First in a series: Donald Trump’s use and abuse of powers bequeathed him by Barack Obama – particularly the power to unilaterally kill people abroad – vividly demonstrates what a mistake it was for Democrats to continue George W. Bush’s expansion of executive power rather than rein it in. But they still don’t seem to get it.
Part 1: The loaded gun
Early in his presidency, Barack Obama met with senior advisors to discuss some of the extraordinary, extrajudicial powers that George W. Bush had claimed for himself after 9/11. Obama would need to either embrace them, or reject them.
The specific matter at hand that day was indefinite detention of terror suspects without trial. Obama faced similar conundrums in regards to other Bush policies, including the use of airstrikes – particularly from drones – to unilaterally target specific people abroad for death.
Obama expressed his worries out loud.
“To give that kind of power to the president is like giving him a loaded weapon,” he said, according to Daniel Klaidman’s 2012 book, “Kill or Capture: The War onTerror and the Soul of the Obama Presidency”
“You never know who is going to be president four years from now,” Obama continued.
“I have to think about how Mitt Romney would use that power.”
Little did he know
Obama could not reasonably have anticipated that eight years later he would be handing absolute power to mark people for death from the air to Donald Trump, an unstable reality TV star who had promised on the campaign trail to “bomb the shit” out of terrorists and “take out their families.”
But it couldn’t be clearer now that Obama’s conviction that he was up to handling these awesome responsibilities without external review of any kind — and that his successors would be as well – was unjustified.
Let’s look at the drone program in particular. Rather than rein in the nascent program he inherited from Bush, Obama decided to dramatically expand it. Where Bush had used drones on an ad hoc basis, Obama standardized their use with a secret “kill chain” process, with the president himself as the top link.
Obama liked that drones — along with other kinds of air strikes – enabled him to take military action without the high political and financial costs of sending in troops.
He was confident in his personal ability to micromanage away any significant risk of civilian casualties or moral ambiguity.
He developed a wonky targeting guideline in secret, without involving Congress or the judicial branch, assuming that they would be treated as gospel by his successor, Hillary Clinton.
But the Obama rule book, in the end, had no authority over Trump, who essentially threw it away.
And it turns out that amid the daily deluge of spectacles from the Trump presidency — the metastatic damage to key institutions and the rule of law, the almost comlcal dysfunction, the terrifying lack of competence, the pathological lying, and the relentless tick-tock of scandal — something very serious has been happening that is getting almost no attention.
Donald Trump is, just like he promised, bombing the shit out of alleged terror suspects, and killing their families.