How do presidents get in trouble? The Monday, January 6, committee hearing on Donald Trump’s attempts to nullify the 2020 election did not focus on this general issue, but it did demonstrate something familiar to students of the presidency.
The committee heard former attorney general William Barr and other witnesses say they told the president that the fraud he was hearing about from various dubious sources did not happen. Trump has chosen to dismiss what the Justice Department, state governments and seasoned professionals in his own presidential campaign have told him, and instead rely on nonsense conjured up by eccentrics.
Once again, we have seen a president not accepting – or, in Trump’s case, not even trying to understand – that presidents are just one of many sources of legitimate authority within the American political system. . When presidents try to get what they want despite their inability to convince other political actors to follow them, they risk finding themselves surrounded by buffoons. The president’s plans explode in his face, sometimes to the point of legal peril.
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It’s a way of understanding what brought down the presidency of Richard Nixon. Trump didn’t quite suffer Nixon’s fate, but he ended up as the only president to be impeached twice, and the only one to have senators from his own party vote to convict him (several others said they would have if the time was not up on his presidency). He may still find himself in considerable legal trouble. Nixon’s story is therefore instructive.
Nixon had inherited the Vietnam War from Lyndon Johnson, but as it continued and expanded in some ways during his first two years in office, anti-war activism grew more intense. . Nixon sought to retaliate, and White House staffer Tom Charles Huston hatched plans to spy on and disrupt the movement.
The FBI, however, refused to carry out Huston’s plan in 1970. A year later, when the Pentagon documents were leaked to major newspapers, Nixon decided to go ahead without the FBI, hiring White House staff agents to do what the agency in charge of such things refused to do. The crimes committed by so-called White House plumbers, including two later transferred to his re-election campaign, destroyed Nixon’s presidency.
The FBI refused Nixon’s order because, like all executive agencies, it had standard operating procedures that developed over time. Part of that (usually, but not always) involves keeping the agency on the right side of the law, and part of that has to do with professionalism.
Another way to look at it is that agencies have many bosses — the president, Congress, the courts — and they learn over time to keep them all reasonably happy. In this way, following the law and adhering to professional standards can be seen as strategies not only to avoid antagonizing presidents, but also House and Senate committees and judges while producing (usually, but not always) reasonable political outcomes.
Agencies, like the bosses they depend on, must also respond to their principals. The whole structure of government is organized around the representation of voters and their interests, even though voters have no idea what most members of government do and do not vote based on those things.
Nixon tried to short-circuit all of this by having White House staff do whatever they wanted. Because they were only answerable to him personally, they were able to ignore the mix of interests and constituencies the government normally represents. It ended badly as those involved offered no professional expertise, only loyalty. And instead of having standard operating procedures that Nixon could have used as warning signs that he was getting into trouble, his loyalists offered…loyalty.
Watergate was not unique in this sense. Not all problems caused by presidents trying to govern outside the White House and escaping normal executive branch agencies end in disaster and breaking the law. But it can be argued that many of the fiascos over the past 75 or so years since White House staff became a major part of the presidency can be traced to the same dynamic that produced Watergate.
This was certainly the case with the Iran-Contra affair, which was largely an operation run by the staff of the National Security Council, an agency of the White House. It can even be argued that the Iraq War debacle was a case where the White House, or more specifically the vice president’s office, found ways to circumvent potential objections from the State Department and military professionals.
So when Barr and other members of the Justice Department, as well as various state officials, refused to go along with Trump’s increasingly outlandish plans to cancel the election, it should have been a clear sign for President that he was entering dangerous waters. That Trump instead turned to Rudy Giuliani, the same person he used to try to work with the State Department on Ukraine only to end up being impeached, must be a new benchmark for an incompetent presidency. It’s as if Ronald Reagan tried to revive his presidency after the Iran-Contra scandal by making Oliver North his chief of staff.
Presidents always put themselves at risk when they make the absolute loyalty of the people they work with their primary concern. Not just because these people will more often than not fail to be “honest or professional,” as Trump campaign manager Bill Stepien said of Giuliani and others who fueled Trump’s misinformation. But because the government is a great source of information for the president, it constantly sends signals about what various groups and interests think is important.
When presidents actively take steps to ignore what the government is telling them, they can easily end up relying on a bunch of misfit lunatics like the one Trump has surrounded himself with. As we found out on January 6, 2021, they’re not just dangerous for presidents. They can also endanger the nation and the Constitution.
Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and politics. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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