On Wednesday, President Donald Trump signed the Russia sanctions bill that the Republican-led Congress had approved overwhelmingly. But he made sure everyone knew he wasn’t happy about it – and in so doing revealed, again, that he has either little understanding of or little care for the separation of powers built into the US government.
Here’s the key part of Trump’s statement after signing the sanctions bill – which he did out of public sight and with little fanfare:
“The bill remains seriously flawed – particularly because it encroaches on the executive branch’s authority to negotiate,” he said in the statement. “Congress could not even negotiate a health care bill after seven years of talking. By limiting the executive’s flexibility, this bill makes it harder for the United States to strike good deals for the American people, and will drive China, Russia, and North Korea much closer together. … I built a truly great company worth many billions of dollars. That is a big part of the reason I was elected. As President, I can make far better deals with foreign countries than Congress.”
Set aside for a moment that Trump was outmaneuvered by Congress on the sanctions bill; both the House and Senate passed the bill with overwhelming supermajorities and that Trump was forced to either sign it or watch it become law without his signature.
Trump is hardly the only president ever to blanch at what he believed to be an encroachment on his executive powers. George W. Bush clashed regularly with Congress over warrantless wire-tapping of US citizens. And Barack Obama enraged members of Congress with his willingness to end-run them with executive actions.
What makes Trump’s derision of the division of power between the executive, legislative and judicial branches different is both how brazen he is about it and how many times he has expressed sentiments in his first six-plus months in office that suggest he simply doesn’t understand the fact that everyone in the government doesn’t work for him.
Let’s start with Trump’s Russia statement. At its root, what Trump is saying is this: Congress doesn’t know what it’s doing! They wouldn’t even listen to me and pass a health care bill! And I made a bunch of phone calls! They shouldn’t get to have a veto over me on anything! Especially not when I am a great businessman of a “truly great company worth many billions of dollars!”
This is not an isolated incident.
In the wake of the failure of the attempted overhaul of the health care law in the Senate last week, Trump repeatedly scolded senators for not following his orders.
“Unless the Republican Senators are total quitters, Repeal & Replace is not dead! Demand another vote before voting on any other bill!,” he tweeted on Saturday. In another tweet, Trump wrote: “Republicans in the Senate will NEVER win if they don’t go to a 51 vote majority NOW. They look like fools and are just wasting time….”
Then there is what Trump has said about Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ decision to recuse himself from the Russia investigation. “It’s extremely unfair, and that’s a mild word, to the president,” Trump told The New York Times of Sessions’ recusal.
Never in that Times interview – or anywhere else – does Trump acknowledge that Sessions might have been considering the American public when he made his decision. As in, Sessions thought that anyone with such a prominent role in one of the two presidential campaigns shouldn’t oversee an investigation into that election because of the way it might look to people. That is simply not a thought that occurs to Trump.
That same mentality was on display when Trump reacted earlier this year to the rulings by federal courts that held up the enforcement of his travel ban.
“The opinion of this so-called judge, which essentially takes law-enforcement away from our country, is ridiculous and will be overturned!,” he tweeted on February 4 in response to a federal appeals court ruling that refused to lift a lower court’s stay on the ban. The next day, Trump doubled down with this tweet: “Just cannot believe a judge would put our country in such peril. If something happens blame him and court system. People pouring in. Bad!”
Again, Trump’s view is clear: These people work for me! (They don’t.) They should do what I want! I am the president!
Want one more example? How about “my generals”?
In announcing his decision last week to ban all transgender people from serving in the military, Trump tweeted out that he came to that conclusion “after consultation with my Generals and military experts.”
At his inauguration, Trump said something similar. “I see my generals … these are central casting,” he said. “If I’m doing a movie, I’d pick you general, Gen. Mattis.”
While Trump is the commander-in-chief, presidents don’t usually tend to describe the military as working for them. And they very rarely use the descriptor “my” to describe military men and women.
Whether Trump’s seeming lack of concern with the traditional separation of powers is purposeful or him simply not knowing is immaterial. Either option equals the same thing – an executive who believes everyone in the US government (and beyond) works directly for him and should do what he says at all times.
You can understand why Trump sees things this way. He comes from the world of business. In the Trump Organization, everyone did report to him and their jobs were, generally speaking, to do what he said.
That’s the world he’s used to. It’s the only world he knows.
But this is not that. Senators and members of Congress are elected to represent their citizens, not to do the bidding unquestioningly of the chief executive. “We work for the American people. We don’t work for the president,” South Carolina Republican Sen. Tim Scott told the Washington Post on Tuesday. “We should do what’s good for the administration as long as that does not in any way, shape or form make it harder on the American people.”
Ditto for members of the judiciary, whose job it is to see how well legislation measures up to the law, not rubber-stamp the laws the president likes.
The expansion of executive power has been a trend in the modern-day presidency. Each successive president in the past few decades has worked to broaden their powers – particularly in relation to Congress.
But no president has shown such total disregard for the separation of powers as Trump. None are even close.