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Trump Has Declared 'War' On The Presidency, Author Says

Mar 26, 2020

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. We're going to talk about how Trump has changed the presidency and how he's continuing to change it during the pandemic. My guest Benjamin Wittes is the co-author, along with Susan Hennessey, of the new book "Unmaking The Presidency: Donald Trump's War On The World's Most Powerful Office." Wittes co-founded and is editor-in-chief of Lawfare blog, a self-described non-partisan site devoted to discussion of hard national security choices. He's a contributing writer at The Atlantic and a former editorial writer at The Washington Post. He's also the co-author of the 2015 book "The Future Of Violence: Robots And Germs, Hackers And Drones - Confronting A New Age Of Threat."

Ben Wittes, welcome to FRESH AIR. I hope you're feeling well today.

BENJAMIN WITTES: Thank you. I'm well, and I hope you are as well.

GROSS: I am, too. Thank you for asking. So when you wrote your new book, you thought the big unanswered question was going to be the outcome of impeachment. You had no idea there was a virus on the way. Has the virus changed or deepened your concerns about President Trump?

WITTES: Yeah. I mean, it has very much deepened the anxieties that led us to write the book. And so while the words coronavirus never appear in the book, the behaviors that the president is engaged in in dealing with this crisis is precisely the subject of the book.

GROSS: So you describe President Trump as running a very expressive, a very personal presidency. And by that, you don't mean that he is, you know, really personable to people, that he expresses himself well. I want you to explain what you do mean by a personal and expressive presidency.

WITTES: Yeah. So, you know, the idea of a personal presidency is to distinguish from what we might call the process presidency, right? So the - as the executive branch grew all through the 20th century, you had this problem. Presidents have this problem, which was - how do you manage these agencies that may have very different interests? The State Department may want to do one thing, but that may conflict with what the Defense Department or the Agency for International Development wants to do in the same region at the same time. And so we developed all of these processes for sorting out disputes within the government and to allow the president - as issues percolate up to the president, to use only the best information and to really focus on only those issues that only the president can resolve that can't be resolved at issues - at layers far down below him in the government.

The personal presidency, which we think of as a creature of - in the modern era, of Donald Trump, is when the president says, I don't care about any of those processes. I just want to shoot from the hip. And we've gotten very used to, over the decades, the presidency being very process-driven. Presidents want the best information they can have, and Trump does not. He wants to do what he wants to do, and he wants to do it irrespective of what the so-called interagency process advises him. And you see that in a very deep way right now in the coronavirus crisis.

GROSS: So you say, like, he's not interested in hearing information that may contradict what it is that he just personally wants to do. The other day at one of his press conferences, when asked if he had consulted previous presidents about how they've handled similar situations, he brushed it off and said that he - basically, that he didn't think it was necessary. He had great people on his team, and he wasn't going to consult other presidents. Is that the kind of thing you're thinking of, too?

WITTES: Well, so that is - you know, this sort of brings me to the expressive dimensions of the office. The presidency has expressive components, right? It's an incredible platform. Theodore Roosevelt famously called it the bully pulpit. But it is - at its core, it is not an expressive office. It's a management office. It's the apex of a large series of interlocking bureaucracies. And the fundamental job is to run those agencies, to run the government, right? It's - there's a reason it's called the executive branch, not the expressive branch.

And Trump, the - one of the core features of the Trump presidency is the elevation of the expressive, personal dimensions of the office, what we call in the book the vanity plate elements of the office, over all of those management functions. And so it's the constant tweeting, the giving of the daily press conference where he talks a lot about himself. It's the announcing things in this - in these dramatic gestures that he loves. It's the rallies. And this is profoundly different from the balance that other presidents have brought to the office. Other presidents have certainly exploited the expressive dimensions of the office, but Trump has really made them the central feature of the presidency.

GROSS: I think one of the things that has been concerning a lot of Americans is when President Trump says things - for instance, at his coronavirus press conferences - that aren't true about the virus, about how to behave during the virus. And then one of the medical experts kind of underplays that or, you know, like, walks it back. And I think a lot of people are wondering when the president says something using all the power of his podium and says things that aren't true and consistently - like, and frequently does that, what power does anyone have to prevent that from happening again?

And just looking at it constitutionally, you say that when we ask about President Trump, can he do that, the answer is usually yes. There's nothing written. There's nothing in the law. There's nothing in the Constitution that says he can't. So let's take the example of the president saying things at the podium about the virus that are untrue. What is there to stop him from repeating things like that?

WITTES: That's an excellent question. The short answer is there is nothing, and the traditional expectations of what would inhibit that are not obviously working. So the first component that is supposed to inhibit a president from lying - and lying a lot - is the oath of office, right? The president swears an oath to faithfully execute the office of the president and to do his best to ensure that the laws are faithfully executed. Now, it is hard to square that with serially misrepresenting things. And so the first component is just conscience - right? - that people actually - remember; the founders were - lived in an honor culture where an oath really meant something. We're less committed to that, but people swear an oath, and it does act on them. So that's supposed to bind him.

The second thing that is supposed to bind him is the fear of political negative consequences - right? - that if you lie a lot then you have no credibility, that there is a reserve of credibility in the office of president that you need. You need it in your interactions with Congress. You need it in your interactions with foreign leaders. If your word doesn't mean anything, it's actually harder to get people to do something because if you promise them a benefit in return for doing the United States a good turn or doing the executive branch a good turn, they might not believe you, or they won't believe you. So the fear of negative consequences is supposed to have an impact. And then the third one - that, you know, is clearly operating on the Trump administration, but it doesn't - it's not working adequately.

Then the third one is, you know, political retaliation from voters, and we won't know until November whether that is an adequate one to deal with this situation. But look - all presidents lie at least sometimes. This president is different. He lies, you know, multiple times a day in a fashion that is unprecedented in the history of the country, and it is one of the features of his presidency that is most, most striking.

GROSS: Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Ben Wittes. He's co-author of the new book "Unmaking The Presidency: Donald Trump's War On The World's Most Powerful Office." He's also co-founder of Lawfare blog. We'll be right back after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Benjamin Wittes, co-author with Susan Hennessey of the new book "Unmaking The Presidency: Donald Trump's War On The World's Most Powerful Office." Wittes is also the co-founder of Lawfare blog, which is devoted to discussion of hard national security choices.

The president is still attacking the media as fake news, and Americans are tuning to cable news and tuning to the radio and reading newspapers to try to understand what's going on with the virus and how they're supposed to behave to keep safe or how they're supposed to take care of their loved ones who are ill. And I guess as somebody who's involved with monitoring national security issues, it seems to me the virus is a national security issue because the security of all Americans is at stake here. So what do you think about in terms of national security when you hear the president continuing to attack the media as fake news? What do you think about when you hear that?

WITTES: Right. So this is the most destructive thing you can do in the context of a virus. If you talk to public health people about management of these crises, one of the things that they will tell you is that public information is one of the most important things. So what the president is doing here is remarkably counterproductive and damaging. Now - in this specific context. Now, it is also part of a long-standing war that he is fighting not just against the media but against other institutions as well. And the president's attacks on those institutions include the media, but there - also include federal law enforcement, the intelligence community, the traditional foreign policy apparatus.

And so, you know, all of these entities have one thing in common, which is that they traffic in information that needs to be true in order to be useful and is not - at least not when the institutions are functioning well - not propagandistic on behalf of the president. And that is some - you know, that unifying feature of them all makes them inconvenient for him and damaging for him and threatening to him, and so he attacks them.

GROSS: So I want to get back to something that you say in the book, which is often what people say about an action President Trump has taken - when they say, can he do that, you say, typically, yes, he can; there's no law, there's no thing in the Constitution that says he can't. So when he attacks intelligence agencies who are giving him information that is the best information they could get, when he attacks the FBI when they give him information that's the best information they can get, when he discredits them, is there anything in the law, is there anything in the Constitution that prevents a president from preventing the flow of important information and discredits that information, when a president attacks his own intelligence agencies and the leaders of those agencies?

WITTES: Right. So this is, I think, one of the core themes of the book. You know, when we think in American history about abuse of presidential power and about, you know, threats of tyranny, we generally think about illegality, right? It's Nixon covering up the break-in at the Watergate and associated activity. Its illegal detention of Japanese Americans during World War II, right? We're thinking about circumstances in which authorities are exceeding their lawful power.

But one of the core arguments that Susan and I make in this book is that there is another way to abuse power, and that is not illegality, but it's simply nonfaithful use of the powers that you absolutely have. And the core of Donald Trump's abuse, though there are illegalities, is not illegality; the core is abusing powers that actually the president has. So the president has the power to fire the FBI director. The president has the power to fire the attorney general because he recused himself in a case that the president wanted him to, as the president said publicly, protect him in, right? These are not presidential powers that are disputed; they're presidential powers that are undoubted.

The president has the power to speak. All of the abusive attacks on law enforcement and the media involve the president speaking. The president absolutely has the power to do that. The president has the power to pardon people who - for completely self-interested reasons of his own. These powers are not disputed. And one of the core features of the Trumpian presidency is not illegality, not exceeding presidential power, but abusing the undisputed powers of the presidency.

GROSS: So, you know, your book "Unmaking The Presidency" is about the ways in which Trump has changed the presidency into an office that is - instead of being an executive office, the CEO of all the agencies coordinating all the agencies, he's made the office about himself and the things he wants, often ignoring what the agencies tell him. And you're thinking about the 2020 election and whether voters will say, yes, that's the kind of presidency we want to continue or, no, we reject that form of presidency.

Now it seems the whole election is on shaky ground right now because if the virus continues, then people won't want to go to the polls, for obvious reasons. A lot of states are not equipped for any kind of long-distance voting by mail or any other form. Some people are wondering, well, can the 2020 presidential election be postponed in the way that some primaries are being postponed? So based on all your knowledge of the Constitution and law and presidential law, what do we know about what happens to a presidential election in a crisis like this?

WITTES: The answer is it cannot really be postponed, and there are two reasons for that. The first is that there's a federal law that's specifies the date on which it has to take place. And so, you know, that statute is most unlikely to be amended, you know, between now and November, and therefore it cannot legally be postponed. The more important reason is that the Constitution requires that the next president, whether the incumbent for the second time or somebody else, takes the oath of office on January 20 of 2021, and that person cannot do so without the Electoral College having formally elected him or her.

And so there is no legal basis for Donald Trump to take the oath of office a second time if there has not been an election, you know, between now and then that authorizes him to do so. And so realistically, there is no way to postpone the election. I think the more significant threat is that the election will be carried out in a fashion that is really deficient, as you describe, in terms of people's access to voting in a fashion that is not a major public health hazard and a hazard to themselves as people who, you know, shouldn't be standing in lines and occupying crowded spaces.

GROSS: So some primaries have already been postponed. Who knows what's going to happen? Can you envision the possibility of primaries being canceled? Would that be legal? What if primaries happen but most people can't really vote? I mean, how can we be confident about the primary?

WITTES: Right. So the good news on - with respect to the primaries, is that their - the stakes are relatively low in the sense that the - there is a presumptive Democratic nominee at this point, although many Bernie Sanders supporters, including Bernie Sanders, don't seem to accept that. The outcome is relatively well understood. And so, you know, the stakes are relatively low. There is no actual requirement that states have a primary. They could - they can theoretically select their delegates by other means. And this is largely, therefore, a question of state law that different states are going to handle differently. There's no good answer to this problem in the sense that you ideally want as many people to vote as possible in as many states as possible. But unlike the November election, it's a relatively low-stakes and relatively high-flexibility situation.

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Ben Wittes. He's co-author with Susan Hennessey of the new book "Unmaking The Presidency: Donald Trump's War On The World's Most Powerful Office." He's also the co-founder of Lawfare blog, which is devoted to discussion of hard national security choices. We'll be right back after we take a short break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Ben Wittes, co-author of the new book "Unmaking The Presidency: Donald Trump's War On The World's Most Powerful Office." He's also co-founder of Lawfare blog, which is devoted to discussion of hard national security choices. We recorded this interview on Tuesday. I recorded this from my home, and Ben Wittes was in his home.

So you know, a theme through your book that we've talked about during this interview is when people ask about President Trump - can he really do that? - the answer is often yes, he can because there's no law and nothing in the Constitution that says he can't.

Did the Founding Fathers want it that way? - you know, 'cause on the one hand, they wanted to make sure that the president didn't become a king and just issue orders. At the same time, as you pointed out, they had faith in oaths. They had faith in civic virtue. So did they want to define the presidency in a more open-ended way?

WITTES: It's a really interesting question, and I think there's two answers to it. The first is that the founders themselves did not have a single attitude about the presidency. They actually disagreed about how empowered the president should be. And those disagreements really came into the fore in the 1790s.

That said, they made certain choices, and they made them deliberately. They made the president a single person, right? In parliamentary systems, the government is a collective body, right? So this is a very different feature of the American presidency from sort of European parliamentary government. They made the president a single person, what's called a unitary executive. They also vested the president with just immense discretion. And some of that is just an inherent feature of an office that is a kind of general executive, right? Anytime you pass a law that says the president may do this - right? - that involves discretion because there's a hundred ways to implement that law.

And so they deliberately created a presidency that is a very flexible office, that is a unitary office and that is an office that has discretionary authority over all kinds of things. And that list has grown as Congress has passed laws commanding the president to do certain things. And so yeah, I think at some level it was a deliberate choice. It was a choice to have a presidency that is capable, energetic and able to adapt to circumstances very quickly and able to act. And yes, it also has dangers.

GROSS: You know, we're talking about how President Trump has changed the presidency. And of course, the presidency has changed a lot since the days of the Founding Fathers. I mean, there weren't all these agencies for the president to oversee. The country was, of course, a lot smaller. You talk about how President Grover Cleveland answered the White House phone by himself - I guess phones were brand new then - and how Washington would, like, oversee everything - he analyzed the budget of the U.S. post office and just kind of micromanaged everything because he could. I mean, everything was on a much smaller scale. What are some of the key changes that you think have redefined the presidency over the years, over the centuries?

WITTES: Yeah. So the most important one, which is alluded to by your question, is just the growth of the federal government, right? So when, in Washington's Cabinet, there was the secretary of state Thomas Jefferson and there was the secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, of course who hated each other - and the State Department at the time that Jefferson ran, I believe, was composed of, like, five or six or seven clerks. You know, it is - this was an institution that he ran that was not that much larger than himself. And so when the State Department and the Treasury Department had a dispute, that meant that Hamilton and Jefferson had an argument, right?

Now fast-forward, and these institutions start growing. And what we now would call Thomas Jefferson, who is in the current era Mike Pompeo, is a giant building full of people. Right? And Alexander Hamilton is another giant building full of people. And when they have an argument, the secretaries themselves may not even know that their agencies are having an argument. Things have to percolate up. And so the most important difference in the presidency is that the number of people who work in agencies that the president ultimately supervise is counted in the millions now.

The second element is that public expectations of the president and the president's behavior have changed radically. So in the 19th century - all through the 19th century, presidents did not give policy speeches. When they wanted to communicate about a policy matter, they did it in writing. And they did it not to the public but to Congress. We now have - starting in the early 20th century, the presidency turned outward and became a public-facing office in a way that it never really was before.

And then the final element is that the president's - a whole fabric of law has grown up around presidential behavior - and - by which I mean the behavior of the agency is that he supervises. And so you have a highly regulated office that is public facing and that is gigantic rather than a basically unregulated office that was very personal and small.

GROSS: So you describe Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt as the presidents who really changed the notions of what a presidency is. How did they change it?

WITTES: The key actor here is Woodrow Wilson. In the 19th century, presidents did not speak to the public except in ceremonial settings. Right? They talked to Congress. And Woodrow Wilson changed that in a profound way. He gave policy speeches. Roosevelt did this a little bit in the years before him, but this - the real actor here is Woodrow Wilson, who makes the presidency into a kind of rhetorical office. And this gives rise to what the - you know, to all of the fireside chats that the Franklin Roosevelt administration did, the sort of Saturday morning radio addresses - right? - the speeches with laundry lists of policy proposals. All of those are creatures of this change that Woodrow Wilson put forth.

And what we're experiencing now, I think, is an additional proposal for a radical change in the rhetorical nature of the presidency, which is Donald Trump is putting on the table that the president should be in your ear all the time - right? - he should be tweeting multiple times a day; he should be insulting people, right? The idea that the president should be doing playground bully insults is a completely novel idea in presidential rhetoric.

And so one of the things that I think is really on the table when we think about the Trump presidency is, do we want an earthquake in presidential rhetoric on a scale of what happened in the turn of the 20th century, when Woodrow Wilson began - really changed the way the presidency sounds?

GROSS: Well, Ben Wittes, I want to thank you so much for talking with us. Please stay well.

WITTES: You, too. And to all of your listeners, social distancing is important, even if it's uncomfortable.

GROSS: Ben Wittes is the co-author of the new book "Unmaking The Presidency." He co-founded and is editor in chief of Lawfare blog. After we take a short break, we'll remember playwright Terrence McNally. He died Tuesday of complications from the coronavirus. He was 81. He wrote the books for the musicals "Kiss Of The Spider Woman" and "Ragtime" and wrote the plays "Love! Valour! Compassion!" and "Master Class" and won Tonys for each of them as well as a lifetime achievement Tony last year. We'll listen back to my 1993 interview with him. This is FRESH AIR.

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