Americans have to know the truth about the powers of the president

Americans have to know the truth about the powers of the president
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“I have the right to do a lot of things that people do not even know about,” Donald TrumpDonald TrumpBiden to hold virtual bilateral meeting with Mexican president More than 300 charged in connection to Capitol riot Trump Jr.: There are 'plenty' of GOP incumbents who should be challenged MORE said this year. He is correct. Among executive emergency powers is the authority to shut down everything from broadcast stations to the internet. If there is a mistake that we have made for predicting his behavior, it is that we take his words figuratively when we must take them literally. It is clear that Trump meant it when he said, “When somebody is the president of the United States, the authority is total.”

The least we can do is understand the full measure of emergency powers, imagine how a desperate president might abuse them before the election, and make clear that we will not tolerate such action. We can start with the statutes. A Communications Act provision allows the president to suspend broadcast stations and mobile devices after the proclamation of a national emergency. To shut down the internet or other networks, his declaration need only invoke “national security” and it would be done.

Would Trump take such drastic action? Look over his record. After Twitter labeled his posts, he responded with an orchestrated White House event to intimidate social media platforms, flanked by the attorney general, and signed a new executive order that instructs the Federal Communications Commission to regulate social media platforms. It is not a giant leap from using the authority of the government to threaten free speech to actually doing something to curtail it. All it simply takes is a unilateral declaration by the president of the existence of a national emergency.


Justice Potter Stewart famously said that his definition for pornography was that he “knows it when I see it.” The definition for “emergency” has amazingly been left to the arbitrary whims of any president to “know it when they see it.” Trump certainly sees it everywhere. A Congressional Research Service report earlier this year concluded that the exercise of emergency powers has been “somewhat dependent” on the view of the chief executive of the government. Trump mentioned his view when he told us, “I have the right to do whatever I want as president.”

No wonder the national emergency declaration is his maneuver to get his way. Days after he was sworn in, he restricted travel from Muslim majority countries for security reasons. In his trade war, he levied tariffs on Chinese steel and aluminum that he called security threats. When Congress would not give him funds for the Mexican border wall, the president simply used a national emergency declaration to reallocate Pentagon funds to build it. In his efforts to support the coal industry, he considered claiming the use of natural gas for electricity production had security risks.

These issues are notably relevant with an election year that determines his future. At the heart of every election are the networks that connect people with the free flow of ideas. No president has ever used his powers over the networks to influence an election. But no president has ever used tear gas and rubber bullets to clear the way for a campaign picture.

We remember the intelligence community warning us that foreign powers used the internet to interfere in our democracy. What if the election starts going the wrong way for the president? What if he unveils some evidence of foreign infiltration and declares a national emergency simply to use his authority to control the internet? The critical weeks after the election may also be tricky. As more states prepare to use remote voting in response to the coronavirus, Trump has said that if his campaign does not win lawsuits that challenge mailed ballots that “it puts the election at risk.”

Could he declare a national emergency after the election because of such “fraudulent” mailed ballots? For three years, the courts have provided the most reliable guardrails against his overreach, but judicial review is a slow process that needs a triggering event. Our best defense now is oversight. We cannot address a problem that we do not completely understand. The House has to hold hearings that will shine the light on the powers that the president himself has said “people do not even know about.”

Tom Wheeler served as chair of the Federal Communications Commission.