Trump Gets a Hard Reality Check

The president’s first month has been an extended lesson on the limits of presidential power and his ability to operate within those constraints.

AP Photo/Evan Vucci
Ronald Brownstein
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Ronald Brownstein
Feb. 15, 2017, 8 p.m.

Don­ald Trump wanted to start his pres­id­ency with the shock and awe of rap­id change. In­stead, al­most every­where he looks, he’s stuck in the mud of grind­ing trench war­fare.

Trump’s tu­mul­tu­ous first month has been an ex­ten­ded les­son in the lim­its of a pres­id­ent’s power—as well as the lim­its of Trump’s own in­tel­lec­tu­al and emo­tion­al abil­ity to op­er­ate with­in those con­straints. Wheth­er he can re­group will de­pend on wheth­er he can find a more ef­fect­ive re­sponse to those lim­its than the rage, bluster, and dis­dain he’s ex­hib­ited so far.

In his strident ap­pear­ances on Sunday’s polit­ic­al talk shows, seni­or White House policy ad­viser Steph­en Miller de­clared that “the whole world will soon see, as we be­gin to take fur­ther ac­tions, that the powers of the pres­id­ent to pro­tect our coun­try are very sub­stan­tial and will not be ques­tioned.”

But in fact, Trump is fa­cing ef­fect­ive ques­tion­ing from vir­tu­ally every coun­ter­force, at home and abroad, that can con­strain a pres­id­ent. A par­tial list would in­clude fed­er­al courts, the ca­reer fed­er­al civil ser­vice, the “deep state” of the in­tel­li­gence and law-en­force­ment com­munit­ies, spir­ited in­vest­ig­at­ive-re­port­ing teams, a highly en­er­gized pub­lic op­pos­i­tion, state and loc­al gov­ern­ments, and oth­er na­tions. Now a squall of GOP sen­at­ors is de­mand­ing broad­er in­vest­ig­a­tion of the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s Rus­sia deal­ings, fol­low­ing the resig­na­tion of Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Ad­viser Mi­chael Flynn.

So far, fed­er­al courts have checked Trump most force­fully. That fol­lows the pat­tern of the past two pres­id­ents. Both George W. Bush (mostly on na­tion­al se­cur­ity and sur­veil­lance) and Barack Obama (primar­ily on do­mest­ic is­sues like im­mig­ra­tion) saw the courts block key ini­ti­at­ives—as sev­er­al fed­er­al courts, led by the 9th Cir­cuit Court of Ap­peals, have already done with Trump by en­join­ing his ex­ec­ut­ive or­der tem­por­ar­ily bar­ring im­mig­ra­tion from sev­en Muslim-ma­jor­ity na­tions.

Many of the key leg­al fights against Obama were led by Re­pub­lic­an state at­tor­neys gen­er­al, who re­peatedly sued him en masse on ini­ti­at­ives from im­mig­ra­tion to cli­mate change. That opened a new front in check­ing a pres­id­ent; states con­trolled by the op­pos­ite party had not sys­tem­at­ic­ally sued Bush or Bill Clin­ton. Now, Demo­crat­ic at­tor­neys gen­er­al have quickly ad­op­ted the GOP mod­el, with 15 states join­ing Wash­ing­ton and Min­nesota to sue Trump over the im­mig­ra­tion ban.

Trump has also faced a swarm of dam­aging leaks from with­in his ad­min­is­tra­tion, the most con­sequen­tial of which led to Flynn’s resig­na­tion after The Wash­ing­ton Post dis­closed he had dis­cussed loosen­ing sanc­tions with Rus­sia’s U.S. am­bas­sad­or be­fore Trump took of­fice. Per­petu­al in­fight­ing among the dis­tinct or­bits of Trump’s skelet­al staff partly ex­plains the tor­rent of leaks. More wor­ry­ing for Trump is how it re­flects res­ist­ance to his agenda and skep­ti­cism about his com­pet­ence among ca­reer gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials, par­tic­u­larly in in­tel­li­gence, na­tion­al se­cur­ity, and law en­force­ment.

Per­haps the most omin­ous fact in the Post’s scoop was that no few­er than nine cur­rent and former in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cials had con­firmed Flynn’s com­mu­nic­a­tions. That sends the White House two equally chilling sig­nals: that the broad­er counter-in­tel­li­gence in­vest­ig­a­tion in­to the Trump team’s con­tacts with Rus­sia dur­ing the pres­id­en­tial cam­paign is pro­gress­ing, and that at least some in­volved are fear­ful it will be shut down without pub­lic dis­clos­ure. Sev­er­al oth­er re­ports re­in­force that mes­sage, from an un­der-no­ticed CNN re­port that in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cials have con­firmed some as­pects of the “dossier” on Trump and Rus­sia, to Tues­day night’s even more ex­plos­ive New York Times and CNN stor­ies on con­tacts between Trump ad­visers and Rus­si­an of­fi­cials dur­ing the cam­paign.

Oth­er na­tions are as­sert­ing lim­its, too. After loudly ques­tion­ing the One China policy dur­ing the trans­ition, Trump last week quietly re­af­firmed it in his first phone call with Chinese Pres­id­ent Xi Jin­ping. Mean­while, European of­fi­cials say that Trump’s team, fa­cing near-uni­fied in­ter­na­tion­al res­ist­ance, has privately ac­know­ledged it will up­hold the Ir­a­ni­an nuc­le­ar deal he pub­licly dis­dains.

Amid all these in­sti­tu­tion­al chal­lenges, Trump is also fa­cing a fe­ro­ciously mo­bil­ized do­mest­ic op­pos­i­tion marked by the largest protests and highest dis­ap­prov­al rat­ings con­front­ing any newly elec­ted pres­id­ent. It took nearly 600 days for Obama’s dis­ap­prov­al rat­ing to reach even 50 per­cent in Gal­lup polling; Trump hit 55 per­cent dis­ap­prov­al in 23 days, far faster than any pre­de­cessor. That dis­con­tent may not af­fect Trump’s policy de­cisions, but it has already promp­ted con­gres­sion­al Demo­crats to op­pose him more sys­tem­at­ic­ally than they—or the White House—ini­tially en­vi­sioned.

Pres­id­ents have many levers to drive the na­tion­al agenda, and Trump has shown he will use them ag­gress­ively. If he can con­firm his nom­in­ee Neil Gor­such, a Su­preme Court with five Re­pub­lic­an-ap­poin­ted justices might prove cool­er to leg­al chal­lenges against him. Trump’s sup­port re­mains strong among his core voters, which will en­cour­age con­gres­sion­al Re­pub­lic­ans to lock arms be­hind their joint agenda. But in polit­ics weak­ness feeds on it­self, and it’s usu­ally not very long be­fore a pres­id­ent who can­not mas­ter events finds him­self at their mercy.

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