National Opinions

Trump seems barely in charge of his appointees

Ramesh Ponnuru
Ramesh Ponnuru

Eleven conservatives in the U.S. House have filed a motion to impeach Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. Critics say it’s an outrage. Maybe so. But let’s not lose sight of how deeply weird the whole situation is.

The attempted impeachment of an executive-branch official is unusual, but there is constitutional provision and precedent for it. Some House Republicans tried to impeach John Koskinen, the commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service under President Barack Obama. The campaign to impeach Rosenstein is different because it is not a straightforward clash between a Congress and White House that oppose each other politically.

Rosenstein is the appointee of a president whom the would-be impeachers support. It’s essentially because they support Donald Trump so fervently that they want to impeach his deputy attorney general. They complain, for example, that Rosenstein is not sharing enough information about the Justice Department’s handling of Russia investigations with President Donald Trump’s allies in Congress.

Yet Trump does not need the House to impeach him. The president has the legal right to fire him at any time. As the head of the executive branch, Trump also has the power to order the declassification of any information he wants Congress to have. Yet instead Trump’s interventions have consisted of slagging Rosenstein in interviews and on Twitter.

“This isn’t normal” has become a cliche in commentary about the Trump administration. But we have focused too little on one of the most important and settled norms that Trump has flouted: the norm that the administration is an extension of the will of the president who heads it.

Republicans in particular have emphasized the idea that the Constitution vests all executive power in the president. The theorists say that a “unitary executive” is essential so that voters know whom to hold accountable for the executive branch’s performance, and so that voters’ choice of a president has the full effect that it should.

But disunity in the executive is a theme that runs through several recent controversies surrounding the Trump administration. The Helsinki meeting with Vladimir Putin and its aftermath showed the president to be isolated inside his own Cabinet.

Trump contradicted Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats about whether Russia had interfered in the 2016 election and whether it would do it again. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis made a public defense of our alliance with Montenegro; Trump criticized that alliance.

This degree of public disagreement never occurred during, say, Bill Clinton’s presidency. The airing of even smaller disagreements would have been treated as a major problem for previous administrations, one resolved by a public display of unity behind a considered position set by the president. The Trump administration, by contrast, hardly tries to tamp down the cacophony.

He does not listen to his appointees, and in return they don’t try to give voice to his views. Whether he is opining about the Justice Department or Russian operations, Trump gets his information from Fox News. He doesn’t get it from the people he has put in charge of his law-enforcement and intelligence-gathering bureaucracies.

Last week, Trump mildly criticized the Federal Reserve for raising interest rates. Trump was criticized in turn for breaking the recent norm of presidential silence about Fed policy. What really stands out in his remarks, though, is that he was criticizing the policy of a Fed chairman, Jerome Powell, whom Trump himself had recently appointed.

Powell had been implementing that policy as a member of the Fed even before Trump made him chairman. If the president wanted a more dovish chairman, he could have appointed one. But instead of taking concerted action to bring about the policy he appears to want, he carps from the sidelines. It is as though he views his role as being the commenter-in-chief.

Asked about the Helsinki summit, Trump said that he considers Putin responsible for Russia’s interference in the U.S. election just as he considers himself “responsible for things that happen in this country.” Yet he often appears not to be in charge of even his own administration.

Just as the unitary-executive theorists would predict, a fragmented presidency has been, at least sometimes, an ineffective and unaccountable one. The administration’s family-separation policy was carried out chaotically, with different officials in the chain of command offering contradictory accounts of what the policy and its rationale were.

Trump’s partisans say that he is being undermined. But what really differentiates this presidency from others is not how much the permanent bureaucracy has been resisting his agenda. It’s how little effort the president puts into translating his goals into purposeful and unified executive action. The “deep state” is largely a myth. The shallow presidency is real.