Friday News Analysis — September 7, 2018: White House Exposés & “President Lear;” Kavanaugh Hearings; and Stories You May Have Missed
Happy Friday from a very hot and hazy Washington, D.C. Post-Labor Day, the midterm season is in now in full swing, and the chatter inside the Beltway is all about the anonymous New York Times op-ed rocking the White House and the upcoming Bob Woodward book, Fear. The Kavanaugh hearings have also continued, demonstrating how deeply the political trenches have been dug.
As we continue this, we welcome your feedback at Dan.Mahaffee@thepresidency.org and Michael.Stecher@thepresidency.org
The Tragedy of President Lear
Washington is agog this week with reports of members of the Trump administration taking clandestine steps to undermine parts of the president’s policy agenda. Two separate publications — excerpts from Bob Woodward’s forthcoming book in the Washington Post on Monday and an op-ed by an unnamed “senior official in the Trump administration” in the New York Times on Wednesday — prompted a conversation about professional responsibility, duty, and oversight in a democratic system. The alleged facts in both pieces are salacious and reflect poorly on all of the major actors involved.
In one episode from Woodward’s book, former Director of the National Economic Council Gary Cohn pilfers a draft letter announcing the United States’ withdrawal from the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement from the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office. In another, Secretary of Defense James Mattis listens to President Trump demand military options to assassinate Syrian President Bashar al-Assad after a chemical weapons attack against civilians in April 2017 and then tells his staff that they would prepare no such thing.
The opinion piece by the unnamed senior official makes similar allegations without naming names. “[M]any of the senior officials in [the president’s] own administration are working diligently from within to frustrate parts of his agenda and his worst inclinations,” the author writes. The author calls the president “amoral” and also highlights his “half-baked, ill-informed and occasionally reckless decisions.”
When considering the totality of these pieces, it is important to distinguish the ordinary from the new and frightening. Leaders do not have superhuman abilities to integrate information and can only focus on one issue at a time, so staffers invariably seek to influence decisionmaking by controlling what a principal sees, hears, or reads. President Obama, for example, was more skeptical of military intervention than many members of his administration and was frustrated by the way that they presented ideas regarding the Syrian Civil War and troop deployments in Afghanistan.
Subordinate officials have also been known to leak to the press about their displeasure with a president’s decisions. What is novel is the palpable sense that many members of the administration — people who were put in their jobs by President Trump in order to carry out his agenda — are taking extraordinary steps to undermine their boss because they think that he is unfit for office and a danger to the republic. As the author of the op-ed states, this is not the work of the professional bureaucracy — what supporters of the president have called “the deep state” — or political opponents: people in very close orbit of the Oval Office are afraid that, in a fit of pique, the president could do something that would damage American prosperity and national security.
In this case, many observers think that those officials should resign and use their resignation to highlight the president’s unfitness for possible impeachment proceedings. The critics argue that these officials are undermining the very institutions they claim to be serving and have no standing to stop President Trump in the name of “democratic virtue.”
This, however, highlights one of the most fundamental failings of the Trump era: the complete absence of the United States Congress from oversight of the executive branch. Many Republican members of Congress, according to Politico, “privately agree with the Trump administration official who went rogue in The New York Times [sic],” but there have been no hearings to discuss the president’s “childishness and cruelty” or legislation advanced to restrain his “worst impulses.” The sense of après nous, le déluge among senior officials may be justified in this case because, as Susan Hennessy of the Brookings Institution pointed out, since the president appears to believe that the role of the Department of Justice is to protect his supporters and punish his opponents, anyone who agreed to replace Jeff Sessions as Attorney General would be unacceptable.
The author of the New York Times op-ed also alleges that members of the administration had discussed invoking the 25th Amendment, which allows for the removal of a president who is “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office.” The 25th Amendment does not contemplate the current situation and could not be used to address it. In order to invoke the 25th Amendment, the vice president and a majority of the cabinet sends Congress a note that the president is unfit, temporarily removing him from power. However, once the president sends his own note to Congress that “no inability exists,” he resumes office, unless the cabinet sends another letter alleging unfitness. This dispute must be adjudicated by Congress and requires two-thirds of both houses to affirm the cabinet’s decision in order to remove the president. This is a higher procedural hurdle than impeachment and conviction, which requires a simple majority in the House of Representatives and two-thirds of the Senate. The 25th Amendment is designed to ensure the continued functioning of government in the event that the president is in a coma or under general anesthesia. It is most certainly not a constitutional provision for an administrative coup within the executive branch.
The Political Theater of the Kavanaugh Hearings
Following the confirmation hearings for Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court is a reminder of just how pervasive political theater has become in American government. Overshadowed by the tumult in the White House with Bob Woodward’s upcoming exposé and the anonymous New York Times op-ed suggesting a resistance amongst Trump Administration staff, it is clear how little impact Supreme Court confirmation hearings now have.
The spectacle of it all makes for good television, of course, with marathon hearings, the klieg lights focused on the nominee and his friends and family, and the rounds of questions that generally focus on legal hypotheticals that no nominee since Ruth Bader Ginsburg would answer. To the right, Kavanaugh is a principled jurist, a family man, and a worthy successor to the seat of Justice Anthony Kennedy. To the left, he is a shill for corporate interests, a dangerous threat to women’s rights, and a turn away from the kind of “swing justice” that Anthony Kennedy was. Republicans know that they have the political power, and the simple mathematics, to get Kavanaugh confirmed in a 51–49 Senate, while Democrats can best hope to delegitimize the nominee and, perhaps, be lucky enough to find a scandal that will sink the nomination.
From failing to confirm Robert Bork for his participation in Nixon’s Saturday Night Massacre, through eliminating the filibuster for judicial nominations, and refusing to hold hearings for Merrick Garland, nominations to the highest court in the land now reflect the pervasive approach of political hardball. With an eye towards 2018 and 2020, each side hammers away with its own narrative as the nominee answers with vagaries or declines to answer at all. Some on the left will point to the interference in the 2016 election as a reason to cast doubt on the nomination — a useful talking point for the base — but even they will admit that it was just one of many factors behind the surprising outcome of that election.
The theater truly hit high dudgeon with the peculiar line of questioning by Senator Kamala Harris. For some Democrats, it was a sign that Kavanaugh is hiding some kind of contact with President Trump’s attorneys. For Republicans, it was an a opaque series of speculative questions — part a prosecutorial-style fishing expedition, part the kind of questioning associated with the star chamber. Senator Cory Booker’s self-proclaimed “Spartacus moment” with the committee confidential — or actually no longer confidential — documents illustrated another style of jockeying for the base. Did any of this sway opinion on Kavanaugh or change the likely outcome? Probably not.
In an environment where the qualifications of a judicial nominee take the backseat to base politics, the Republican gambles since early 2016 have paid off. For the Democrats, there is an unfortunate political reality that Republican voters seem more energized about the Supreme Court — and the judiciary writ large — heading into an election, while Democratic voters seem more energized once they have a nominee to oppose.
And that is the reality we are in today. On either side, there is opposition to the other side’s judicial nominees, no matter their qualifications or the quality of their jurisprudence. The politics of judicial nominations are just another part of the zero-sum, trench warfare battlefield of American politics.
Barring a major setback, which seems unlikely, Kavanaugh will likely be confirmed with 51 votes—and maybe a few more if Democratic Senators from deep red states cross over. The politicization of the courts and their delegitimization will continue on both sides. Beyond the structural factors of the Senate confirmation process and the tribalism in American politics, Senator Ben Sasse challenged his fellow legislators about their feelings on the courts wading into political matters.
His admonishment was simple: if you don’t want the courts to decide the laws, Congress should write better laws.
Stories You May Have Missed
With the testimony of Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and Facebook COO Cheryl Sandberg before Congress, there was much discussion about foreign interference, fake news, and charges of political censorship—but little in the way of a concrete path forward. However, it did attract a range of social media celebrities, including rather surreal encounters with InfoWars host Alex Jones.
While campaigning in Brazil’s presidential race, right-wing front-runner Jair Bolsonaro was stabbed in the abdomen by a member of the crowd believed to be suffering from mental illness. Considered the “Trump of Brazil,” Bolsonaro has been leading the polls on his strong anti-corruption message, yet is clouded by his statements reflecting a fondness for Brazil’s past military dictatorships.
Backed by Russian airpower and Iranian militias, Syrian government forces are tightening control around the last rebel-held bastion of Idlib. President Putin has rejected Turkey’s offer to mediate a truce, and President Trump has warned, via Twitter, of potential retaliation if chemical weapons are again used during this assault.
President Trump has threatened an additional $267 billion in tariffs on Chinese goods as trade tensions between Washington and Beijing rise. With deals with the EU and NAFTA partners appearing close on the horizon, some believe the administration is feeling empowered to take a harder position on China—and, perhaps, in coordination with European and North American partners.