In 1973 Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. wrote The Imperial Presidency arguing that the presidency was now uncontrollable and that it had exceeded the constitutional limits. The daily accountability of the president to the Congress, to the courts, to the press, and even to the people, had been replaced by an accountability of only once, once every four years, and only during an election. Schlesinger suggested this was a structural inevitability that kind of snuck up on the nation. Congress would rather pass off the responsibility for this or that to the president. He’d take the blame, not them. Congress alone can declare war. Congress hasn’t declared war since the early forties. Congress authorizes the use of force now, often after the fact. Perhaps that’s more sensible in a fast-paced world. Perhaps that’s cowardice. Perhaps that doesn’t matter. On that matter and many others Congress handed off its duties and responsibilities. And presidents loved that. And the public didn’t care all that much. The public has made up its mind. Congress was useless and the nation needed a strong bold leader. Everyone learned about the Constitution, and the genius of the separation of powers idea, in junior high. As adults, however, most everyone was an authoritarian. They might not know who their congressman was, or if they had one, but every four years they’d vote for that strong bold leader. Every four years each political party said that they had just the man, or last time, just the woman. That’s what mattered.
There was the de jure system of American government, and the de facto system that had evolved from it. Congress passed legislation, and appropriated funds, as the president wished, and scolded the president at times for this and that. And they said they were important. And the nation yawned.
That means that Donald Trump is not unusual, at least in these matters, and is just continuing the evisceration of Congress. Once again they really don’t matter:
The Trump administration is preparing to circumvent Congress to allow the export to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates of billions of dollars’ worth of munitions that are now on hold, according to current and former American officials and legislators familiar with the plan.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and some political appointees in the State Department are pushing for the administration to invoke an emergency provision that would allow President Trump to prevent Congress from halting the sales, worth about $7 billion.
Once again, Congress doesn’t matter, and in this case the Saudis do:
The transactions, which include precision-guided munitions and combat aircraft, would infuriate lawmakers in both parties. They would also further inflame tensions between the United States and Iran, which views Saudi Arabia as its main rival and has been supporting the Houthi rebels in Yemen in their campaign against a Saudi-led military coalition that includes the United Arab Emirates.
The administration is sending messages, one to Congress – you don’t matter – and one to Iran – we’re coming to wipe you out. And the message to Congress is blunt:
American legislators from both parties remain incensed by the Trump administration’s equivocal response to the grisly killing last October by Saudi agents of Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist and Virginia resident. They are also frustrated by the administration’s role in supporting the Saudi-led coalition in the Yemen war, a four-year conflict that the United Nations has deemed the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, with thousands of civilians killed and millions suffering from famine.
This spring, both the House and Senate approved bipartisan legislation to cut off military assistance to Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen using the 1973 War Powers Act, only to see it vetoed in April.
In short, you think a strong leader murdering a reporter who disrespects him is wrong. The president doesn’t. You think a genocidal war that wipes out tens of thousands of women and children, to advance the interests of Saudi Arabia against Iran, is morally wrong and we should have nothing to do with it. The president doesn’t.
But there was this:
Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina and an outspoken ally of the president, told reporters Thursday that he would “not do business as usual with the Saudis until we have a better reckoning” with the crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, whom American intelligence agencies consider to be responsible for the killing of Mr. Khashoggi and the Saudi role in the Yemen war.
He was saying that he himself would not do business as usual with the Saudis, but that’s just him. He’s not president. He shrugged, and this is a done deal:
No other foreign policy issue has created as large a rift between Mr. Trump and Congress, and the move on the arms sales, which could take place within days, would deepen the divide. Mr. Pompeo would oversee the action, and the State Department is bracing for lawmakers to stall confirmations on all State Department nominees if it is implemented. Within the department, veteran Foreign Service officers have strongly opposed Mr. Pompeo’s position.
What does it matter? Half of the top positions at State are vacant and have been for two years. Trump likes it that way, and the rest is noise:
The proposal emerged publicly on Wednesday when Senator Christopher S. Murphy, Democrat of Connecticut, criticized it on Twitter.
Members of Congress ordinarily are given a review period during which they can pass legislation modifying or prohibiting a prospective arms sale. But a provision in the Arms Export Control Act allows the president to bypass congressional review if he deems “an emergency exists which requires the proposed sale in the national security interest of the United States.”
“It sets an incredibly dangerous precedent that future presidents can use to sell weapons without a check from Congress,” Mr. Murphy said in an interview on Thursday. “We have the constitutional duty to declare war and the responsibility to oversee arm sales that contravene our national security interests. If we don’t stand up to this abuse of authority, we will permanently box ourselves out of deciding who we should sell weapons to.”
It a little late for that:
Mr. Pompeo’s emergency declaration would be based on what he says is a heightened threat against American interests in the region from Iran. Mr. Pompeo took the extraordinary step this month of ordering a withdrawal of almost all American diplomats from the Baghdad embassy and Erbil consulate in Iraq. European allies and Iraqi leaders have expressed skepticism about American alarm over Iran.
Let them be skeptical:
Tensions in the Persian Gulf also rose this month after four oil tankers were attacked with explosives. Two of the tankers are from Saudi Arabia, one is from the United Arab Emirates and the fourth is from Norway; the countries have not revealed the results of investigations, but Mr. Pompeo said this week – without presenting evidence – that it was “quite possible that Iran was behind these.”
On Thursday, the acting defense secretary, Patrick Shanahan, said Mr. Trump might send more troops to the Middle East because of the tensions with Iran.
They don’t need evidence:
The end run around Congress would come just weeks before the White House is expected to unveil a plan to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Mr. Trump’s son-in-law and main Middle East adviser, Jared Kushner, is seeking support from Saudi Arabia and other Arab nations for the plan, which will probably include economic aid for the Palestinians but will not address their aspirations to nationhood.
Israel gets all the land it wants to claim, anywhere it wants, and the Palestinians get nothing – but we’ll give them lots of money to shut up and sit quietly, preferably elsewhere. We’ll buy them off. That’s the plan. Jared, not Congress, is a genius. Or maybe not:
King Salman of Saudi Arabia voiced his disapproval of any White House plan after Mr. Trump recognized the contested city of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel in December 2017.
That’s a problem but can be worked out. Everything can be worked out:
In Washington, citing Mr. Khashoggi’s killing, a bipartisan group of lawmakers has called for a prohibition of certain weapons sales to Riyadh and a blanket prohibition on the refueling of Saudi-led coalition aircraft engaged in the civil war in Yemen.
In a winding and remarkable statement released last year after the killing of Mr. Khashoggi, Mr. Trump argued that punishing Saudi Arabia would jeopardize $110 billion in military sales to Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and other military contractors. “If we foolishly cancel these contracts, Russia and China would be the enormous beneficiaries – and very happy to acquire all of this newfound business,” he said.
And the Imperial President will decide these things. And, by the way, never mess with him:
President Trump took extraordinary steps on Thursday to give Attorney General William P. Barr sweeping new authorities to conduct a review into how the 2016 Trump campaign’s ties to Russia were investigated, significantly escalating the administration’s efforts to place those who investigated the campaign under scrutiny.
In a directive, Mr. Trump ordered the CIA and the country’s 15 other intelligence agencies to cooperate with the review and granted Mr. Barr the authority to unilaterally declassify their documents. The move – which occurred just hours after Mr. Trump again declared that those who led the investigation committed treason – gave Mr. Barr immense leverage over the intelligence community and enormous power over what the public learns about the roots of the Russia investigation.
This is the beginning of the purge of Trump’s political enemies. Any investigation of Trump was treason. Even the judges who approved what they thought were legal search warrants are going to jail. The Imperial President will not be questioned.
And the press will be taken down too:
Journalists and press freedom groups reacted with alarm on Thursday after the Trump administration announced new charges against Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks leader, for publishing classified information, in a case that legal experts say takes direct aim at previously sacrosanct protections for the news media.
In indicting Mr. Assange for obtaining, accepting and disseminating classified materials, the Department of Justice opened a new front in its campaign against illegal leaks. While past cases involved government employees who provided material to journalists, the Assange indictment could amount to the pursuit of a publisher for making that material available to the public.
That’s the big deal here:
“It’s not criminal to encourage someone to leak classified information to you as a journalist – that’s called news gathering, and there are First Amendment protections for news gathering,” said Theodore J. Boutrous Jr., a lawyer who frequently represents media organizations like CNN. “The ramifications of this are so potentially dangerous and serious for the ability of journalists to gather and disseminate information that the American people have a right to know.”
Is there information that the American people have a right to know? This president now says no:
Federal prosecutors under President Trump have drawn criticism for extending a crackdown on leakers that had ramped up during President Barack Obama’s administration. The indictment of Mr. Assange – which related to WikiLeaks’ publication of secret documents leaked by Chelsea Manning, a former Army intelligence analyst – struck some experts as a grave escalation.
“It is one thing to charge a government official who has sworn an oath not to disclose classified information,” said Matthew Miller, who served as the Justice Department’s chief spokesman under Mr. Obama’s attorney general, Eric H. Holder Jr. “It’s another thing to charge someone outside the government who published information or solicited information, which is something that reporters do all the time.”
So this is new, a further evolution of the system, but unsettling:
Alan Dershowitz, the Harvard lawyer who has been a recent ally of Mr. Trump, said the case against Mr. Assange was “really the first time since the Pentagon Papers that the government has gone after publishers.”
“We all think there’s a difference between The New York Times and Assange from a practical point of view, but from a constitutional point of view, it’s hard to find that difference,” Mr. Dershowitz said. “They’re both publishing classified, stolen material.”
“This is analogous to if The New York Times and The Washington Post had been prosecuted after publishing the Pentagon Papers,” Mr. Dershowitz added, referring to the top-secret report on Vietnam whose publication in 1971 was upheld by the Supreme Court. “It’s a very, very frightening development.”
Get used to it, because Trump is making the rules now:
President Donald Trump accused former FBI officials James Comey, Andrew McCabe, Peter Strzok, and Lisa Page of “treason” during a fiery press conference on Thursday.
“They’re trying to take down the wrong person,” Trump said at an event that was supposed to highlight America’s farmers. “If you look at Comey, if you look at McCabe, if you look at people probably higher than that, if you look at Strzok, if you look at his lover, Lisa Page, his wonderful lover.”
Trump repeatedly mentioned Strzok and Page’s “insurance policy” if Hillary Clinton didn’t win the 2016 election.
“That’s treason,” Trump declared.
The President also suggested treason was “happening right now” with the Democrats’ investigations, though Trump made sure to say “without the ‘treason’ word, I guess” as a disclaimer.
He may change his mind on that, because that news conference was all about his power:
Washington’s political chaos descended into farce on Thursday when the speaker of the House and the president of the United States accused one another of being mentally unwell.
Hijacking an afternoon White House event with American farmers and agriculture industry leaders, President Donald Trump began calling on his top aides to state for the public record that he was “calm” during a disastrous meeting with Democratic leaders the day before.
“I’ve been watching her. I have been watching her for a long period of time. She’s not the same person. She’s lost it,” Trump said of Speaker Nancy Pelosi, just moments after he announced $16 billion in federal aid to growers hammered by the U.S.-China trade conflict.
She’s useless. Congress is useless. And he’s cool:
In a remarkable scene, the president proceeded to name-check senior White House staff and advisers in the Roosevelt Room whom he said had attended Wednesday’s session on infrastructure initiatives with top congressional Democrats – which Trump abandoned after declaring that the lawmakers could not simultaneously negotiate legislation while investigating and threatening to impeach him.
“Kellyanne, what was my temperament yesterday?” Trump asked White House counselor Kellyanne Conway.
“Very calm. No temper tantrum,” she replied before criticizing journalists’ coverage of the meeting, which Trump has complained portrayed him with a “rage narrative.”
He didn’t like what he had heard:
Pelosi herself on Thursday invoked the president’s wife and children in appearing to question Trump’s fitness for office, telling reporters in the Capitol: “I wish that his family or his administration or his staff would have an intervention for the good of the country.”
At that same news conference, the speaker questioned whether Trump was truly in charge of his White House and seemed to jokingly reference the Constitution’s 25th Amendment, which allows the Cabinet to remove a president from office if he can’t perform his duties.
It was a reporter’s question at the White House about Pelosi’s “intervention” remark – which Trump dubbed “a nasty-type statement” – that put the president on the defensive Thursday. He began turning to aides such as Mercedes Schlapp, the White House director of strategic communications, and pressing them for first-hand accounts of his scuttled meeting with Democrats.
“You were very calm and you were very direct, and you sent a very firm message to the speaker and to the Democrats,” Schlapp said.
But wait, there’s more:
Next up was Trump’s top economic adviser, Larry Kudlow, who said the president’s conversation with Democrats was “much calmer than some of our trade meetings,” followed by White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who described the president’s demeanor as “very calm and straightforward and clear.”
But the greatest praise for the commander in chief came from Trump himself, who told the assembled members of the media during one non-sequitur: “I’m an extremely stable genius. Okay?”
I’m an extremely stable genius. I’m an extremely stable genius. I’m an extremely stable genius. That might be what he mutters as falls asleep. That seems sad, but this is sadder:
Minutes after the event concluded, Pelosi had already fired back a retort from the speaker’s official Twitter account.
“When the ‘extremely stable genius’ starts acting more presidential,” she wrote online, “I’ll be happy to work with him on infrastructure, trade and other issues.”
She does know how to get to him. But as the Washington Post’s Drew Harwell reports, there are ways to get to her:
Distorted videos of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), altered to make her sound as if she’s drunkenly slurring her words, are spreading rapidly across social media highlighting how political disinformation that clouds public understanding can now grow at the speed of the Web.
The video of Pelosi’s onstage speech Wednesday at a Center for American Progress event, in which she said President Trump’s refusal to cooperate with congressional investigations was tantamount to a “cover-up,” was subtly edited to make her voice sound garbled and warped. It was then circulated widely across Twitter, YouTube and Facebook.
One version, posted by the conservative Facebook page Politics WatchDog, had been viewed more than 2 million times by Thursday night, been shared more than 45,000 times, and garnered 23,000 comments with users calling her “drunk” and “a babbling mess.”
And that was useful:
The origin of the altered video remains unclear but its spread across social media comes amid a growing feud between congressional Democrats and Trump. In addition to links from multiple YouTube and Twitter accounts, the video has appeared in the comments sections of message boards and regional news outlets.
Rudolph W. Giuliani, Trump’s personal attorney, tweeted a link to the altered video Thursday night with the note, “What is wrong with Nancy Pelosi? Her speech pattern is bizarre.” The tweet has since been deleted.
On Thursday night, Trump tweeted a separate video of Pelosi – a selectively edited supercut, taken from Fox News, focused on moments where she briefly paused or stumbled – that he claimed showed her stammering through a news conference. The clip included roughly 30 seconds of Pelosi’s full 21-minute briefing on Thursday, in which she took questions from reporters and discussed what she called Trump’s “temper tantrum.”
This was absurd, but time-shifted version was effective – it looked almost real – and the Fox News version, the montage of out-of-sequence five-second quick clips strung together, was good enough for Donald Trump to retweet it to the world. What he tweets is reality – because he says so. He is the president after all. The nation moved beyond the Constitution long ago.