On presidential propriety and Donald Trump

March 31, 2017

By Matthew E. Milliken
March 31, 2017

Last June, journalist Robert Kuttner examined the different ways in which a then-hypothetical President Trump might abuse his power.

We are now 70 days into the Trump administration, a span in which the administration has been mired amid scandal, incompetence and apparent if not actual corruption, not to mention historically low approval ratings. Yes, it’s early, but we can get a good sense of the ways in which Kuttner — who once reported on the methods by which President Nixon politicized the Internal Revenue Service — was right and wrong in his prognostications about the figure I’ve taken to calling President Short Attention Span.

Trump will insist on loyalty. Kuttner was spot-on about this. In his eagerness to blame the failure of his ill-advised health-care reform initiative on everyone not named Donald Trump, the president blamed Democrats and Republicans alike. The commander-in-chief seemed particularly eager to call out Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, notwithstanding Ryan’s relative obeisance to Trump, as well as members of the House Freedom Caucus who objected that the American Health Care Act wasn’t cruel enough.

• Partisan control of Congress will redound to Trump’s benefit. Republican members of Congress have been extremely reluctant to investigate any of the many irregularities surrounding President Trump. While that hesitancy may finally be waning as the Senate Intelligence Committee has begun what appears to be a cautious, impartial probe of ties between Russian officials and the Trump campaign, the GOP has by and large been willing to give Trump free reign.

• Federal immigration officials will harass foreign-born U.S. residents. That process seems to be well under way.

• Trump will politicize the IRS. There’s no sign yet that this is happening, but give it time.

• Trump will politicize federal prosecutions. Trump’s recent dismissal of 46 U.S. attorneys could be a prelude to the politicization of the Department of Justice.

• Trump will cut back on regulation and regulatory enforcement. This appears to be well under way, as the president’s preliminary budget proposal and moves to undo climate-change-related environmental regulations indicate.

• Trump will enlist mobs to enact his will. We haven’t really seen this happen since the inauguration. But some of Trump’s campaign events were certainly ugly and saw the candidate inciting violence, so it’s not far-fetched to imagine this happening.

• Trump will exploit a security threat to crack down on civil liberties. This hasn’t yet taken place, but given what happened after 9/11 — Patriot Act, anyone? — it’s easy to see it looming in the future.

• Trump will play favorites and enemies with media outlets. Yup.

Unfortunately, things could be even worse than Kuttner projected. For example, he never speculated about Trump’s ability to expand his business reach through self-dealing.

And Kuttner never speculated about the ways in which Trump — who is wholly unlike all his predecessors — might abuse the sweeping pardon powers that the Constitution grants  the president. Given the news that Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security advisor, has asked for immunity from prosecution in exchange for testimony about unspecified misdeeds by those in Trump’s circle, one wonders if Trump or his aides have given any thought to the uses and abuses of that particular executive privilege.

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