President Trump's assault on checks and balances: Five acts in four weeks

President Trump's assault on checks and balances: Five acts in four weeks
© Getty

When asked if the Constitutional Convention created a republic or a monarchy, Benjamin Franklin replied, “a republic, if you can keep it.” President TrumpDonald John TrumpSteele Dossier sub-source was subject of FBI counterintelligence probe Pelosi slams Trump executive order on pre-existing conditions: It 'isn't worth the paper it's signed on' Trump 'no longer angry' at Romney because of Supreme Court stance MORE’s relentless assault on our system of checks and balances makes Franklin’s admonition as timely in 2020 as it was in 1787. Five acts in the past four weeks illuminate a pattern of behavior that should concern all Americans:

1) On Feb. 19, Trump named Richard Grenell, the U.S. Ambassador to Germany, as acting director of national intelligence, replacing acting director Joseph MaguireJoseph MaguireCongressional Democrats request FBI briefing on foreign election interference efforts Wells Fargo told employees to delete TikTok from work phones Hillicon Valley: Pompeo floats TikTok ban | Civil rights groups slam Facebook after call | Election security funding included in proposal MORE. Grenell, an ardent Trump loyalist, has no experience in intelligence or administering a large bureaucracy. His appointment is the latest manifestation of Trump’s preference for appointing acting directors of agencies and cabinet secretaries because it gives him “more flexibility.” The approach, however, deprives department heads of complete and full authority. It also allows the president to bypass the U.S. Senate, which is authorized by the Constitution to vet the qualifications of nominees and give or withhold advice and consent.

2) On Feb. 11, Trump blasted the sentencing recommendation made by the Justice Department lawyers who prosecuted Roger StoneRoger Jason StoneThe agony of justice Our Constitution is under attack by Attorney General William Barr Justice IG investigating Stone sentencing: report MORE. “Cannot allow this miscarriage of justice,” he tweeted. Attorney General William BarrBill BarrHillicon Valley: Subpoenas for Facebook, Google and Twitter on the cards | Wray rebuffs mail-in voting conspiracies | Reps. raise mass surveillance concerns Bipartisan representatives demand answers on expired surveillance programs YouTube to battle mail-in voting misinformation with info panel on videos MORE then directed the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Washington, D.C. to send a second memo, recommending a shorter sentence. The four federal prosecutors withdrew from the case. Although Barr indicated that his intervention was unrelated to Trump’s public defense of Stone, he told ABC News that “the constant background commentary” makes it “impossible” for him to do his job. The incident added mightily to concerns (which had been raised during the tenure of Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsRoy Moore sues Alabama over COVID-19 restrictions GOP set to release controversial Biden report Trump's policies on refugees are as simple as ABCs MORE and Acting AG Matthew Whitaker — and reinforced by Trump’s recent declaration that he is the chief law enforcement officer in the United States) that the independence and non-partisan role of the Department of Justice has been undermined and perhaps destroyed.


3) On Feb. 11, Trump attacked Amy Berman Jackson, the presiding judge in the Stone case: “Is this the Judge that put Paul ManafortPaul John ManafortOur Constitution is under attack by Attorney General William Barr Bannon trial date set in alleged border wall scam Conspicuous by their absence from the Republican Convention MORE in SOLITARY CONFINEMENT… How did she treat Crooked Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonFox News poll: Biden ahead of Trump in Nevada, Pennsylvania and Ohio Trump, Biden court Black business owners in final election sprint The power of incumbency: How Trump is using the Oval Office to win reelection MORE?” It was not the first time the president has attacked judges and the courts. In November 2018, to cite one of many examples, Trump called the decision of Jon Tigar of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ordering the administration to accept asylum claims for all migrants entering the United States, “a disgrace,” issued by an “Obama judge.” The tweet prompted a rebuke by Chief Justice John Roberts: The United States “doesn’t have Obama judges or Trump judges…we have an extraordinary group of dedicated judges doing their level best to do right to those appearing before them.” The Brennan Center for Justice added a warning that courts “depend on the public to respect their judgments and on officials to obey and enforce their decisions. Fear of personal attacks, public backlash, or enforcement failures should not color judicial decision making… Separation of powers is not a threat to our democracy: it is the essence of democracy.”

4) On Feb. 13, the Trump administration informed Congress that is was diverting $3.8 billion from the Pentagon’s budget for the purchase of aircraft and other equipment to construct barriers on the southern border, bringing the total taken from the Defense Department for the wall this year to $7.2 billion. Citing an anti-narcotics law and a statute allowing the Pentagon — in the event of a national emergency requiring the deployment of troops — to use construction funds to pay for infrastructure for these forces, the White House made this decision without approval from Congress, which has several times refused to appropriate money for this purpose. The courts have approved these maneuvers, but, along with the administration’s imposition of tariffs, they constitute yet another step in the evisceration of Congress’s power over the purse.

5) On Jan. 28, President Trump praised Mike Pompeo for his treatment of NPR reporter Mary Louise Kelly; the Secretary of State swore at Kelly after she asked questions about Ukraine and his lack of public support for Ambassador Marie YovanovitchMarie YovanovitchGrand jury adds additional counts against Giuliani associates Lev Parnas and and Igor Fruman Strzok: Trump behaving like an authoritarian Powell backs Biden at convention as Democrats rip Trump on security MORE — and subsequently barred Kelly’s NPR colleague from the group flying with him to Europe. “I think you did a good job on her, actually,” the president said. Trump’s repeated characterization of the media as “the enemy of the people,” it is worth noting, has caused Chris Wallace, a Fox News journalist, to lambast the president for engaging in “the most direct sustained assault on freedom of the press in our history.” Trump’s attacks have done damage, Wallace added, citing a Freedom Forum Institute poll that found that 29 percent of Americans believe the First Amendment goes too far and that 77 percent believe “fake news is a serious threat to our democracy.”

The Trump administration, it seems clear, is undermining the system of checks and balances that is fundamental to our democracy.

Shouldn’t Republicans as well as Democrats be alarmed?

Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University. He is the co-author (with Stuart Blumin) of Rude Republic:  Americans and Their Politics in the Nineteenth Century.