On the December issue:
The Trump Presidency
To the Editor:
In his essay on Donald Trump’s presidency, Yuval Levin contends that the president is “personally vested with the executive power, and the various people who populate executive positions are just his agents” (“The Hyper-Rhetorical Presidency,” December). Levin writes that “conservatives have…tended to recoil from the notion that the broader executive branch has its own distinct prerogatives and exists apart from the president as a kind of governing authority onto itself—what we call the ‘administrative state.’” He invokes Alexander Hamilton in arguing that “unity and duration” are necessary for an effective administration.
Levin’s defense of the “unitary-executive” theory is at odds with the Constitution itself, which gives the legislature a decisive role in the appointment of executive officials (as well as the power to impeach and remove presidents for their conduct as executives). Executive officials are not responsible to the president alone. As John Alvis, Jeremy Bailey, and Flagg Taylor have shown, in their book The Contested Removal Power, 1789–2010, the unitary-executive theory also ignores important debates in American constitutional history over the extent to which presidents should control federal agencies.
In 1789, the first U.S. Congress debated whether the president could remove executive officials unilaterally, given that he needed the Senate’s advice and consent to appoint them. (In Federalist 77, Hamilton suggests otherwise, writing that the Senate “would be necessary to displace as well as to appoint” such officials.) The debate that unfolded made it clear that the “removal controversy” implicated foundational questions about the relationship between the executive and the federal bureaucracy—questions about the proper conditions for an effective administrative state. Levin’s contention notwithstanding, one side of this debate—backed by then Treasury secretary Hamilton—insisted that a sound administrative apparatus depended on presidents not being able to fire executive officials unilaterally, on the grounds that administrators need to be insulated from political turnover in order to exercise the independent judgement that good administration requires.
The same debate would be taken up several decades later, during the Jackson administration. Here again, Congress contested the president’s authority to remove executive officials at will. Like Levin, Jackson held that a regular rotation of bureaucratic officials vindicated democratic principles and that the bureaucracy should be a strict hierarchy with the president at its top. In response, personages no less venerable than Joseph Storey, Henry Clay, and Daniel Webster pushed back with the argument that the Constitution made Congress a key player in executive removals and in the administrative process more broadly. Questions about the president’s role in the bureaucracy have continued to resurface since these early skirmishes, first with the Tenure of Office Act during the (Andrew) Johnson administration, next with Myers v. United States in 1926, and again with Justice Scalia’s dissent in Morrison v. Olson during Ronald Reagan’s presidency.
The very persistence of this constitutional debate testifies against Levin’s view that Article II clearly grants presidents unilateral authority over executive officials and that autonomy on the part of bureaucratic agencies is somehow inimical to the Constitution.
To the Editor:
Though I don’t agree with every assertion that Yuval Levin makes, I believe he’s largely on target, particularly with his explanation for Donald Trump’s judicial successes.
There are two things, however, that he might have missed: First, one of Trump’s biggest weaknesses was his lack of the preexisting support team that most Washington insiders would have already developed. This put him at a distinct disadvantage on Day One.
Second, no president in history has had to endure the constant attacks that Trump faced. There is no doubt that Trump’s tweeting and mercurial character limited his effectiveness. But given the continual assaults and the nature of the forces arrayed against him, it’s something of a wonder he accomplished as much as he did.
Yuval Levin writes:
Charles Zug offers a valuable overview of debates on the removal power and the concept of the unitary executive, although its relevance to my essay is far from clear. I wrote that “for nearly half a century, conservative constitutionalism has emphasized the president’s personal responsibility for every executive act,” which Zug does not dispute, and then went on to explain that view in brief. That modern conservatives have advanced this view does not mean it is correct, or that it is uncontested, let alone that it was uncontested in the early republic or in Jacksonian America. It does, though, mean that for those same conservatives to now treat underlings of the president as independent agents is at the very least inconsistent.
Zug then notes that (later in the essay, on another subject, though he may have overlooked that) I invoked Alexander Hamilton in arguing that “unity and duration” are necessary for an effective administration. I did so because Hamilton, in Federalist 70, writes that “the ingredients which constitute energy in the Executive are, first, unity; secondly, duration; thirdly, an adequate provision for its support; fourthly, competent powers.”
Zug concludes by asserting that the very persistence of a debate is proof that one side of it is mistaken. I do not think that is how debates work. But I certainly agree with him that the question of presidential authority over the executive bureaucracy remains with good reason an open and contested issue in American constitutionalism, and that this is unlikely to change any time soon.
Thom McKee is surely right to suggest that President Trump’s lack of a preexisting team of trusted and experienced advisers contributed to his failures as president, and more broadly that Trump’s own inexperience did as well. I would not say, though, that “no president in history has had to endure the constant attacks that Trump faced.” Even without resorting to extreme examples (Abraham Lincoln, for instance, faced some mighty serious attacks), we can find a great deal of evidence of sharp attacks and harsh resistance in the experience of almost every modern president. Trump has certainly responded to such attacks differently than most presidents have and has felt sorry for himself in public more than perhaps any of his predecessors. But they have all faced plenty of challenges.
Populists Left and Right
To the Editor:
John Podhoretz’s “Worshipping the Golden Goose” (December) goes to show that Donald Trump was elected, warts and all, not by ignoramuses who were blind to the reality of Trump’s conduct but rather despite it. Why? Because of their anger.
Many Americans, of all races, are tired of feeling like chumps who try to play by the rules only to find the game rigged against them.
Barack Obama thought them bitter clingers. Hillary Clinton called them deplorables. Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and Joe Biden imagine them to be taxpayers who are willing to be fleeced.
Consider the man who asked Warren if he would be reimbursed under her student-debt-cancellation program for his daughter’s college tuition, which he was able to pay as a result of his own thrift, delayed gratification, and sense of personal responsibility. Warren responded in the negative, leaving the man feeling properly indignant.
Many Americans (including increasing numbers of legal immigrants) see the wisdom of traditional values and seek to conserve them as the only realistic path to a strong civil society and social contract.
To the Editor:
John Podhoretz makes a good point about Donald Trump’s fans not caring about his fictions. But how is it that people think that anything out of the mouths of other recent presidents is any less fictional?
Trump is often accused of appealing to the dreams and fantasies of the ignorant. But what is the substantive difference between that and Barack Obama’s use of his charisma and impressive speeches to achieve remarkably little in eight years? All sorts of Americans loved Obama, but it couldn’t have been because of his achievements. The grand admiration seemed to be about large-scale dreams and fantasies. Why is that not populism? Is hero worship only populist if it’s done by Republicans?
White Rock, Canada
Airplanes and Starships
To the Editor:
Regarding James B. Meigs’s column on space exploration, it’s worth recalling that American innovation, from the Wright Brothers to the Boeing 747, created world aviation as we know it (“We’re Living in a New Space Age,” December). Government bureaucrats didn’t make the PanAm Flying Boat, a workhorse that established transAtlantic and transPacific routes. Today’s vigorous space pioneers remind me of those aggressive commercial efforts of the 20th century. In the U.S., competitive innovation has meant that we can rightfully boast of more Nobel Prize winners than any other nation on earth. If there’s a new frontier in space, we’re best suited to take flight with the bright minds and adept hands of entrepreneurs who make fact of science fiction.
Sunset Beach, North Carolina
James B. Meigs writes:
Tom Fowler is spot-on in comparing today’s flourishing of private space companies to the early decades of aviation. In fact, NASA’s decision to subcontract some flights to privately owned companies such as SpaceX had a corollary in that era. When the U.S. Post Office began airmail service in 1918, it initially purchased its own planes, employed pilots, and maintained its own airports. But Congress didn’t believe that the federal government should be in the air-transport business, and, in 1925, it directed the postal service to hand off its airmail routes to private companies. The Post Office paid these air-delivery companies well, in part to help get this new industry (ahem) off the ground. But it left the details up to them.
The rest was history. Aviation startups like Boeing competed to offer the lowest rates on crucial routes. Young pilots, including a then-unknown Charles Lindbergh, signed up for the exciting, perilous work. By 1929, the volume of mail traveling by air had increased nearly tenfold. Aircraft makers innovated rapidly, building faster, safer planes. Soon, the U.S. aviation industry was leading the world. It’s great that NASA is pursuing this kind of public-private partnership today. If Congress—and the Biden administration—don’t nterfere, the U.S. should be well positioned to dominate the booming space business of the 21st century.