Trump is why you need limits on executive power Third 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. See the other articles in the series here.
Despite Donald Trump’s authoritarian tendencies and impulsive personality, there’s been remarkably little public concern about his possible abuse of his great powers as Commander in Chief.
That’s likely because there has been, at least in theory, at least one “adult” in the way: Defense Secretary Jim Mattis.
But with Mattis gone, the vast, unchecked powers that the presidency has accumulated over the years suddenly seem a lot more dangerous.
The timing of the departure – coming right as Trump ordered the withdrawal of troops from Syria, and maybe even Afghanistan – suggests that Mattis left because he felt Trump was being too dovish. But keep in mind that Trump a few months back called Mattis “sort of a Democrat, if you want to know the truth.” So the bigger concern is that Trump will now feel unfettered about intervening elsewhere.
Mattis’s departure has been predicted for months. And back in September, the New York Times published some speculation about what kind of person Trump would choose to replace him.
Helene Cooper quoted “aides” who “said Mr. Trump was pondering whether he wanted someone running the Pentagon who would be more vocally supportive than Mr. Mattis, who is vehemently protective of the American military against perceptions it could be used for political purposes.” (My italics.)
Matttis notably gave in when Trump ordered him to send thousands of active-duty troops to the Mexican border in a crassly political use of the military just before the midterm elections. But there was still a sense that he would only let Trump go so far.
With Mattis gone, what’s the worst that could happen? Look no further than Mattis’s arch-enemy John Bolton, the uber-hawk whose growing influence as national security adviser will now be essentially unchecked.
Bolton has long advocated for bombing Iran and pushing for regime change there.
At the United Nations in September, Bolton declared that “The days of impunity for Tehran and its enablers are over. The murderous regime and its supporters will face significant consequences if they do not change their behavior. Let my message today be clear: We are watching, and we will come after you.”
He specifically targeted Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the external arm of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. “We will use every tool available to pursue Soleimani and others like him,” Bolton said. “Iran’s leadership will no longer enjoy a life of security and luxury while their people suffer and starve.”
I’ve been writing lately about the danger of unchecked power in the hands of any president — and this president in particular. It hasn’t exactly gotten people riled up like I thought it should.
Well, this is when it matters that George W. Bush, and then Barack Obama, vested the presidency with the authority to send drones to kill people of their choosing around the world.
This is when it matters that there are no rules about targeting people for death. (Obama adopted some for himself, but they have no authority over Trump.)
This is when it matters that modern presidents have successfully established the precedent that they can attack sovereign nations from the air on their say-so without notifying Congress or getting its approval.
What, now, is stopping John Bolton, like John Brennan before him, from deciding that someone is a threat and putting him on a kill list?
Who thinks Trump would stop him?
And what happens if that leads to war?