Bob Woodward’s new book, Fear: Trump in the White House, has exposed something constitutional scholars might, at best, call outright insubordination. At worst, it amounts to an incidental coup by several former and current Trump Administration advisers. Then again, Woodward’s book may just be another unsubstantiated torrent directed against a president who offends the touchy sensibilities of America’s hallowed globalist elite. In any event, it speaks to the dire need for fundamental institutional reform (a need that, as yet, Trump has failed to address.)
Gary Cohn’s Oval Office Caper
According to Woodward, former White House aide Rob Porter and former White House economic adviser Gary Cohn physically removed documents meant for the president’s review from the resolute desk in the Oval Office. The documents, Woodward reports, concerned a proposal to end a trade deal between the United States and South Korea.
If true, this would indicate that both Cohn and Porter ignored well-established White House protocols for presidential decision making. It would also mean that the duo decided to rewrite the president’s stated (and desired) directives against the president’s wishes.
Think about it: President Trump campaigned on a consistent policy of reforming what he (rightly) viewed as America’s lackluster trade policies. He sold himself to the American people as a critic of “free trade,” and vowed to renegotiate the bad deals his predecessors had created. If Woodward’s account is correct, then, both Cohn and Porter circumvented presidential power, and did what only a president has the authority to do: change American trade policy to conform with their own views.
Cruise Missile Confusion
Another instance of potential insubordination—at least as reported by Woodward—occurred during a tense early 2017 exchange between Defense Secretary James Mattis and the president. In 2017, when the Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad purportedly used chemical weapons against his own civilian population, Trump was so irate that he wanted to “f—ing kill” Assad. He called Mattis and demanded that decisive military action be taken against the Syrian autocrat. Yet, according to the Woodward report, Mattis not only pushed back but refused to follow through on what was a verbal presidential order authorizing the lethal use of force.
Some have argued that Trump’s words did not constitute an order as there is some confusion about that point among constitutional scholars. Basically, if the president calls his war chief at the Pentagon and orders him to take Assad out, then that technically constitutes a direct and inviolate order. Remember, the United States Constitution and other relevant legislation gives the president immense power to use military force. This is why clear lines of communication and explicit delineation of authority is essential between the president and his cabinet officials. The Constitution, not the bureaucracy, provides such clarity.
If such a declarative statement from the president—whether verbal or written—constitutes as an order, then any failure to execute that order would have been an act of insubordination, and Mattis would be eligible for removal from office. Ultimately, the United States did strike Syria with cruise missiles. But in no way was that operation intended to “f—ing kill” Assad, as the president allegedly wanted.
Mattis and his fellow general, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, have completely denied all of Woodward’s claims. But Woodward insists he has “hundreds of hours” of interviews backing up his reporting.
What’s more, it’s not as though what Woodward is writing is new. The rumored divisions and acrimony within the Trump Administration (particularly in its first year) were the stuff of Potomac legend. Mattis and Kelly are stand-up men who have served this country with distinction. I take them at their word when they say they never uttered the words Woodward attributes to them. Even so, doubts of this kind still linger because they and their associates have consistently demonstrated a measurable degree of skepticism about Trump, and in this they are not alone within the government.
Deep State’s Gonna State
Trump has a real problem (and, so do we as a democratic citizenry) if Woodward is correct. Not only is Trump beset with unforgiving enemies in the permanent bureaucracy and in the Democratic Party, he is also matched against a hostile corporate media and propagandists-masquerading-as-experts in academia. If the Woodward book is even partly true, Trump is warring with elements of his own administration.
We’ve already seen this at play with Trump’s ongoing public spat with Attorney General Jeff Sessions. There were also evident tensions between Trump and his former national security adviser, H. R. McMaster. These new (unsubstantiated) reports of the Cohn-Porter Oval Office caper and Mattis’s possible refusal to execute a lawful presidential command suggest the problems facing constitutional governance in the United States today are pervasive.
What’s more, the New York Times took the extraordinary step of publishing an anonymous op-ed by a supposed senior Trump Administration official who announced emphatically and proudly that he (and many others at the top-levels of the administration) were actively working to “do what [they] can while preserving [America’s] democratic institutions.”
According to the anonymous op-ed, this has created a “two-track presidency,” one in which Trump issues decrees and edicts, but another where the anointed “betters” (read Swamp Dwellers) in the White House essentially ignore the presidential orders. The writer claims that this isn’t the work of the “deep state,” but rather that of a “steady state” working to insulate our hallowed institutions from the excesses of Trump.
I wonder how, if such an event occurred under former President Obama’s watch, the Left would have reacted to such “anonymous” sniping in the press from active senior members of the administration?
What the recent spate of exposés about the Trump Administration tell us is that America’s democratic institutions are under assault. Yet, they are not under assault from either Russian troll farms or Donald Trump’s incessant need to tweet. Instead, they are besieged by those who’ve cynically claimed for themselves the mantle of being defenders of our glorious republic (through entirely undemocratic means). Therefore, Trump must reform the bureaucracy at every level. It’s the deep state or us. Woodward’s book just reinforces this fact.
Trump is like Caesar: he is surrounded by enemies and something ominous is underway. This issue transcends Trump’s presidency, however. It affects the whole country. Are we a representative republic of the people? Or, are we an oligarchy? I fear the answer.
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