Abiding the separation of powers

By Jules Witcover

At the core of Donald Trump’s frustrations in the Oval Office appears to be his inability or unwillingness to accept the basic concept in the American political system of the separation of powers.

Election as president has given him the keys to the executive branch only. He is the administrator. The Constitution stipulates that he must share the task of governance with the co-equal legislative and judicial branches. He can initiate policies, but the legislative must write them into law, and the judicial must verify their legality.

To a wealthy business executive accustomed to having his way, Trump often is annoyed by these complications. He already has begun to issue executive orders as allowed to end-run the other two branches. But they in turn can challenge him on legal grounds, requiring the president to negotiate with them to achieve any good purpose.

Trump is not the first chief executive to take this executive order course. Most recently, Barack Obama did so, but he first was a state and then national legislator conditioned to seek compromise. Trump as a political novice strongly prefers to make all the decisions and have them carried out with as little conversation as possible.

As Trump’s personal behavior and autocratic attitude raise concerns about his fitness for the presidency, members of the legislative and judicial branches find themselves at least potentially positioned to limit his power.

In extremity, they could eventually hope to drive him from office by frustrating him sufficiently in denying his long-term objectives, whatever they might be. Admitting defeat and quitting, though, does not seem to be in his nature.

The one direct route is to remove him through impeachment by the House and conviction by a two-thirds vote of the Senate for abuse of power or other unspecified “high crimes and misdemeanors.” That course, however, is a very high bar, never achieved to date.

In a recent flurry of anti-Trump criticism, GOP establishment figures like Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee have declared the president too unstable or even unfit to occupy the Oval Office. They raise speculation that they may finally bestir themselves to seek restoration of their old role as the consciences of the Grand Old Party, when conservative principles and leadership once held sway.

After only eight months in the presidency, though, Trump by his inadequacies as a national or international leader has left the GOP too disorganized and disoriented to address the major domestic and foreign policy challenges of the day.

Perhaps never before has the nation, and the party of the president especially, been so bereft of quality political leadership as they are today. The party of Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan has no one of stature in the wings, where Vice President Mike Pence stands subserviently and colorlessly behind Trump.

As for the party of Jefferson, FDR and Truman, it has not yet produced a dominant prospect of strong and electable national leadership on the horizon, as it strives to pick itself up from last year’s ignominious defeat at the hands of Trump.

Nevertheless, the Democrats look hopefully ahead to the 2018 midterm congressional elections to recover at Trump’s expense, with little more than their own self-delusion to keep them afloat. Their plight seems sufficiently bleak to some that a resurrection of the worthy but aging Joe Biden dances in their heads.

In all, Donald Trump’s hijacking last year of the American political system has wrought a plague on both major-party houses, obliged to look forward to a grim, uncertain and frightening future ahead, whatever the fate of Trump himself, our own human wrecking ball.

His overreaching via executive orders challenges the legislative and judicial branches to assert the Constitutional separation of powers intended by the founding fathers as a check and balance against presidential excess or error. It’s time now for the co-equal governing bodies to step in to staunch the bleeding.


By Jules Witcover

Jules Witcover’s latest book is “The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power,” published by Smithsonian Books. You can respond to this column at juleswitcover@comcast.net.

Jules Witcover’s latest book is “The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power,” published by Smithsonian Books. You can respond to this column at juleswitcover@comcast.net.