If you were prone to understatement, you might describe Donald Trump as a very unusual president. He came to the job from a career that mostly involved selling himself. Unlike every prior American president, he had never been elected to anything before or held any senior post in government or the military. His engagement with politics consisted of offering bombastic commentary. And that is also how he spent much of his time in office. Trump seemed to understand the power of the presidency as fundamentally rhetorical—a way of changing reality by saying it should be different, or insisting that it was.
In some respects, this blurring of the line between presidential talk and action has been with us for many decades. Jeffrey Tulis’s brilliant 1987 book The Rhetorical Presidency described an accelerating presidential tendency to engage the public directly through the media, reaching over the heads of members of Congress and other public officials and using executive statements and directives to drive policy. Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, epitomized that approach.
But in the Trump era, we have witnessed a far more radical rhetorical approach to the presidency, which has treated presidential talk not as an enabler of government action but as its form and substance. Trump took speaking for his voters to be the essence of his job. He implicitly assumed that announcing a new policy or action was the same thing as undertaking it. And at times he even behaved as though declaring a new reality simply made it true. In the end, this rendered Trump a weakened president, and it should serve as a cautionary lesson to his successors about the nature of the office, and the sources of its strength.
To trace that lesson, we have to first overcome the most common confusion of the Trump era: the notion that Trump was a strong and assertive chief executive. This was a view shared by his fiercest critics and staunchest supporters. Many on the left insisted that Trump was a budding authoritarian, deploying executive power for corrupt purposes and threatening to suffocate our democracy. Many on the right insisted he was a giant among men—going where no prior president dared, unleashing the economy, putting America first, draining the swamp, and deconstructing the administrative state.
Trump was none of these things. He was, for better or worse, a weak chief executive. His time in office saw only one significant legislative measure advanced—a tax-reform bill in 2017—even though his party controlled both houses of Congress for the first two years of his term. Fairly little happened in the regulatory arena, so that while Trump’s administration did not expand the administrative state, it also did not significantly roll back its system of regulations, or indeed transform it in any durable way. On that front, as on many others, the Biden administration is pretty much in a position to pick up where Barack Obama left off.
That is not to say that Trump achieved nothing in office, of course. His transformation of the judiciary will resound for a generation and will strengthen our constitutional order. He reoriented America’s approach to the Middle East, enabling an extraordinary alignment between Israel and a coalition of Arab states to isolate Iran. These are important achievements, and Trump deserves real credit for them. He also made some symbolic gestures that mattered—some of which (such as relocating the American Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem) will likely endure while others (such as withdrawing the United States from the Paris climate accords) will surely be reversed.
But this list of accomplishments is short. And it doesn’t include the kinds of moves that led Trump’s critics to call him a fascist or his supporters to call him a statesman because, for the most part, those were just things Trump said without doing. He certainly spoke in ways that should alarm any friend of democratic institutions—treating the government as his own private plaything, calling for prosecutions of political opponents, maligning civil servants and judges, ruminating about changing the date of the election or closing newspapers and websites. He also spoke in ways that suggested assertive executive leadership—describing action on deregulation, law enforcement, pandemic response, China policy, and other matters and talking firmly about how the government should be run.
But was all this talk action? Did it describe the real world, or change it somehow? Does it leave behind anything real?
WHETHER THE president’s words are a form of executive action was a question that confronted the country in a variety of forms these past four years. On several occasions, federal judges had to decide whether a presidential tweet constituted a presidential directive, for instance, and they never really settled the question. Trump’s own underlings faced the same challenge.
For instance, when the president announced on Twitter that he would be changing the military’s policy regarding transgender service members in 2017, a Pentagon spokesman told reporters: “We don’t have guidance. We have a tweet. We don’t execute policy based on a tweet.” But a White House spokesman disagreed, saying of Trump’s tweets: “The President is the President of the United States, so they’re considered official statements by the President of the United States.”
Beyond Twitter, too, the president often behaved as though his saying something made it so, and he sent others around him frantically working to make reality conform to that expectation. He would assert, for instance, that his administration had a proposal to reform American health care, or an infrastructure plan, when no formal process to produce one had ever really been launched.
Sometimes, the president’s team responded by producing actual written orders (including, for instance, a series of executive actions to provide pandemic relief in the summer of 2020) that amounted to nothing more than saying a new policy should exist, without creating any actual framework for bringing it about. And sometimes they would simply ignore a straightforward presidential assertion or order.
The most striking examples of this involved the use of prosecutorial and investigatory power, where Trump repeatedly gave verbal directives his underlings blithely disregarded. This was captured by a particularly artful paragraph in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s 2019 report:
The President’s efforts to influence the investigation were mostly unsuccessful, but that is largely because the persons who surrounded the President declined to carry out orders or accede to his requests. Comey did not end the investigation of Flynn, which ultimately resulted in Flynn’s prosecution and conviction for lying to the FBI. McGahn did not tell the Acting Attorney General that the Special Counsel must be removed, but was instead prepared to resign over the President’s order. Lewandowski and Dearborn did not deliver the President’s message to Sessions that he should confine the Russia investigation to future election meddling only. And McGahn refused to recede from his recollections about events surrounding the President’s direction to have the Special Counsel removed, despite the President’s multiple demands that he do so.
The astonishingly blatant insubordination described in that passage was par for the course in the Trump White House, and not only on legal or national-security issues.
A president whose underlings ignore his orders, or rush to create the mere appearance of action to let him keep playing pretend, is obviously a weak executive. But the weakness of Trump’s approach to the office went further, impairing the executive branch and deforming the conservative case for presidential power itself.
For nearly half a century, conservative constitutionalism has emphasized the president’s personal responsibility for every executive act. That idea, often described as the theory of the unitary executive, is rooted in the first sentence of Article II of the Constitution (“The executive power shall be vested in a President of the United States of America”) and in the duty assigned to the president in Article II, Section 4, to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed.”
The president is therefore personally vested with the executive power, and the various people who populate executive positions are just his agents. He has authority over them and responsibility for their actions. This is essential to accountable government. And conservatives have therefore 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.”
But in the Trump era, as the president’s rhetoric was often disconnected from formal executive action, administration officials and others sought to assuage concerns about things Trump had said by insisting that the administration be judged by the important work being done by those serving below the president. Anyone who spoke with Trump White House staffers over these four years can recount the argument that while a crazy tornado might rage in the Oval Office, steady progress was being made everywhere else.
In this way, the old Washington cliché that “personnel is policy” took on a new meaning. It meant that whatever you thought of the president’s personal recklessness, he had appointed good people across the executive branch—the same good people that any other Republican president would have appointed—and they were doing good work.
There was truth to these claims, but the Trump era revealed the inadequacy of the cliché, or rather the assumption of executive competence that undergirded it. The layer of political appointees at the top of the cabinet agencies in the Trump administration did indeed consist of some excellent people—conservatives with expertise and experience. But they turned out to achieve remarkably little over this period, because it takes more than the right appointees to enable capable administration.
In essence, a political appointee in an agency needs to be able to imagine what the president would do if he were in his job, and then to act accordingly. This has been easy with most presidents. Their instincts and priorities were fairly apparent, and even their personalities could help appointees make decisions. An appointee deep in the Reagan administration’s Labor Department could reasonably surmise what the president would do in his place, even when confronted with an arcane regulatory question. So could someone in George W. Bush’s Pentagon or Barack Obama’s Department of Health and Human Services.
But Donald Trump’s personality and style often proved utterly debilitating to his political appointees. Precisely because he never thought in terms of administration, he made it impossible for his people to follow his lead. This sometimes resulted in appointees beclowning themselves by trying to act or sound like Trump. But more often it led to paralysis and even a fear that if anything went wrong, the president might tweet about the agency’s action and land everyone involved in terrible trouble.
For good or bad, it is impossible to separate the character of a presidential administration from the personality of the president. There are several thousand appointed officials beneath every president, but as a group they act like him. Trump’s chaotic mien therefore created a chaotic mode of administration that led to a shortage of initiative in the ranks of bureaucratic appointees and to an inability to make clear decisions and follow them through.
THAT CHAOS offered more evidence of Trump’s weakness in office, and in a way that highlights the nature of the presidency itself. The rhetorical presidency is rooted in a progressive-populist ideal of the chief executive as the ultimate tribune of the electorate. He alone speaks for the people. And there is of course a crucial representative aspect to the presidency: Our chief executive is chosen by a national electorate, even if its voice is channeled through the Electoral College. And the president is our head of state, a symbol of our country at home and abroad, and our leader in times of crisis, tragedy, and triumph.
It may not be so long a leap from this view of the president as the people’s champion to Trump’s clear view that speaking for the people (as he understands them) is what the president does. But it’s a leap over the very essence of executive action. Congress is the truly representative element of our constitutional system, and although the president is an elected official, his job is fundamentally administrative. As political theorist Harvey Flaumenhaft has put it: “Popular representation avails little without efficacious administration. Although the beginning and the end of good government is the people, between the source and the outcome operates that organization of means which is administration.”
Administration is a carrying of intentions into actions. It requires, as Alexander Hamilton noted, both unity and duration, and its enemy is a feeble lack of focus. An administrator can’t just say what he wants and consider it done. He has to ground his actions in a process of decision-making followed by a process of implementation, both of which require order, structure, and endurance.
The chaos that marked Donald Trump’s approach to the presidency was deadly to effective administration. And that chaos was not a failure, exactly; it was Trump’s aim. Chaos can help to displace deeply lodged corruption and force change in rigid establishments. It has its uses, as some of Trump’s successes showed. But ultimately, chaos cannot be the ethos of an executive, and it does not allow for the construction of anything durable.
This can help us understand the pattern of Trump’s successes and failures. His greatest success was a transformation of the judiciary, which involves the use of a presidential power that does not require much endurance at all. The president chooses an appointee (in this case from a list that resulted from decades of work by others, which was anything but chaotic), and with that his part is done. The Senate confirms that appointee, and then the new judge can do valuable work for decades without ever requiring any further presidential intervention or engagement.
No other facet of the president’s job demands so little perseverance. Executive appointments can put good people into office, but they can do little without the president’s continued engagement and support. Eliminating bad regulations or replacing them with good ones can be useful for a time, but that good cannot endure without focused reforms of the structure of the administrative state—which would require a durable, focused effort. Advancing a legislative agenda requires patient engagement with Congress, which persists for more than one news cycle.
But even more fundamentally, administration means engaging with concrete reality. This is the essence of the executive’s function. At the margins of his job, the president might advance a legislative agenda or appoint judges, but the office is neither legislative nor judicial. In those parts of the job that are most fully his own—responding to a crisis, directing foreign policy, administering the bureaucracy—the president essentially confronts reality on behalf of the country. He must respond to circumstances, adjust to events, and make hard choices under pressure. In such situations, you cannot will a different reality into being by saying so.
THE FAILURE to grasp that fundamental character of the job explains Donald Trump’s most serious failures in office. These were especially apparent in his final year—a year defined by a global pandemic and a lost election, both of which Trump tried to talk out of existence.
The pandemic was not Trump’s fault in any sense. No president would have found it easy to deal with, and no Western democracy has handled it well. But the failures that have been distinct to our federal government have had to do with a denial of reality—the insistence that we had it in hand, and anyway it would just disappear soon, would be over by Easter.
The instinct to respond this way made it very difficult for Trump to make key decisions, adjust course as our knowledge has grown, and admit mistakes. Instead, he reached for happy talk—asserting that things were going great. This was a strategy that had worked for Trump throughout his adult life. But the virus was a kind of reality that doesn’t care what we say about it.
Another such reality has confronted the president at the end of his term. Trump was not crushed at the polls on Election Day, but he plainly lost. And as if to press the lessons that his presidency ought to teach us about the chief executive’s job, he proved unable to digest unwelcome news and unable to respond to it with anything but speech and tweets—a denial of plain fact that he seemed almost to believe could bend and transform it.
That kind of futile denial was where Trump’s peculiar approach to the presidency always pointed. He has talked endlessly about strength, and that talk persuaded some of his critics and some of his fans. But Trump has ignored, and his failures highlighted, an essential and ironic fact about the power of our chief executive: The office of the presidency is defined by the duty to face reality. Its powers exist in the service of performing that duty, and a president who willfully ignores that duty denies himself his most significant powers and renders himself weak and ineffective.
The Trump era revealed the limits of the rhetorical presidency. No amount of confident happy talk could change that.
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