DONALD TRUMP’S TITANIC WEEK
It has been a particularly difficult week in Washington. The President of the United States first fired FBI Director James Comey, who had been asking for increased resources needed to investigate the Administration’s connection with the Russians. Two days later, in a private meeting, the President greeted Russian Foreign Secretary Sergey Lavrov and Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak and while bragging revealed to them highly classified intelligence which had been supplied to us in great secrecy by the Israelis. Subsequently, it was revealed that President Trump had earlier appealed to FBI Director Comey to drop the investigation of fired National Security Advisor Michael Flynn who had lied about earlier contacts with Ambassador Kislyak. We are talking about a period of one week in a projected four year presidential term.
The commentariat are, of course, waxing eloquent. Many are openly discussing the possibility of impeachment, or some form of 25th Amendment removal. The US Constitution’s 25th Amendment put in place in 1967 was intended to be used if a president was really unable to serve but refused to leave. That Amendment allows a vote for removal of the President by the House of Representatives if the Vice-President and the President’s Cabinet agree that he cannot effectively serve. People on the White House staff are reportedly hoping that President Trump’s upcoming nine day Middle Eastern hegira will put such speculation to rest.
Whatever happens, this moment was predictable. Sooner or later someone clearly unfit for the presidential office was going to win it! We are oddly fortunate in that President Trump’s seeming lack of fitness for the office is combined with enough political ineptness so that his flaws are clearly visible. Supposing that we had elected a supremely crafty and intelligent psychopath who was capable of performing in office with politically perfect pitch? We might, in that case end up with an Aaron Burr problem. In the election of 1800, Thomas Jefferson in a congressional vote narrowly defeated Burr, who from this distance certainly appears to be that superbly intelligent psychopath. His possible election was only avoided because Alexander Hamilton was able, after many ballots, to help ensure his defeat in the House of Representatives.
The problem of presidential unfitness is made more serious because the government no longer operates as the farsighted Founders intended. They assumed that the real deciders in the federal government would be the House and the Senate. That relatively small group of men (the House and Senate combined had under a hundred members), would decide everything. That made sense because the members of the Constitutional Convention were most concerned about the development of a one man tyranny. The presidency would have built in limitations. The president would perform ceremonial duties, and, as a kind of glorified clerk, would “see that the laws were faithfully executed”.
What has happened in the two hundred and thirty years since then is that the presidency has come to reign supreme. Beginning in the early 1930’s the presidential office has ballooned into a giant bureaucracy atop the huge governmental departments. A President stymied by a dysfunctional Congress can through presidential orders and through skillful manipulation of the departments really govern on his own.
It is little commented on but the House and Senate have become dysfunctional partly because they have so little real function. The government’s annual budget is really written by the Office of Management and Budget, part of the President’s bureaucracy. Because the OMB is a now a “political agency” with its leadership appointed by the current president, the OMB’s budget bills reflect his wishes and his goals. So, the budget bills (one budget bill for each department) sent by the President to the House of Representatives each spring, are already written, already printed. Each of the authorizing committees go over “their” budget bill (the Committee on Agriculture goes over the budget for the Department of Agriculture), and make marginal changes but that is about it. When major legislation is written, that writing is often actually done in the White House or in one of the Departments. The bills are introduced by members but they usually don’t really write them. Congress has come to have the power to accept, to reject, or to modify. The President has a program. The Congress does not.
An casual observer might think that the President has little choice. Congress seems incapable of really doing anything. That seems particularly true if Republican conservatives have the majority. Conservatives really want the government to do much less than it is doing so most new legislation has little chance. Republicans appear to be really excited only about lowering taxes. The Democrats on all those Congressional committees, knowing that, can see no reason to even try. They have little hope so long as there are Republican majorities. The truth is that members of Congress’s seeming disinterest in any real action partly springs from the fact that their natural function has been taken away. The President’s bureaucracy has stolen their job. If real decisions were suddenly forced on them they would, like bickering teenagers, have to get back to work.
Still, Congress suffers less from homicide than suicide. It is just been easier to let the President take charge. He has the money. He has the staff. He knows what he wants. Let him decide. Giving powers away has been easy; too easy. And that brings us back to President Trump: Under Trump’s chaotic leadership things appear to be going totally awry. The government seems in danger of ceasing to function. Things may, for now, be better than they seem. At this point departments are still managing to perform most of their basic functions. But, by assigning so much power and responsibility to one person we make the whole government vulnerable. If one ill equipped person with a four year contract is not really capable of functioning as the planetary political and economic leader that the office now demands then, not just Americans, but the whole international system becomes vulnerable to dysfunction.
On June there will be a national election in Britain. Theresa May, the current Prime Minister is the probable winner. She will not be elected by voters from all over the United Kingdom. She will be elected from one small district (Maidenhead). She will become Prime Minister because her Conservatives will win a majority of seats in the House of Commons. Despite her occasional awkwardness as a campaigner nobody need doubt Theresa May’s competence. She was chosen by her own Conservative Party leadership knowing that their political future demanded competence. Here, Donald Trump was not chosen by the Republican Party leadership at all. They would never have chosen a bombastic, politically inexperienced business man and television personality with a checkered past. He was chosen by small numbers of, often angry, voters in local party elections (primaries). The process in Britain guarantees a certain level of competence. Here, where so much is at stake over the entire planet, there is no reason to believe that the persons who voted for the nomination of Donald Trump had competence on their minds. Donald Trump’s titanic week shows that clearly.