Mueller Report Shows a Weak President, Not a Weakened Presidency
That's a potentially dangerous combination.
Despite what the MAGA memes and lefty conspiracy theories might suggest, President Donald Trump is not a particularly muscular chief executive. He's not an omnipotent, swaggering presence bending the country to his will—no matter how many times he points out that, yes, he won the election.
There are many things to be gleaned from the 448-page report released last week by Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller (my colleagues have noted many of the most important details already), but one of the most under-appreciated might be just how weak Trump appears to be, even within his own administration. In incident after incident in the Mueller report, Trump's underlings and subordinates ignore or contradict his direct orders—and may have saved the president from committing serious crimes in the process.
"The President's efforts to influence the investigation were mostly unsuccessful, but that is largely because the persons who surrounded the President declined to carry out orders or accede to his requests," the report states.
Consider two telling examples from the Mueller report. When Trump was trying to get then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions to un-recuse himself from the Russia investigation, Trump called Cory Lewandowski—a private citizen, not a member of the administration—into the Oval Office and dictated a message to be delivered to Sessions. Lewandowski, apparently unwilling to deliver the message directly to Sessions, set up a meeting with another White House official, Rick Dearborn, and asked him to pass the message along to Sessions instead.
"The message 'definitely raised an eyebrow' for Dearborn, and he recalled not wanting to ask where it came from or think further about doing anything with it," according to the Mueller report. "Dearborn also said that being asked to serve as a messenger to Sessions made him uncomfortable. He recalled later telling Lewandowski that he had handled the situation, but he did not actually follow through with delivering the message to Sessions."
Or consider what happened in June 2017, when Trump reportedly sought to fire Mueller. Rather than calling Assistant Attorney General Rod Rosenstein with the order to terminate the investigation, Trump called then-White House Counsel Don McGahn at his home and insisted that McGahn tell Rosenstein to fire Mueller.
"McGahn was perturbed by the call and did not intend to act on the request," the Mueller report states. "To end the conversation with the President, McGahn left the President with the impression that McGahn would call Rosenstein. McGahn recalled that he had already said no to the President's request and he was worn down, so he just wanted to get off the phone."
Instead of following the order, McGahn drafted a letter of resignation.
There are other incidents in the Mueller report that follow the same basic outline. They give the impression of a president who is weak both personally and professionally—unable to summon the testicular fortitude to directly confront his own attorney general, for example, while also being routinely ignored by those lower down on the chain of command. That conclusion can be drawn not only from the Mueller report but from other accounts of the inner workings of the administration—including an incident documented in Bob Woodward's book, Fear, in which Gary Cohn, economic adviser to the White House, literally stole a letter off of Trump's desk to prevent the president from signing it and thereby terminating a U.S.-South Korea trade deal.
This is not a new observation. Conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat has called Trump "extraordinarily weak" and has authored multiple columns detailing the president's inability to assert himself "against restraints imposed by his allies or advisers." Reason's Jesse Walker has highlighted how federal institutions have constrained Trump in some ways even as they have been empowered by him in others. "Power isn't flowing to the executive so much as it's flowing to whole swaths of the executive branch," Walker wrote in the Los Angeles Times last year.
But the release of the Mueller report freshly underlines the extent to which the Trump administration functions despite the president, not because of him.
Libertarians and others who are concerned about the power of the executive branch might consider all of this a point in Trump's favor. After all, wouldn't we prefer a president who is little more than a leader in name only?
But it's important not to conflate a weak president, like Trump, with a weakened presidency. Indeed, it's quite clear that the presidency has lost none of its robust, liberty-threatening powers under Trump. On trade, immigration, the ongoing wars in Syria and Yemen, and plenty of other policy areas, the Trump administration has been as powerful as any other in recent history.
"When we consider how many of this president's abuses, attempted or accomplished, were based on powers his predecessors had already seized, we should consider ourselves lucky things haven't gone worse," writes Gene Healy in the May issue of Reason.
The sunny view is that Trump's aides have somehow discerned the best outcome for the country and are selectively obeying or disobeying the president as a means of steering executive power towards that result.
The most realistic take is that the executive branch of the United States government—the mightiest branch of the most awesomely powerful state in world history—is increasingly run by unelected, unaccountable individuals. Even without considering the implications of what that would mean in the event of a major international crisis, this is a potentially problematic arrangement. It also raises worrying questions in the long run. After Trump is gone, will the executive branch continue to operate in this way? Could a stronger leader with fewer subordinates willing to openly defy his commands do more damage?
Preventing that requires weakening not the president but the presidency. That, in turn, would mean returning to Congress the power to make war and set trade policy. It would mean shutting down swaths of executive branch agencies and returning their regulatory functions to the states.
Getting there would require a determined effort by a committed executive with an electoral mandate and a clear-eyed vision about the appropriate role for his or her office. It would require a president whose strength rested on personal humility and an understanding of the principles that underpin the American government. Trump is not that person, as he demonstrates on an almost daily basis.
And, indeed, one of the primary benefits of a weaker presidency would be that the personal character and political strength of the president would not matter as much.
That the institutions and individuals within the executive branch have corralled some of Trump's worst impulses is, for now, a small comfort. His personal and professional weaknesses may eventually render Trump little more than a figurehead within his own administration—but the office of the president will survive Trump's tenure and will remain as potent as ever.