By Tom Nichols
The president fired all the ambassadors! He’s issuing executive orders! He’s putting political cronies into trusted positions! He’s declaring his inauguration to be a special national day! Well, of course he is. It’s what presidents do in their first weeks in office. It’s what Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama did, too.
Much to the dismay (and perhaps even surprise) of his opponents, President Trump has charged into office determined to implement many of the policies he promised on the campaign trail. From dismantling the Affordable Care Act to changing the composition of the National Security Council, the president has fired off a series of decisions that have sparked major protests across the United States. There is no honeymoon with the press or the opposition, nor does the president seem to want one. (His approval ratings, predictably enough, are hitting historic lows for a new administration.)
There is plenty of fuel for the president’s critics in these actions, yet Trump’s opponents – especially in the media – seem determined to overreact on even ordinary matters. This is both unwise and damaging to our political culture. America needs an adversarial press and a sturdy system of checks and balances. Unmodulated shock and outrage, however, not only burn precious credibility among the president’s opponents, but eventually will exhaust the American public and increase the already staggering amount of cynicism paralyzing our national political life.
Much of this anxiety is rooted in the public’s tragic ignorance of civics and government. For younger Americans, this is somewhat understandable. They may have no firm memory of any president taking office other than Obama, and it’s unlikely that they were overly concerned with the statutory membership of the National Security Council eight years ago. Even citizens who remember earlier transitions would have to go back to the chaos of the 2000 election to recall a more divisive transfer of power.
Journalists are supposed to have a longer memory, but the media seems to despise Trump more than any president in modern history, even Richard Nixon. (Reuters recently issued guidance on covering the Trump administration the same way its reporters cover authoritarian regimes around the world.) Trump, for his part, clearly revels in that competition and feeds it daily with taunting tweets and incendiary official statements that he knows will make news.
As a result, too many in the media are inclined to take every action by the new administration as a declaration of war, presenting almost everything as unprecedented or unconstitutional or some other alarming adjective. For instance, Trump’s proclamation of Inauguration Day as a “Day of Patriotic Devotion” was deemed not only “vaguely compulsory” (the Atlantic) but also to have “echoes of North Korea” (the Guardian, in Britain). But eight years ago, Obama declared his own inauguration an equally creepy-sounding “Day of Renewal and Reconciliation.”
This feeds into a social-media environment that is hyperventilating about Trump’s every word – as social media does about everything.
Ordinary citizens might be forgiven for their lack of civic knowledge, but long-serving members of Congress certainly know better. Rep. John Lewis, D-Georgia, said he was boycotting the Trump inauguration, and that it would “be the first one that I miss since I’ve been in the Congress,” which roiled the news and stunned only those who didn’t recall that Lewis also boycotted Bush’s 2001 inauguration. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, said this past week that he had never seen an executive order end up on the wrong side of a federal court so fast — as though a challenge to an executive order was itself an unprecedented moment in history.
This continual panic is short-circuiting any reasonable debate about the president’s policies by indulging Trump’s fiercest opponents in the belief that something could destroy his presidency before it has a chance to govern. Still furious over the outcome of the election, Trump’s critics seize on every move as if there is a Watergate moment to be found if only they look hard enough. But even Nixon didn’t fall to a sudden scandal: He was a deeply consequential president who governed his way to a reelection landslide before his eventual resignation.
With that said, there’s plenty of cause for worry. I wrote at length for more than a year about why I thought Trump should not be president, and nothing since has eased my concerns about his temperament or policies. I am grieved at the needless insults to our allies in NATO; I believe the phone call with Taiwan was reckless; I am appalled at the closeness between an American administration and the Russian enemy regime led by Vladimir Putin.
I could go on. As a scholar of international security affairs, I wish we were talking about these issues on their merits. Unfortunately, our national debate is instead consumed with overreaction and hysteria, which not only cloud important questions but in the short term paradoxically play to the president’s advantage, no matter how much his opponents wish otherwise.
For example, Trump promised a Muslim ban during the campaign. But the executive order now running into multiple challenges is not actually a Muslim ban: It affects the citizens, regardless of faith, of several Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East and Africa but has no relevance to persons of Islamic faith who carry the passports of almost 200 other countries. Nonetheless, pundits and critics – and some Trump surrogates – are happy to call it one. This sends a message to Trump’s voters that he is a decisive leader who has fulfilled his promise, even though he has done no such thing. “I love it when they bash him, because it tells me he’s doing the right thing,” Wisconsin retiree Don Broesch told the New York Times.
The actual executive order is something of a mess. But acting attorney general Sally Yates, by declaring that she would not defend the order, essentially dared Trump to fire her — an invitation no president would have refused. At that moment, the story shifted away from the order toward dark warnings of a “Monday Night Massacre,” even though nothing close to Nixon’s shocking 1973 serial firings had occurred. (Yates was an Obama appointee and on her way out anyway.)
There are other examples. On MSNBC last month, Rachel Maddow decried the “takeover” of the Voice of America by the Trump administration. The story was terrifying: Trump now has his own propaganda outlet!
I, too, was upset about the dissolution of the VOA board and the shift toward using presidential appointees in place of a bipartisan group of governors. I was upset about that, in fact, last year, when that provision was slipped into the National Defense Authorization Act. Maddow’s story, really, boiled down to: President will appoint people he is legally required to appoint. But that didn’t stop my email inbox and Twitter stream from filling with panic about how “Trump has taken over American propaganda.”
Likewise, Americans and many of their media outlets seem rusty on the difference between ordinary government employees and the exalted class of political appointees. A political appointee represents the administration and must speak with the president’s voice and in line with his policies and priorities. These appointees serve “at the pleasure of the president,” and when administrations change, they are expected to submit their resignations. If they are asked to stay on, that is a privilege but not a right. By contrast, I am a career employee who works in a specific and continuing role as a professor for the Navy. I am not appointed by a president, and I do not represent any administration when I speak. (I also do not represent any other agency of the U.S. government, and when I write – like right now – I do so in my own capacity as a scholar and citizen.)
Thus, Trump didn’t “fire” all the politically appointed ambassadors, effective at high noon on Jan. 20. They were all required to resign, as is normal with every change of a chief executive, because by law an ambassador is the personal representative of the president. And yet, panic ensued. The vacancies “could mean some top U.S. embassies are left without an ambassador for months as Trump finds his footing,” Politico reported. That was not a legitimate concern. Embassies have kept their lights on; the heads of missions routinely step in, as do acting secretaries and senior civil servants, during gaps in appointments.
Likewise, when the Trump administration accepted the resignations of four State Department political appointees, there was an explosion of concern. “It’s the single biggest simultaneous departure of institutional memory that anyone can remember, and that’s incredibly difficult to replicate,” David Wade, the department’s chief of staff under then-Secretary of State John Kerry, told The Washington Post’s Josh Rogin. That fear, too, was complete nonsense. Foreign Service officers with decades of experience still work at the State Department and have still been reporting for duty.
And what about the appointment of senior adviser Steve Bannon to the National Security Council? The early narrative was that Bannon was “replacing” the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, a claim that is flatly silly since the chairman is, by law, a statutory adviser and cannot be “replaced.” However, the law allows the president to authorize members of his personal staff to attend council meetings and to have a voice in their deliberations. The National Security Council exists to serve the president; it has no statutory maximum size, and no one was “replacing” anyone. It is also possible, as has happened in other administrations, that the council will not be that important and that real power over national security will rest in more informal mechanisms in the Trump White House.
It is perfectly reasonable to argue that political advisers should be kept off the council, and it is worrisome, at least to me, to see the roles of senior military and intelligence officials scaled back. Right now, however, we are having very few such discussions. Trump critics instead are in a full-blown outrage over the reality that presidents can pretty much staff the National Security Council the way they want – which has always been the case – thus chasing down a blind alley while leaving aside far more important points.
This was not the first divisive election in the United States, and it will not be the last. Americans, to an unhealthy extent, have always regarded executive power with both fear and reverence. Andrew Jackson, legal scholar James Kent wrote in 1834, was a “detestable, ignorant, reckless, vain and malignant tyrant,” the product of a foolish experiment in “American elective monarchy.” Presidential historian Edward Corwin once referred to Abraham Lincoln as “a dictator even exceeding the Roman model.”
These are real criticisms rooted in experience. Jackson was, in fact, vain and reckless; Lincoln suspended habeas corpus during the Civil War, a decision not overturned (and the petitioners not freed) until 1866, when the republic was once again safe. The abuse of presidential power is a continuing risk in a system of separated powers, requiring the greatest vigilance on the part of the media, Congress and ordinary citizens.
But a continual state of panic serves no purpose and will eventually numb voters and their institutions to real threats when they inevitably arise. Trump is, without doubt, the most unusual chief executive in American history. He has promised to do many things, some of which are almost certainly impossible and a few of which are probably unconstitutional. In the meantime, he won his election fairly – as determined by the electoral college and certified by Congress – and he is thus mandated to staff and run a superpower.
Whether he will do so wisely or constitutionally remains to be seen, but the legitimate concerns of the president’s critics are not well served by attacking the normal functions of the executive branch merely because those powers are being exercised by someone they oppose.
– Nichols is a professor at the Naval War College and the Harvard Extension School and the author of “The Death of Expertise.”
(c) 2017, Special to The Washington Post · Tom Nichols