The Constitution’s Article II doesn’t go into a lot of detail when describing the duties of the president, but it does include a rather specific responsibility: a president, the Constitution mandates, “shall take care that the laws be faithfully executed.”
Whether Donald Trump cares about honoring this obligation is open to some debate. Axios, for example, published a report yesterday on a recent meeting in which the president allegedly told a group of people they should feel free to ignore federal laws.
In late June, President Trump hosted a group of Native American tribal leaders at the White House and urged them to “just do it” and extract whatever they want from the land they control.
The exchange turned out to be an unusually vivid window into the almost kingly power that Trump sees himself as holding, and which he has begun describing with increasing bluntness. The scene was recounted by a source in the room and confirmed by another. The White House didn’t dispute the story.
The chiefs explained to Trump that there were regulatory barriers preventing them from getting at their energy. Trump replied: “But now it’s me. The government’s different now. Obama’s gone; and we’re doing things differently here.”
As Axios described the scene, it was at this point in which the tribal leaders paused, looked at each other, and seemed uncertain about how to proceed.
Trump, however, was reportedly emphatic, telling one of the tribal leaders, “Chief, chief, what are they going to do? Once you get it out of the ground are they going to make you put it back in there? I mean, once it’s out of the ground it can’t go back in there. You’ve just got to do it. I’m telling you, chief, you’ve just got to do it.”
Just so we’re clear, “it” refers to breaking the law, and “they” refer to officials from Trump’s own administration who have a responsibility to act in accordance with the law.
As Axios’ report tells it, Native American leaders still weren’t sure whether they should take the president’s instructions at face value, so Trump again encouraged them to simply ignore the existing legal framework. “Guys, I feel like you’re not hearing me right now,” he added. “We’ve just got to do it. I feel like we’ve got no choice; other countries are just doing it. China is not asking questions about all of this stuff. They’re just doing it. And guys, we’ve just got to do it.”
By way of an analysis, Axios added that Trump “sees himself above the traditions, limits and laws of the presidency,” which helps explain why he was reportedly comfortable telling a group of White House visitors that they should feel free to commit crimes with his blessing.
In 2014, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) whined that the United States has “an increasingly lawless presidency.” Ryan had the appropriate concern, but I’m afraid he was three years too early.
Our system is predicated on the principle that we are a nation of laws. Trump, who knew effectively nothing about our system of government before seeking the presidency, often appears to prefer an authoritarian model in which he can simply dictate policy, without regard for legal constraints, based on his personal wishes.
One of the great ironies of last year’s election is that Trump vowed to “restore law and order” if elected. It’s unclear whether he had any idea what the phrase actually meant, but a year after the election, what’s become painfully obvious is that Trump disdains the law, deeming it little more than a pesky inconvenience, interfering with his drive to make America “great” as he defines it.
Let’s not forget that when Trump has expressed his personal admiration for high-profile autocrats – Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte – he’s specifically offered public praise for the ways in which they lead. Trump has made no effort to hide his authoritarian instincts because he seems genuinely impressed with strongman governance.
And so, when Trump tells tribal leaders his White House is “doing things differently,” the president means he and his team don’t share his predecessor’s concerns about niceties such as constitutional obligations and federal regulatory barriers.
If you voted for the Republican ticket because you were concerned about “law and order,” I have some very bad news for you.