Trump talks like a strongman. Good thing he’s governing like a weak man: Dale
The U.S. president on Friday called for the FBI to investigate his political opponents. That’s not surprising — Trump often sounds like a tinpot dictator — but what happens if he stops being all talk?
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WASHINGTON—President Donald Trump’s rage at the media had boiled over. This time, he demanded action.
“Network news has become so partisan, distorted and fake that licenses must be challenged and, if appropriate, revoked,” Trump wrote on Twitter on Oct. 11. “Not fair to public!”
He sounded like an autocrat, scarcely different than repressive leaders from Turkey to Venezuela. Advocates for press freedom sounded the alarm.
And then nothing happened. Again.
Trump does not have the power to revoke broadcast licenses to punish people for critical speech. Nobody at the Federal Communications Commission took any action to try. The story about Trump’s extraordinary breach of democratic norms vanished in 48 hours, replaced by other Trump stories.
The pattern has been repeated itself throughout Trump’s presidency.
Showing the instincts of an authoritarian, the president expresses a desire to do something profoundly contrary to the norms of democratic societies. Then he is constrained by democratic institutions.
He talks like a strongman. He is, in practice, a weak man.
“The political science view is that Trump is a very weak president. He is saying these things in public because he cannot make anyone do what he wants in private,” said Brendan Nyhan, a Dartmouth College professor of government and co-director of Bright Line Watch, a project monitoring the state of U.S. democracy under Trump.
Trump has not even been able to exercise absolute power over his own hand-picked officials. A series of stories in U.S. news outlets suggest his aides and appointees have often treated him more like their eccentric grandpa than their boss, responding to demands issued out of fury or spite by declining to take action until he simply forgets what he has told them to do.
His unusual combination of authoritarian words and invisible followup has posed an interpretation challenge to the U.S. media and public. As some observers have dismissed Trump’s anti-democratic ravings as posturing or emoting signifying nothing other than impulse-control issues, others have warned of the potential for lasting harm.
Nyhan’s project asked experts to rate the strength of U.S. democracy in February, the first full month of Trump’s tenure, and again in September. The result: “Things are essentially stable,” Nyhan said, with no significant democratic deterioration. But Nyhan warned, “Threats to the rule of law often start with these softer kinds of actions, these norms that grow weaker.”
“So far, the institutions of American government are holding steady. But those norms help to protect them. The question is how long they can resist political pressure, and what future presidents do,” he said. “Even if this president is hemmed in by his political situation, has space opened for future presidents to abuse the kinds of powers that Trump is convincing millions of people the executive branch possesses?”
The questions arose once more on Friday. In a major breach of the traditions of the U.S. and other mature democracies, Trump lobbied the Justice Department and the FBI to investigate his defeated election opponent, Hillary Clinton, and the opposition party, the Democrats.
His remarks came after he appeared to ruefully acknowledge the norm against such interference in a Thursday radio interview, saying: “The saddest thing is that because I’m the president of the United States, I am not supposed to be involved with the Justice Department.”
“Everybody is asking why the Justice Department (and FBI) isn’t looking into all of the dishonesty going on with Crooked Hillary & the Dems,” Trump said on Twitter on Friday. He added: “People are angry. At some point the Justice Department, and the FBI, must do what is right and proper. The American public deserves it!”
No big deal, some suggested. In the absence of “actual orders given to DOJ,” New York Times national political correspondent Jonathan Martin wrote on Twitter, Trump seemed merely to be “playing Fox News/righty media assignment editor” — trying to drive media coverage more than drive Clinton into a cell.
Others described his words as much more concerning, a true threat to the rule of law.
“Trump’s DOJ tweets are like Watergate out in the open instead of hidden in secret. Fact we get used to it maybe makes it even more dangerous,” wrote Matthew Miller, chief Justice spokesperson during the Obama administration.
In an interview, Miller said the department may eventually feel compelled to “give in and do what the president wants.” Attorney General Jeff Sessions knows that his own job remains at risk from Trump’s ire, Miller said, and the department needs White House backing for its spending, staffing and policy decisions.
And Miller noted that Trump has already shown that at least some of his grandiose threats are not idle.
He fired FBI director James Comey in a self-admitted attempt to try to thwart the probe into his campaign’s links to Russia — and Sessions and the deputy attorney general signed off, Miller said, though “they had to know it was over the Russia investigation.”
“They are susceptible to the political pressure he puts on them. They’ve shown it already. And they could very well show it again,” he said.
Trump’s remarks on Clinton came two days after he inserted himself into the judicial process for Sayfullo Saipov, accused of this week’s terror attack in New York City, whom he said “SHOULD GET DEATH PENALTY!”
On Friday, he learned that such declarations can do more harm than good: Bowe Bergdahl was sentenced to a dishonourable discharge for deserting the army in Afghanistan in 2009.
Trump had called on the campaign trail for Bergdahl to be shot; the military judge said he considered Trump’s words “mitigation evidence” in favour of a lighter sentence.
Trump shows no sign of acknowledging the institutional limits on his power.
Asked on Fox News on Thursday about unfilled job vacancies in the State Department, Trump said: “Let me tell you, the one that matters is me. I’m the only one that matters.”