Media is starting to grasp the master narrative of the Trump presidency: His attempt to maximize presidential power
This article was co-produced with Press Watch, a new website that monitors and critiques American political coverage.
The critical mass of evidence that Donald Trump accepts no limits when it comes to serving his own interests has increasingly emboldened mainstream political journalists to situate the drip-drip of new revelations within the master narrative of Trump’s presidency: That he has consistently distended and abused the powers of his office.
That is essential context, because it explains the otherwise inexplicable — and because it ineluctably calls attention to the post-Trump imperative to rebuild and reinforce the constitutional barriers to presidential tyranny that Trump and his accessories in the Republican Party have so profoundly corroded.
Veteran White House correspondent Stephen Collinson, who now writes for CNN.com, provided a master class in contextualizing the news on Tuesday. His article was pegged to the testimony from former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch about how she had run afoul of Trump’s personal fixer Rudy Giuliani, who was secretly extorting Ukrainian officials to incriminate Trump’s political rivals.
Here’s how Collinson opened things up:
President Donald Trump seems to sense a chance to leverage expansive, uncheckable power everywhere he looks.
A common thread is emerging from the impeachment bombshells, court fights and multiple scandals all coming to head this week inside the one-year mark to the next general election. It's a picture of a President and his men who subscribe to a staggeringly broad interpretation of executive power and have no reservations about using it often for domestic political ends.
Yovanovitch, Collinson wrote, exposed conduct that “threatens to recast the conception of the presidency shared by America's founders.”
Collinson also debunked Trump’s attempts to portray himself as a victim, with a quote from a former federal prosecutor: “We are seeing a misunderstanding amongst many people in the public that this is somehow abusing the President, this is an abuse of process, this is harassment, this is unfair,” Kim Wehle said. “All Americans have to understand that the office of the presidency has to have checks and balances.”
(See my earlier column on the importance of context in news stories: “That Thing That Just Happened Didn’t Just Happen in a Vacuum.”)
AP legal affairs writer Curt Anderson also wrote a refreshingly unqualified assessment on Monday of Trump’s overt defiance of congressional subpoenas, headlined “Experts: White House has dubious reasons to ignore subpoenas”:
White House attorneys are throwing out an array of arguments for keeping its officials from cooperating with the congressional impeachment inquiry. But legal experts say they are making a weak case.
Some even say the refusal to cooperate with the probe run by House Democrats could amount to obstruction that might itself become an article of impeachment against President Donald Trump.
“Not only can it be, it absolutely should be,” said Heidi Kitrosser, a University of Minnesota constitutional law professor who has written about impeachment. “This is an effort to stymie Congress in one of its core roles.”
Anderson did not quote any experts with opposing views — because the only people with opposing views are partisan extremists. Bravo!
For instance, here’s how he dealt with the White House’s assertion of “absolute immunity” from congressional testimony for some advisers:
“No communication involving the White House is subject to absolute immunity,” said David Driesen, a Syracuse University law professor who has studied the issue. “No person is immunized from appearing by any claim of privilege known to the law.”
A quintessential expression of Trump’s contempt for limits came in an Oct. 8 letter signed by White House counsel Pat Cipollone, asserting that no one in the Trump administration would participate in the House’s impeachment inquiry.
"Because participating in this inquiry under the current unconstitutional posture would inflict lasting institutional harm on the executive branch and lasting damage to the separation of powers, you have left the president no choice." the letter said.
(There are other candidates for “quintessential expression,” including Trump’s assertion in a July interview with ABC News that “Article II allows me to do whatever I want,” the Oct. 23 argument by a Justice Department lawyer that Trump is immune even from criminal investigation, and so on.)
Reporters of the future looking for some editor-tested boilerplate to explain the next bombshell could do worse than look to a Washington Post article by Toluse Olorunnipa and Ann E. Marimow, the day after the White House counsel’s letter, in which they wrote unequivocally:
In a series of legal maneuvers that have defied Congress, drawn rebukes from federal judges and tested the country’s foundational system of checks and balances, President Trump has made an expansive declaration of presidential immunity that would essentially place him beyond the reach of the law.
In courts and before Congress, Trump’s legal teams are simultaneously arguing two contradictory points: that the president can’t be investigated or indicted by prosecutors because Congress has the sole responsibility for holding presidents accountable, and that the House’s impeachment inquiry is an unconstitutional effort that the White House can ignore.
“We have a president who simply doesn’t believe that Congress is a coequal branch of government,” said Elliot Williams, who helped run the Justice Department’s legislative affairs office during the Obama administration. “That’s a huge departure from anything we’ve seen in our lifetimes.”
If you want readers and viewers to understand what’s going on, you have to explain the bigger picture. Philadelphia Inquirer national opinion columnist Will Bunch, whose writings often include implicit and explicit media criticism, described that bigger picture this way in a recent column sparked by his reading of previously secret documents from special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe:
The so-called Trump-Russia scandal — in which the president falsely claimed “total exoneration” after Mueller’s muddled two-year probe — and the so-called Ukraine scandal which now imperils the White House is really just one giant scandal. It’s a power-hungry demagogue seeking the ego boost and the enriching “brand-building” potential of the American presidency having no moral qualms about trying to work with criminals (2016) or abusing the power of his office (2019) to get what he wanted, even relying on the same shady cast of characters in both occasions.
Well before the Ukraine scandal, Trump’s abuses of power were continuous, brazen and unprecedented in their specifics — from demanding an oath of loyalty from the FBI director to mocking the Constitution’s emolument clause to flouting Congress’ power of the purse by unilaterally shifting money to the building of his wall.
But they also represented the culmination of the alarming growth in executive power from administration to administration over at least the last four decades — a growth which has metastasized since the 9/11 terror attacks, first during the Bush presidency and then, possibly with even greater rapidity, under Obama.
After all, during the Bush years, Dick Cheney and Karl Rove were among the administration officials who claimed they were totally immune from congressional oversight. And Trump’s accusations of treason against whistleblowers are overwrought but not fundamentally different from Obama’s weaponizing of the Espionage Act against them.
As Emily Bazelon writes in the New York Times Magazine, “over the last half century, the executive branch has grown bolder about withholding information in the name of national security or executive privilege, to keep the president’s communications confidential.”
But she also quotes Cornell law professor Josh Chafetz explaining: “What’s new is the president denying the legitimacy of the whole idea of congressional oversight, rather than arguing over one specific act.”
What Congress does next — and in particular, what Congress does after Trump — has huge implications for the future of our country’s governing structure. And unless it involves a radical reassertion of congressional power, future presidents will have precisely the kind of tyrannical power that the Constitution was designed to prevent.
In an earlier column, I called for more coverage of post-Trump legislative reforms. Thus far, the thinking about how to fix the things Trump broke, bent beyond recognition, or simply exposed as being subject to abuse has been left to a smattering of blue-ribbon commissions and think tank reports, like Protect Democracy’s “Roadmap for Renewal: A Legislative Blueprint for Protecting our Democracy.”
Now that the political reporters who have so exhaustively chronicled Trump’s norm-shattering are increasingly casting each individual example as part of his expansion and abuse of presidential power, they need to start thinking about the next story.
Dan Froomkin is Editor of Press Watch. He wrote the daily White House Watch column for the Washington Post during the George W. Bush administration, then served as Washington bureau chief and senior writer at Huffington Post, covering Barack Obama's presidency, before working as Washington editor at The Intercept.