Maybe the most ridiculous if also the most common progressive complaint about Republicans refusing to impeach President Donald Trump is that he now really, truly will see himself as king, that he will behave like a dictator, that he will know he can get away with anything. What’s more, it’s said, future presidents will figure on indulging in the same privileges, Congress will be a nothing branch of government, the Constitution will be meaningless and the rule of law will fear to ever enter the Oval Office.
I see this as wrong in several respects. First, let’s consider the fact that Trump is maybe the most closely watched president in the history of the country. A book and countless commentaries and news stories have told us how staffers surrounding him on a daily basis don’t trust him and try to hem him in. It almost seems like every other person in the White House leaks classified material that could damage him and maybe the nation. In the latest impeachment quest, officials who listen into his phone calls ratted on him to someone who then mistakenly called himself a whistleblower.
Second, we come to something that also intervenes with the supposed boss, namely the administrative state, the bureaucracy that is awfully close in some respects to being the real government of the United States, whomever the president is or whatever Congress does. Here we have people who can sometimes get away with ignoring the president or doing the opposite of what he wants or at least muddling up the implementation.
This is nothing new. It got going with great energy under President Woodrow Wilson, who thought technocrats and intellectuals had all the answers, especially himself. The new way of things was solidified by Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. Both of these presidents did some pretty horrible things, by the way: Wilson helped get a political opponent imprisoned as he quelled free speech and FDR stuck American citizens in detention centers for the crime of Japanese heritage.
The great tool of the administrative state is regulations. Some are necessary, of course, but they should be limited and Congress should review them. We now have so many no one can count them and President Barack Obama, far more an autocrat than Trump, loved them as much as executive orders. He set records in the writing of major ones and Trump set records in reducing their number. Congress, which let the regulation overkill happen, has gotten a little more attentive to the issue but its legislative control remains a fraction of what it should be. One Democratic presidential candidate, Elizabeth Warren, helped set up a massively interventionist consumer finance agency that got its money from the Federal Reserve, meaning that, when it came to oversight, Congress had no power of the purse.
Courts have the muscle to stymie presidential overreach, and Obama set another record as the Supreme Court kept saying sorry, but you’re not getting away with that. Lower federal courts have gone after Trump with a vengeance that too often has had more to do with politics than the law. Here is another means by which his power is limited, if unconstitutionally. One of his greatest achievements, however, is to have given us a bunch of judges who actually believe in the Constitution, both on the Supreme Court and lower courts. It is also said that he has abused executive privilege, but understand that here is a right as precious in many ways as Congress’s right to impeach, and courts could have decided the matter.
Understand finally that Democrats in Congress are in no way going to start taking it easy on Trump, looking the other way if they smell something funny. They will come at him on every other move he makes, as will CNN, MSNBC, The New York Times, The Washington Post and other aggressive media players that are not about to grow timid because their sense of righteousness has been assaulted. Trump himself may have at last learned a lesson — that you have to stop and listen and learn from others and try to avoid carelessness.
Jay Ambrose is an OpEd columnist for Tribune News Service.