Can a President ignore and override the whole U.S. federal government? Donald Trump’s approach to governing…

By his violation of the principles of the U.S. Constitution, Donald Trump is setting the stage for his own lawful removal from power.


by Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.


The latest developments in Congress show that Donald Trump has so far been unable to marshal Republican majority positions in both Houses to repeal and replace the Obamacare legislation which was intended to be the first step in a wide-ranging shake-up of policy, with tax reform next in line.

And if the President can claim only modest to poor results on the domestic front, his foreign policy has been an incredible mish-mash of contradictions ever since he took office.  This is mainly the result of what would appear to be unsuccessful tactical concessions he has made to keep his political enemies forever guessing his real intentions.


The concessions have been first of all in personnel:  Trump has appointed a great many advisers, like Fiona Hill; administration representatives, like the Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley; a Secretary of Defense, ‘Mad Dog’ Mattis, and a National Security Advisor, H.R. McMaster, who are all pursuing policies at odds with the President’s overall vision. That vision is wholly revolutionary. His America First was meant to be taking a step back from day-to-day running of the world and engaging in never ending wars, refocusing the nation on rebuilding its infrastructure and job creation.


The announcement this past week that President Trump is proceeding with the nomination of Jon Huntsman to be the next U.S. Ambassador to Russia falls entirely in line with this pattern of “keeping his enemies closest.”  To be sure, Huntsman does not speak a word of Russian, but he has great talents and professional experience as a diplomat, having served as George Bush Jr.’s ambassador to China. Yet, as the chair of the Atlantic Council, his world-view is both clear and anti-Trump. Moreover, in his service in Beijing he was at times as disruptive as Ambassador McFaul in Moscow by his solicitude for anti-regime forces, an approach explicitly rejected by Donald Trump.

To sum up, Donald Trump has assembled a foreign policy and security policy team that would give the incoming President Pence a fully integrated Cold War administration should Trump himself be impeached or otherwise removed from office.  It is remarkable, but so far not remarked by any other political commentators to my knowledge, that Trump has appointed hardly anyone to positions requiring Senate confirmation who might be described as sharing the foreign policy views he delineated clearly during the campaign.

The one possible exception is Rex Tillerson at State.  But Tillerson was brought in for his qualities as people manager to superintend the down-sizing of his department. He may share some of the President’s pragmatic as opposed to ideological predilections, but he is not a strategic thinker. Moreover, latest rumors swirling around Washington are that Tillerson will resign from the administration before the end of the year due to differences with Trump on the selection of his immediate deputies and on Iran policy.

Meanwhile, Trump’s concessions on personnel, and even his single show of force when he directed a cruise missile attack on Syria in April to please all his detractors and show that he is no wimp like his predecessor, have not kept the dogs at bay for long, and they have made the foreign policy pronouncements of his administration a total muddle. The President himself has compounded that muddle by taking mutually exclusive positions from day to day, as he did when he visited Poland and threw an anti-Russian bone to the Poles, before proceeding to Hamburg where he made a display of great friendship with Vladimir Putin.

Yesterday’s front page news that Trump accepts the latest congressional sanctions bill now before the House — directed against North Korea, Iran and Russia — is still more evidence of Trump’s lack of a coherent foreign policy. The bill, if enacted, will be a major obstacle to any improved or even normalized relations with Russia. It seeks to destroy the Russian-German Nordstream II project by targeting European partners and implementers and thus has raised the alarm of the otherwise tame, if not subservient, European Commission. And it goes against the entire logic of Trump’s foreign policy.

If this President were to act as a political animal, with respect for the political process and for us the electorate, he would fight the good fight against this ill-conceived and damaging bill. He would rally his supporters and reach out to the general public, explaining the errors in the thinking of the legislators. He would be an educator, even in the knowledge that this time his veto would be overridden.  His efforts would prepare the way for the next fight with Congress, which he might win.  But Trump has done nothing of the sort and his seeming cave-in to the oppositional Congress is nothing more or less than a display of contempt.

Speaking about Hamburg, another news sensation of the past week, the revelations about the “secret” second meeting between Trump and Putin during the festive dinner gathering of the G-20 gives us what I believe to be an accurate insight into Trump’s approach to the entire question of running the U.S. government.

This hitherto unreported meeting took place in the presence of all the other heads of state, but nonetheless was exceptional insofar as it defied protocol.  The U.S. President sat down next to Vladimir Putin for a tête-à-tête without any of the U.S. delegation present and relying solely on the Russian interpreter to facilitate the conversation.

Yesterday’s Washington Post editorial on the meeting circled in on this fact:


To carefully calibrate messages to world leaders, presidents usually rely on an elaborate bureaucratic machine, including the interagency process and the National Security Council staff. Mr. Trump’s dinner chat showed once again his proclivity to act alone, and he undoubtedly created headaches. With no U.S. note-taker or interpreter, the U.S. national security structure was left without a record of the exchange, except for Mr. Trump’s memory.


I differ with the WP’s analysis in one key respect:  Trump’s “proclivity to act alone.”  This is not a caprice, it is the essence of his method of rule.  Trump has chosen not to infiltrate and reshape the federal government, but instead to run things as he did the Trump business empire, through a tiny circle of family members and trusted retainers operating outside the federal government.  By this violation of the principles of the U.S. Constitution, he is setting the stage for his own lawful removal from power. Policies built by non-expert friends and relations of Donald Trump are intrinsically no better than the policies built on outrageous lies that we have lived through these past two decades.  How much longer must we wait for a government that exposes its plans to open and free public debate and implements those plans through proper channels of dedicated public servants?


© Gilbert Doctorow, 2017


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Gilbert Doctorow is an independent political analyst based in Brussels. His latest book Does Russia Have a Future? was published in August 2015. His forthcoming book Does the United States Have a Future? will be published on 1 September 2017.