Donald Trump is the no-limits President.
During his six months in power, Trump has made few concessions to the conventions and protocol of an office shaped by his predecessors for more than two centuries.
Though his voice now carries the resonance of a head of state, he’s more often adopted the impulsive boss’ persona that made him a flamboyant Manhattan real estate magnate and star of “The Apprentice.”
Now, a series of extraordinary comments and incidents are raising questions about whether the commander in chief has thought deeply about the institutional curbs on the power of his office, or the duties he owes as President to the rule of law, the public and to the conduct of good governance.
An astonishing interview with The New York Times is still reverberating through Washington: He said he would have picked a different attorney general other than Jeff Sessions.
The Washington Post and the Times ran stories Thursday night suggesting Trump’s lawyers are working on ways to undercut the probe by special counsel Robert Mueller into whether any of the President’s campaign aides colluded in Russian election meddling. The two papers reported that Trump’s legal team is examining potential conflicts of interest in Mueller’s outfit, in what appears to be evolving into an unavoidable showdown between the White House and the special counsel.
The quickly building drama is prompting discussion about the potential reach of presidential power and Trump’s willingness to test the boundaries of his authority, in possibly unprecedented ways.
Firing lines at the Justice Department
It is often difficult to be sure whether the President is pursuing a deliberate strategy to stretch his powers or is simply unfamiliar with their limits.
In speculating on the parameters of the investigation by Mueller, and in rebuking Sessions, Trump appeared to be either confusing, or deliberately discounting, traditions that offer the Justice Department a high degree of insulation from politics and the White House itself.
He suggested, for instance, that he would consider it a “violation” if Mueller started to probe Trump family finances as part of his investigation into Russian election meddling – and did not rule out the possibility it could be a firing offense.
And he complained that if he had known Sessions would recuse himself from oversight of the probe, he wouldn’t have picked him.
“Frankly, I think it is very unfair to the President,” Trump said in the interview, appearing to indicate that he thought Sessions owed a debt of loyalty to him over his obligation to the law and the impartial administration of justice. After all, Sessions stepped aside on the grounds that not to do so would cause a conflict of interest since he was a key member of Trump’s campaign team.
The President’s comments caused consternation in Washington among Democrats who spoke out publicly and Republicans who expressed their concern in a more private fashion.
“It would be unprecedented in American history for a President to be successful in removing that special counsel and dictating the terms of an investigation into possibly him and his family and his associates,” said Democratic Rep. Joaquin Castro on CNN.
Delaware Democratic Sen. Chris Coons said that Trump’s attempt to brush back Mueller and his anger at Sessions were both inappropriate.
“I think the President is confusing what the role is of the Department of Justice,” Coons told CNN. “Officials who lead of the Department of Justice take an oath to uphold the Constitution – not a loyalty oath to the President.”
Trump’s Times interview also raised concern among some GOP senators about Trump’s knowledge of the traditional distance between the attorney general and the presidency.
CNN’s Jake Tapper quoted one GOP senator as saying on condition of anonymity: “The attorney general is America’s top law enforcement official … It’s unclear if he understands that, and that’s pretty disturbing.”
Trump also caused a stir when he said in the interview that the “FBI person really reports directly to the President of the United States, which is interesting.”