- By Derek CholletDerek Chollet served in the Barack Obama administration for six years in senior positions at the White House, State Department, and Pentagon, most recently as the U.S. assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs. Currently the executive vice president at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, his books include The Long Game: How Obama Defied Washington and Redefined America’s Role in the World, America Between the Wars: From 11/9 to 9/11 (co-written with James Goldgeier), and The Unquiet American: Richard Holbrooke in the World (co-edited with Samantha Power). A native Nebraskan, he lives in Washington, D.C., with his family. Chollet is a co-editor of Shadow Government.
Could Donald Trump bring an end to the “imperial presidency”?
After the past few days, the idea may seem preposterous — or just the wishful thinking of someone who is very worried. But let’s play this out.
Trump is congenitally imperial. From his penchant for executive decrees to his taste for palm-lined palaces, gilded furniture, and familial courtiers, Trump is more like a Saudi royal than an American president. And like an emperor, he equates self with state — since he is “great” and “tough” and a “winner,” so shall be America. But reflecting on Trump’s first month in office, one can see the outlines of a presidency that, despite all its attempts to project presidential power and authority, will unwittingly end up diminishing it.
The idea of the imperial presidency, as described by historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. more than four decades ago, is rooted in the management of foreign policy, in which a president exploits a persistent sense of threat and stokes fears to accumulate greater power at the expense of accountability. As Schlesinger described it, the core elements of presidential supremacy — unity, secrecy, superior expertise, superior information, and the power of decision — give the White House a tremendous span of control that Schlesinger argues is dangerously undemocratic.
Trump has got the fear-mongering part down. But instead of generating power and authority, he is frittering it away, creating the weakest White House national security system ever. Michael Flynn’s National Security Council was hardly destined to assert meaningful control over the process, and his unceremonious dismissal only further diminishes the ability of the White House to shape policy. The Trump team may have imperial ambitions, but they actually lack any of the attributes to make the imperial presidency function: They aren’t unified, can’t control information, are short on expertise, and aren’t very decisive.
So the result is counterintuitive: Trump, as always, can self-generate a lot of attention — and he has set off a global firestorm by, for example, insulting other world leaders — but thus far he is barely reshaping the substance of foreign policy. Chaos doesn’t equate to control.
There is little connectivity between what Trump tweets and what is happening on the ground. This week, both Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson are taking their first trips to Europe, and their messages are nearly identical to those of their Obama predecessors — they are staying tough on Russia, sticking with the Iran nuclear deal, and reaffirming the U.S. commitment to NATO. I expect the same from Vice President Mike Pence, who also heads to Europe this week, although so far he has been more detached from the foreign-policy process. Other than the dark figures in the White House cabal, Trump’s national security team is led by nonideological, level-headed policy technocrats from the military or industry. This is in contrast to the domestic policy team, which is made up largely of Wall Street fat cats and hard-core ideologues.
Responding to Flynn’s departure this week, Mattis made a revealing comment: “Frankly, this has no impact, no effect at all.” And why should it, since so far Mattis has been given a free hand to shape policy? Whether by design, incompetence, or both, there is little Trump micromanagement. And by constantly pumping Mattis up and publicly declaring his deference on issues like torture, Trump is only further empowering him, making the defense secretary too big to fail. This is abetted by such key figures as Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, who is perfectly content to pretend Trump doesn’t exist and to run defense policy alone with Mattis. And this will only be reinforced if Mattis’s former deputy at Central Command, Robert Harward, ends up as national security advisor.
But this is about more than personnel. Trump has created antibodies that neuter his power over foreign policy: A Congress that is intent on going its own way on issues like Russia sanctions and seems to be (slowly) heading into more meaningful investigations, which will tie him up in knots; a career bureaucracy that will resist many of his policies and, yes, leak information; a press that will parse every move, throw him off course, and make it hard for him to drive the narrative; a judiciary that will limit his powers; and a general public energized to stand in opposition to his policies.
Trump will also encounter tremendous resistance abroad. He’s already astonishingly unpopular, but wait until he starts traveling and is greeted by massive protests or when allied governments openly break with him. And while foreign leaders are desperately scrambling to figure out who actually has influence in the administration, they will soon discover that folks like Jared Kushner don’t control the levers to do much of anything. If they want to influence what the United States is actually doing, they are better off going to Tillerson, Mattis, or CIA Director Mike Pompeo (who, despite being one of the original Benghazi crazies, is getting very high marks).
Even in the best of times, and with the most rigorous, well-run process, presidents struggle with getting the bureaucracy to implement their policies. And eventually presidents get tuned out as people tire of their acts and lose confidence (remember, people stopped listening to Barack Obama). What’s remarkable about Trump is that, just a few weeks in, one can see both happening already.
So instead of an imperial presidency, what we may see is what Josh Marshall describes as a Potemkin one where Trump tweets and rants and boasts and spins but is increasingly isolated, detached, and dismissed. If what has happened over the last month is any indication, on foreign policy Trump could end up being a more sinister Silvio Berlusconi or like Richard Nixon in 1973-1974 — a clownish figure striving for attention but paralyzed by scandal, teetering on the brink of constitutional crisis, brooding about enemies in the press and bureaucracy, lashing out to stay relevant, but with little ability and bandwidth to shape policy.
For me, this is the optimistic scenario. But make no mistake, even this is terrible for the United States. With Trump’s Potemkin presidency of perpetual turmoil, the world will see America as unreliable, self-absorbed, and dysfunctional — and, therefore, increasingly dispensable. That’s a far cry from great.
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