Trump’s Justice Department had conducted what appears to be a national security leak investigation that aimed to sweep tens of thousands of a CNN reporter’s email logs, as well as phone records, from 2017.
These new reports are yet another reminder of the extreme exercise of presidential power that took place under Trump. While it’s easy to dismiss his four-year tenure defined by much Twitter noise and vicious political invective, this period has also witnessed the aggressive deployment of presidential authority, sometimes conducted in secret, and in a way that threatened our fragile balance of power and the rights of American citizens.
The unfolding story of the Department of Justice follows many other well-documented cases of abuse of power between 2017 and 2021.
During Donald Trump’s first impeachment, the world witnessed the former president’s willingness to use foreign aid as leverage to get “dirt” out of a political opponent. Trump has repeatedly used his chair of Twitter intimidation to lash out at institutions – such as the media – and specific political opponents who were causing him trouble, even ultimately inciting a mob that attacked Congress and attempted to prevent the peaceful transfer of presidential power, based on fraudulent claims. of a stolen election.
How did it all happen? The former president was the product of two long-term trends that converged during his administration. The first has been the continued expansion of presidential power. During the twentieth century, the power, personnel, and regulatory authority vested in the president have expanded considerably.
During the Cold War, and then in the “War on Terror,” the growth of the national security apparatus gave the Oval Office dweller unprecedented resources to act without congressional control. Even the elevation of the pulpit of intimidation in the 20th century meant that the president, through his words, could dramatically affect public opinion.
The second trend was the triumph of shattering partisanship within the GOP, creating a mentality at the highest levels of leadership that it was now allowed to do whatever was necessary to maintain power. It’s a style that began to take hold with Congressman Newt Gingrich in the 1980s, gained momentum with the Tea Party in the 2010s, and culminated with the Trump presidency. He placed partisanship above the needs of governance or the health of political institutions. There was no longer any need for elected officials to balance the three responsibilities, according to this logic: every process and procedure could be militarized if necessary.
If a president wanted his branch of government to investigate members of another branch, for example, so be it. As dramatic as this new story of seizing reports from journalists and members of Congress may be, it stems from a grassroots dynamic that was well established under the Trump presidency.
So far, it appears that President Joe Biden, at least from what we know, is trying to step back from his presidential form of power. He wants to be less Richard Nixon and more Jimmy Carter, someone who understands and respects the need to operate within limits, even if it comes with some political costs.
But the greatest forces at work in this story all remain in play. Presidential power has reached levels that are not healthy for the nation. It is too easy to abuse this power. In an age of intense political polarization, control of Congress is unlikely. Former President Trump’s unguarded partisanship remains the guiding force of the GOP, as was evident when Senator Mitch McConnell decided to kill the creation of a bipartisan commission to investigate the Jan. 6 insurgency on Capitol Hill. the United States.
And if Trump decides to run for re-election in 2024, voters should understand that this is the kind of power they would legitimize for another four years. He can be anti-establishment and he can be the politician who says what he thinks, but he can also be a president who can be terribly Nixonian.
Too much presidential power is a dangerous thing. We have learned this so many times over the decades. As in previous cases, the question remains: will American voters do something about it, pushing their representatives to hold the Commander-in-Chief to account, or will they just wait for the abuse of power to happen again? ?