Donald Trump has an authoritarian understanding of presidential power. He thinks he has
the unilateral authority to enact sweeping policy legislation, declare war on nations, and steer the federal government in the direction his hypocritical and ignorant mind feels best. In short, he believes l’etat, c’est Trump — that Trump is the state.
This has been Trump’s clear governing philosophy from his inauguration, but rarely has he explicitly stated the extent to which he believes he can — or should — control the government. In a recent interview with Laura Ingraham of Fox News, Trump sadly remarked “the saddest thing is that because I’m the president of the United States I’m not supposed to be involved with the Justice Department, I’m not supposed to be involved with the FBI, I’m not supposed to be doing the kinds of things I would love to be doing and I’m very frustrated by it. I look at what’s happening with the Justice Department, why aren’t they going after Hillary Clinton with her emails and with the dossier and the kind of money…?”
In other words, Trump thinks that, by virtue of being president, he should control every action of the entire executive branch. As the head of state and government, Trump believes he should dictate what the FBI investigates and how the DoJ operates; justice naturally flows from the singular authority at government’s apex. Such a conception of presidential power is entirely monarchical and authoritarian.
He went on to add that “a lot of justice…[is] tied up forever in the court system. You look at some of the cases that are going on forever and you have them dead to rights? Now, the justice system has to go quicker and it has to be, really, stronger and fairer.” Justice should move at the speed of what Trump deems proper. Rights, so Trump’s answer implies, do not come from nature and are not enshrined by the Constitution and should be curtailed at his direction. Too many rights block administration of what Trump considers justice.
Trump’s next morning tweets continued this theme of ignoring the political insulation of the FBI and DoJ and the existing notions of fair justice as he called for his political appointees to investigate Hillary Clinton and the Democrats, a truly authoritarian idea. As the state, Trump believes he should have the ability to call for investigations and, angry that he can’t, he does the next best thing: Urges investigations against dissidents, putting the FBI and DoJ in an impossible situation by either opening politically-motivated investigations over non-scandals or ignore the president who can summarily dismiss them. If can’t openly control the state’s actions, he tries to coerce certain behavior.
Where he does have flexibility, Trump seizes it. Foreign policy provides presidents with their best ability to act unilaterally as Congress, especially the Senate, has ceded much policy power to the president. Trump’s an irrational actor and has failed to appoint many key State Department positions. He’s tangled with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and undermined his job by directly contradicting Tillerson’s statements and tweeting, on numerous occasions, on the futility of North Korean diplomacy.
Undermining the Secretary of State and taking diplomatic tools off the table while weakening the State Department through vacancies doesn’t matter because, as Trump says, “I’m the only one that matters because…that’s what the policy is going to be.” He has monopoly over foreign policy and no one else matters, not the chief diplomat, not the thousands of consulate and embassy staffers, not the scholars and wonks in Foggy Bottom, no one.
L’etat, c’est Trump.
Or so he thinks.