Two Lawfare editors and senior fellows at the Brookings Institution trace the crumbling integrity of the U.S. presidency.
As former National Security Agency attorney Hennessey and Wittes (Notes on the Mueller Report: A Reading Diary, 2019, etc.) show, early on in Donald Trump’s presidency, the initial hopes that the office would tame his baser instincts quickly evaporated. The authors quote legal scholar Jack Goldsmith’s assessment of the man: “so ill-informed…so openly mendacious, so self-destructive, so brazen in his abusive attacks.” From the beginning, Trump proposed making the office a vehicle for his own self-expression, sublimating proper management functions, good faith execution of law, ethical conduct, truthfulness, and service. The authors effectively tap a wealth of material, including administration leaks, comments from ex-staffers, and Trump’s own words. They argue convincingly that Trump’s fracturing of the executive branch necessitates control mechanisms that continue to erode. Trump’s mendacity is a key feature of his incompetence, and the culture of lying that he has fostered has produced more leaks than usual. In the past, leaks have often served to bolster government credibility by reducing the incidence of lying; now, however, they lead to more lies and extensive coverups. As staff and Cabinet members quit or are fired, the control mechanisms have all but disappeared. If the presidency is beginning to look like an autocracy, it is because Trump has assumed the power to protect the guilty while cultivating impunity for and from friends. As the authors consistently demonstrate, his view of justice is to reward friends and punish enemies. Though the authors acknowledge that tensions in Korea have lessened and the current economic and trade policy hasn’t led to economic ruin (yet), their opinion of the president is clear. “If a first step is rejecting and repudiating Trump himself and facilitating his actual exit from office,” they write, “the second key step is fortifying the presidency’s institutional protections using well-designed laws.”
An incisive, frightening picture of a toxic environment in which “the presidency…needs a champion.”