The Constitution and American tradition provide lots of ways for a president to exercise executive power.
The president can, for example, create an agenda and propose legislation to Congress to carry it out; appoint cabinet members, with the Senate providing its advice and consent, and use the platform of the presidency to talk to Americans about important issues.
When the modern-day Republicans are in charge of the White House and Congress, of course, law, tradition and principle have little meaning.
Senator Mitch McConnell once said his party’s most important task was to deny Obama a second term. In February 2009, he wrote a letter to Senator Harry Reid, then the majority leader, saying there could be no action on Obama’s nominees pending a long list of demands, including completion of reviews by the Office of Government Ethics. McConnell only escalated when Republicans took control of the Senate in 2014 and by last year he was refusing even to consider any Supreme Court nomination Obama might make.
So how will things be with our new Republican president?
We don’t really know what agenda Donald Trump will pursue, since he didn’t offer anything like a realistic one to voters. He takes office thanks to the obsolete and undemocratic Electoral College, as the second Republican president in a row to be rejected by a substantial majority of voters.
With the inauguration less than two weeks away, it’s certainly looking as if McConnell’s Republican Senate majority will do a complete about-face and rush through Trump’s appointments without the process on which senators used to insist.
McConnell and his cronies have crammed the Senate schedule full of confirmation hearings for Trump’s selections for major cabinet officials, including several of the biggest positions for this Wednesday.
Unfortunately, not all of these candidates have been through the customary vetting process. Last week, the Office of Government Ethics informed congressional Democrats that it had not yet had time to screen all of the Trump appointees, which created “potentially unknown or unresolved ethics issues.” Democrats want to delay some hearings until the candidates can be vetted.
McConnell’s response to Democrats’ concerns has been typically cynical and hypocritical.
This year, he’s telling Democrats to “grow up.” “All of these little procedural complaints are related to their frustration at having not only lost the White House, but having lost the Senate,” he said on Sunday.
Ethics review is hardly a “little procedural complaint,” especially since the Trump camp reportedly did far less than previous presidential transition teams to vet candidates before nominating them. Of course, since Trump won’t clear up the endless conflicts of interest involving his business interests and those of his children and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, whom he is appointing to a senior White House role, why should we expect him to be concerned about his appointees’ conflicts?
If you think Trump’s partisan handmaidens in Congress are going to do the vetting for him, then you haven’t been paying much attention to American politics. What you can expect is a once-over-lightly review by the Republicans and efforts to thwart any Democrats who try to do the vetting.
So what about the “bully pulpit” that the presidency is going to give Trump once he takes office? The problem is that we are not supposed to take anything that Trump says seriously.
On Monday, Trump tore into Meryl Streep for mentioning in her Golden Globes speech that he had mocked a disabled reporter, Serge Kovaleski, during the campaign. Trump said, as he had before, that he had never mocked Kovaleski, despite videos viewed millions of times online that show him doing exactly that.
The problem, according to Trump’s chief propagandist, Kellyanne Conway, is that people are actually paying attention to what Trump says.
“You always want to go by what’s come out of his mouth,” Conway sneered. Instead, she said, we should all “look at what’s in his heart.”
After Trump was elected, he told Times editors, reporters and business executives that he wasn’t interested in prosecuting Hillary Clinton anymore. The next day, he was smirking triumphantly while his supporters chanted “Lock her up!”
Does he believe in his heart that Clinton should be behind bars? Or does he believe what he said in a crowded conference room at The Times the day before? Or neither?
The sad truth is, we’re never going to know. We will never be able to trust what Trump tells us about his principles, his policies and his intentions as president — if he bothers to tell us anything at all. Mostly, we’re all just supposed to read his mind.
(The New York Times)