Donald Trump is the no-limits President.
During his six months in power, Trump has made few concessions to the conventions and protocol of an office shaped by his predecessors for more than two centuries.
Though his voice now carries the resonance of a head of state, he’s more often adopted the impulsive boss’ persona that made him a flamboyant Manhattan real estate magnate and star of “The Apprentice.”
Now, a series of extraordinary comments and incidents are raising questions about whether the commander in chief has thought deeply about the institutional curbs on the power of his office, or the duties he owes as President to the rule of law, the public and to the conduct of good governance.
An astonishing interview with The New York Times is still reverberating through Washington: He said he would have picked a different attorney general other than Jeff Sessions.
The Washington Post and the Times ran stories Thursday night suggesting Trump’s lawyers are working on ways to undercut the probe by special counsel Robert Mueller into whether any of the President’s campaign aides colluded in Russian election meddling. The two papers reported that Trump’s legal team is examining potential conflicts of interest in Mueller’s outfit, in what appears to be evolving into an unavoidable showdown between the White House and the special counsel.
The quickly building drama is prompting discussion about the potential reach of presidential power and Trump’s willingness to test the boundaries of his authority, in possibly unprecedented ways.
Firing lines at the Justice Department
It is often difficult to be sure whether the President is pursuing a deliberate strategy to stretch his powers or is simply unfamiliar with their limits.
In speculating on the parameters of the investigation by Mueller, and in rebuking Sessions, Trump appeared to be either confusing, or deliberately discounting, traditions that offer the Justice Department a high degree of insulation from politics and the White House itself.
He suggested, for instance, that he would consider it a “violation” if Mueller started to probe Trump family finances as part of his investigation into Russian election meddling — and did not rule out the possibility it could be a firing offense.
And he complained that if he had known Sessions would recuse himself from oversight of the probe, he wouldn’t have picked him.
“Frankly, I think it is very unfair to the President,” Trump said in the interview, appearing to indicate that he thought Sessions owed a debt of loyalty to him over his obligation to the law and the impartial administration of justice. After all, Sessions stepped aside on the grounds that not to do so would cause a conflict of interest since he was a key member of Trump’s campaign team.
The President’s comments caused consternation in Washington among Democrats who spoke out publicly and Republicans who expressed their concern in a more private fashion.
“It would be unprecedented in American history for a President to be successful in removing that special counsel and dictating the terms of an investigation into possibly him and his family and his associates,” said Democratic Rep. Joaquin Castro on CNN.
Delaware Democratic Sen. Chris Coons said that Trump’s attempt to brush back Mueller and his anger at Sessions were both inappropriate.
“I think the President is confusing what the role is of the Department of Justice,” Coons told CNN. “Officials who lead of the Department of Justice take an oath to uphold the Constitution — not a loyalty oath to the President.”
Trump’s Times interview also raised concern among some GOP senators about Trump’s knowledge of the traditional distance between the attorney general and the presidency.
CNN’s Jake Tapper quoted one GOP senator as saying on condition of anonymity: “The attorney general is America’s top law enforcement official … It’s unclear if he understands that, and that’s pretty disturbing.”
Trump also caused a stir when he said in the interview that the “FBI person really reports directly to the President of the United States, which is interesting.”
It’s true that the President nominates the director of the FBI — Trump’s current pick for the job, Christopher Wray, is shortly expected to receive Senate confirmation. And the President does have the power to fire the FBI chief. But according to the FBI itself, the bureau reports to the Justice Department and its intelligence functions are overseen by the office of the Director of National Intelligence. It does not “report” to the President in the way that Trump seems to be suggesting, as a subordinate might report to a CEO in a business, a hierarchy of relationships with which the President is familiar.
Trump’s views on this question are particularly significant, since the FBI director whom he fired, James Comey, testified to the Senate intelligence committee in June that the President tried to establish a relationship of patronage with him.
“I need loyalty,” Comey quoted Trump as saying to him, and then related how uncomfortable the comment made him and his own reply designed to get him out of a tight spot: “You will always get honesty from me.”
Seeking loyalty — and results — from Republicans
The President’s expansive view of the deference he is owed is not confined to his dealings with the Justice Department and the FBI. It is ingrained in his approach to politics and the Republican Party on Capitol Hill as well.
When the Senate Republican majority first admitted defeat in the bid to repeal and replace Obamacare, Trump took it as a personal insult.
“Most Republicans were loyal, terrific & worked really hard,” Trump tweeted, implying that those GOP senators who opposed the bill were disloyal.
On Wednesday, Trump’s joke to Sen. Dean Heller — awkwardly sitting next to the President at a White House luncheon — that he should vote for the bill if he wanted to remain a senator, was in effect a steely warning that the Nevada lawmaker should get onside — or else.
Yet senators who have opposed the bill have often done so not out of flagrant disloyalty to the President but because they believe their first duty is to their constituents, either those who believe the current bill does not go far enough to eradicate Obamacare, or those who fear losing their health insurance coverage under the new GOP system.
Trump also seems to view the presidency as a justification for loyalty that only goes in one direction — in a departure from the way most recent presidents have kept the confidence of those who often make great sacrifices to work for them.
His harsh criticism of Sessions in the New York Times interview further buckled morale in the West Wing, since Sessions, who gave up a safe Senate seat from Alabama to serve in the administration, showed early, and consistent, loyalty to Trump during the campaign.
CNN’s Jeff Zeleny reported that the episode has a “chilling” effect in the West Wing among officials who thought if Sessions could come under fire, they could face Trump’s wrath next.
White House deputy spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders denied that Trump was hurting his own Cabinet.
“I don’t believe the President is undermining them,” she said. “I think he was being very candid about feelings that he had.”
Another recent episode also appears to indicate that Trump believes he has the latitude to conduct his business exactly how he pleases, no matter how past Presidents have done things.
The President dispensed with diplomatic convention by holding a pull-aside meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G20 summit in Germany, without any US representative by his side — using Moscow’s translator.
The encounter, at a dinner, did not just align Trump, an inexperienced operator on the international stage, against one of the most cunning players of the great game of diplomacy. It also left other senior officials in the US government with no independent record of exactly what went on in the conversation, a fact that puts the US at a disadvantage and could leave Trump exposed to Russian maneuvering in future dealings with Putin.
Of course, Trump promised disruption and a new way of doing things designed to shake Washington out of the polarized torpor it has suffered for years and many supporters will see his conduct as exactly what they voted for.
And in many ways, the President is behaving in the manner of the family businessman he once was, expecting loyalty from everyone below him, vesting influence in his children, and seeing himself as the unchecked source of power.
The question now: Can that approach lead to a functioning and successful presidency in a town and a political system where the limits of each office are defined by the Constitution and custom and were established during generations of political battles?