Trump: The solitary executive

Trump: The solitary executive
© Getty Images

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 TrumpFeinstein, Iranian foreign minister had dinner amid tensions: report The Hill's Morning Report - Trump says no legislation until Dems end probes Harris readies a Phase 2 as she seeks to rejuvenate campaign 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 KushnerJudge delivers second blow to Trump over financial records Tillerson meets with House Foreign Affairs Committee Trump adviser expected to leave White House, join Juul MORE a security clearance, and was overruled by Trump.

ADVERTISEMENT

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 PruittOn The Money: New financial disclosures provide glimpse of Trump's wealth | Walmart, Macy's say tariffs will mean price hikes | Consumer agency says Education Department blocking student loan oversight Overnight Energy: EPA watchdog finds Pruitt spent 4K on 'excessive' travel | Agency defends Pruitt expenses | Lawmakers push EPA to recover money | Inslee proposes spending T for green jobs Lawmakers take EPA head to task for refusing to demand Pruitt repay travel expenses MORE, Tom PriceThomas (Tom) Edmunds PriceOvernight Health Care: CEO of largest private health insurer slams 'Medicare for All' plans | Dem bill targets youth tobacco use | CVS fined over fake painkiller prescriptions | Trump, first lady to discuss opioid crisis at summit HHS inspector general stepping down from watchdog role Ex-GOP lawmaker Handel to run for her former Georgia seat in 2020 MORE and Ryan ZinkeRyan Keith ZinkeSenate panel approves Interior nominee over objections from Democrats Interior's border surge puts more officers in unfamiliar role Not 'if' but 'when' is the next Deepwater Horizon spill? 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.