved with the FBI. I’m not supposed to be doing the kind of things that I would love to be doing. And I’m very frustrated by it.

This alone would have been noteworthy: a president openly declaring his wish to direct American law enforcement for political ends. Taken in the context of certain developments this week, Trump’s words are even more remarkable. In three separate instances, the president and his advisers appear to be unconcerned about improperly exerting pressure on outside agencies—or indifferent to creating the appearance of improperly exerting such pressure—to achieve partisan gains. As for those gains, they include attempting to discredit the work of American intelligence agencies, to muzzle a major American media outlet and to deport 57,000 American residents.

On Tuesday, the The Intercept reported that CIA Director Mike Pompeo had been “urged” by the president to meet with government whistleblower-turned-conspiracy theorist named William Binney, who asserts that the 2016 hack of DNC computers was not, in fact, at the hands of Russian intelligence (the conclusion reached by U.S. intelligence agencies) and was instead an inside job. Trump, who has been critical of reports detailing ties between his campaign and Russian intelligence, has reportedly been enamored of Binney’s theory, as it undercuts the notion that Russian interference assisted Trump in his quest for the White House.

The prospect that the president dispatched one of the nation’s top intelligence officials to undermine the work of American intelligence agencies—in service to the president’s agenda—is, needless to say, highly problematic. According to The Intercept:

The meeting raises questions about Pompeo’s willingness to act as an honest broker between the intelligence community and the White House, and his apparent refusal to push back against efforts by the president to bend the intelligence process to suit his political purposes.

Later in the week, on Wednesday, AT&T and the Justice Department found themselves at odds over a proposed AT&T merger with Time Warner. In a New York Times report, several people who attended a meeting between the two entities said that the Justice Department demanded AT&T divest one of its two subsidiaries—Turner Broadcasting (which owns CNN) or DirectTV— in order to gain approval for the merger. (Both are highly profitable, and at present, AT&T has not said it will sell either.)

The Justice Department disputed this account and insists that it was AT&T, not the federal agency, that suggested spinning off CNN. On this point, my colleague Derek Thompson points out that AT&T stands to benefit from the narrative that “the Justice Department might be mistreating it.”

Either way, what remains indisputable is that Trump does not like CNN. Castigating the network for broadcasting what he terms “fake news” is one of Trump’s favorite social media subjects, and senior administration officials earlier this year in fact floated a “potential point of leverage over their adversary”—the pending merger of CNN’s parent company and Time Warner. Whether divesting CNN was AT&T’s idea or the Justice Department’s, the optics on this are very clear. As Ben Smith of Buzzfeed concluded:

The idea that the White House would even allow itself to appear to retaliate against tough, accurate coverage by holding its parent company hostage is wildly out of line with American traditions.

And then, on Thursday, The Washington Post reported that John Kelly, the White House chief of staff, “pressured” the acting head of the Department of Homeland Security, Elaine Duke, to expel tens of thousands of Honduran immigrants who are residing in the U.S on a provisional allowance known as Temporary Protected Status. Initially, Duke did not feel that she had “enough information” to make a decision on the 57,000 Hondurans who would be affected by a change in immigration status, and so granted them a six-month extension. Kelly, informed of this extension, called her from Japan,“irritated,” according to administration officials.

Duke held her ground, [one] official said. “She was angry. To get a call like that from Asia, after she’d already made the decision, was a slap in the face.”

“They put massive pressure on her,” said another former official with knowledge of the call.

Duke did not acquiesce to Kelly’s pressure, but is reportedly set to resign as soon as her sucessor is confirmed.

What is disturbing in these stories—all of which came to light in the course of a single week!—is the possibility that senior federal officials have been strong-armed by either White House officials or the president himself into making decisions based on the president’s political interests—with very significant consequences in the realms of national security, press freedoms, and American citizenship.

Trump has made no secret of his agenda: in fact, his transparency on the campaign trail regarding his desire to enforce a Muslim ban has had the unintended effect of stymieing a proposed travel ban in the courts. For those opposed to the president’s plans for the country, the checks from other branches of government—namely Congress and the judiciary—has acted as a bulwark against Trump’s agenda.

But the instances of the last week show that this White House may be becoming increasingly brazen when it comes to rebuffing independent checks on its power. Indeed, Trump has not hidden his appetite to refashion both the congressional Republican caucus and the courts in his image, and it is possible that he will accomplish both before he leaves office. One can’t but help be reminded of the president’s own declaration just last week—“I’m not supposed to be doing the kind of things that I would love to be doing. And I’m very frustrated by it.”—and wonder how much longer this president will abide the frustration.