Guest column: Trump’s personalization of the presidency

Trump’s approach doesn’t fulfill the Framers’ vision of how a president should run our country, writes David Adler.

President Donald Trump’s defiance of constitutional principles, norms and traditions that have helped to define the idea of America since the dawn of the republic have left Americans to doubt his commitment to our constitutional democracy.

President Trump’s newest justification for refusing to disclose his taxes, simply put, is that he was elected to the presidency. Because he won the election, he is not subject to the demands of transparency and accountability that define democracy. Nevermind that Democrats and a growing number of Republican leaders have justly expressed concerns that his tax proposals may be intended to line his pockets. Trump’s only protection against that accusation is to open his tax filings for public review.

Trump’s defiance of the prohibitions of the Emoluments Clause reflects a worrisome indifference to constitutional constraints. His refusal to release the logs of White House visitors in the name of transparency displays a stunning failure to comprehend the democratic norms that exalt governmental openness and accountability. The citizenry should know with whom he is transacting business on behalf of the American people.

His indifference to the malodorous ethical problems arising from daughter Ivanka’s station in his administration — while her clothing brand enjoys a boost from the Chinese government — suggests a troubling nonchalance toward both the appearance and reality of corruption.

Even more disturbing than those realities, however, is his personalization of the conduct of the nation’s foreign affairs and national security interests. Trump embraces depictions of himself as a wily, clever maverick. This unpredictability about the potential use of U.S. military power knocks foreign leaders off balance and leaves them fearful of his “strong” leadership.

This behavior represents a dangerous conflation of self and the presidency that finds virtually no parallel in the history of the Oval Office, and no foundation in the office conceived by the Framers of the Constitution.

Delegates to the Constitutional Convention sought to institutionalize foreign policy and national security, in order to place international relations and the deployment of military force beyond the whims and arbitrary control of a single person. They very carefully allocated the lion’s share of foreign policy powers to Congress, as a means of ensuring solemn deliberation on the course America should pursue in the international realm.

James Wilson, an influential delegate from Pennsylvania, and second in importance only to James Madison as an architect of the Constitution, summed up the design for initiating war and lesser military hostilities: “The system is designed to prevent one man from hurrying us into war.” There was, in the Convention, no dissent from Wilson’s summation.

Yet, President Trump has asserted unilateral executive power to order 59 missile strikes inside Syria, falsely stated that he had sent an “armada” to the fragile Korean Peninsula, when in fact the fleet was sailing in the opposite direction, and rendered the world anxious with his saber rattling and taunting of an erratic and unpredictable North Korean leader, who has threatened “all out war” if the United States acts militarily in the region.

Readers who value the Framers’ design will find it difficult to reconcile Trump’s personalization of the presidency. There remains hope that President Trump will retreat from the autocratic pretensions which increasingly define his presidency.

But at this date, 90 days into his term of office, signs of such a transformation are nonexistent.


Adler is president of the Alturas Institute, and the author of several books and many articles on the Constitution and the presidency.