Trump: The solitary executive

Trump: The solitary executive
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Debates over the “Unitary Executive” theory reach far back into US history. The theory, which argues for largely unfettered presidential control of the executive branch (free from the interference of Congress and the courts), has regained prominence in recent decades, particularly under President George W. Bush.

President Donald Trump clearly has expansive views about what the president should be able to do. The most recent manifestation of his desires is his emergency declaration asserting power to use military funds to build a wall on the southern border rejected by Congress. This follows a pattern of executive orders, broad pronouncements and assertions, and rhetoric. Sounds like a typical “unitary executive.”

But President TrumpDonald John TrumpLiz Cheney: 'Send her back' chant 'inappropriate' but not about race, gender Booker: Trump is 'worse than a racist' Top Democrat insists country hasn't moved on from Mueller MORE has a problem. Advocates of the unitary executive theory assume that the president has a team of like-minded advisers and subordinates willing and able to carry out the president’s wishes. And even the advocates of a stronger unitary executive recognize that the president’s choices are bound by the explicit language of the law and the constitution.

Trump has run afoul of both of these principles. The record turnover of his subordinates is unprecedented. His first chief of staff was dismissed within months, informed of his dismissal by getting kicked out of a presidential motorcade. His second chief of staff, John KellyJohn Francis KellyMORE, famously quarreled with his boss and failed in attempts to impose order in the White House. Last week it was revealed that Kelly also objected to granting Jared KushnerJared Corey KushnerTrump talks to Swedish leader about rapper A$AP Rocky, offers to vouch for his bail Trump: 'We already started' talks to get A$AP Rocky home from Sweden Kim Kardashian West thanks Trump, Kushner for helping efforts to free A$AP Rocky from Swedish jail MORE a security clearance, and was overruled by Trump.

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The critical post of National Security Adviser has experienced similar tumult. Trump’s first NSA chief was gone within a month and is now a cooperating witness in Robert Mueller’s investigation. His successor tried to rein in his boss on North Korea and Iran. His current head of the NSA, John Bolton, has not yet had public disputes with Trump, but one can’t imagine that he is happy with Trump’s comments on Kim Jong-Un or Vladimir Putin.

The list goes on. Hardly a week goes by without news of some dispute between Trump and his White House staff on some key issue. Just last week, reports surfaced about differences between Trump and his top negotiator with China on trade, Robert Lighthizer.

Meanwhile out in the Cabinet, Trump has fared hardly better. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis wrote a scathing resignation letter in December. Cabinet level officials, Scott PruittEdward (Scott) Scott PruittOvernight Energy: EPA halts surprise inspections of power, chemical plants | Regulators decline to ban pesticide linked to brain damage | NY awards country's largest offshore wind energy contracts EPA allows continued use of pesticide linked with brain damage Overnight Energy: Trump officials gut DC staff for public lands agency to move West | Democrats slam EPA over scientific boards | Deepwater Horizon most litigated environmental issue of decade MORE, Tom PriceThomas (Tom) Edmunds PricePress: Acosta, latest to walk the plank 'I alone can fix it,' Trump said, but has he? Chaotic Trump transition leaks: Debates must tackle how Democrats will govern differently MORE and Ryan ZinkeRyan Keith ZinkePuerto Rican police fire tear gas at crowds protesting governor Overnight Energy: Trump officials gut DC staff for public lands agency to move West | Democrats slam EPA over scientific boards | Deepwater Horizon most litigated environmental issue of decade Trump officials gut DC staff as public lands agency preps to move out West MORE were driven out of office by scandal. Their successors have been freer of such issues, but most of the initiatives they pursued at the urging of the White House have been held up by the courts.

Louis XIV of France famously proclaimed “L’etat, c’est moi. (I am the state).” We fought a revolution to get away from that mentality. In the centuries since, we have constructed a government whose survival rests on its checks and balances. Even within the executive branch, a president needs patience, meticulous planning, and — most importantly — carefully chosen subordinates who can help the president understand the legal limits of his power and how to achieve as much as possible within those limits. 

President Trump has demonstrated none of these characteristics. Without them he becomes what Josh Blackman has called a “solitary executive” rather than a unitary one. Trump appears to be increasingly isolated even within the executive branch. 

Running the government is not like running a business. You can’t be a solitary executive and a successful president. It takes a very different set of skills that go far beyond telling a subordinate, “you’re fired.”  The past two years have been an exercise in seeing what happens when the leader of the most powerful country in the world does not have those skills or the disposition to learn them.

Stuart Shapiro is professor and director of the Public Policy Program at the Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University, and a member of the Scholars Strategy Network. Follow him on Twitter @shapiro_stuart.