Donald Trump might have constructed a political career on the idea of building a wall, but he rejects every institutional and behavioral barrier that constrains a President’s freedom to do exactly as he wants.
In recent days, Trump has shown that there are few areas of American life that he will not politicize for his benefit and has repeatedly come up against what have long been seen as acceptable limits for a President.
In the most recent example, Trump used Thanksgiving calls to the troops to vent on immigration and trade and to boast about his own success, injecting an overtly political tone into a previously non-partisan ritual.
In the run-up to the holiday, the President clashed with Chief Justice John Roberts and the media in the latest demonstration of his tendency to compromise trust in American institutions that has been a hallmark of his time in power.
The President’s recent conduct is just the latest manifestation of a presidency that is more than anything else an expression of an unchained personality that has made no attempt to reshape itself to fit the norms of national leadership.
Trump treated service members chosen to receive his Thanksgiving greetings like one of his crowds at a Make America Great Again rally, taking pot shots at a court that has frustrated his hardline immigration policy.
The President swiftly turned a conversation with Air Force Brigadier Gen. David Lyons into a plug for his border strategy, after he was told forces in Afghanistan were battling to stop adversaries reaching American shores.
“You probably see over the news what’s happening in our southern border and our southern border territory. Large numbers of people, and in many cases, we have no idea who they are,” Trump replied.
The President had hyped the threat from a caravan of migrants and asylum-seekers trekking across Mexico toward the border as a political device ahead of the midterm elections in an effort to inflame his political base.
Next, Trump spoke to Nicholas Hartmann, a lieutenant serving on a Coast Guard cutter in the Persian Gulf, and used the exchange to push his policies on trade.
“What’s going on in the region? How are they feeling about things? How are they feeling about trade? Because, you know, trade for me is a very big subject all over. We’ve been taken advantage of for many, many years by bad trade deals,” said Trump, speaking from his resort in Mar-a-Lago, Florida.
Trump then told an Army colonel that his troops were getting better equipment than ever before after spending months lambasting the previous administration on military spending, and said to another interlocutor that the nation was doing better than ever in another tribute to his leadership.
He is not the first President to use the military as a political prop, but Trump’s comments on Thursday were striking for how he repeatedly turned conversations back to his own political priorities and brags about himself.
Former Rear Adm. John Kirby, who was a State Department spokesman and is now a CNN commentator, found the President’s comments in poor taste and faulted Trump’s attitude toward the military.
“Trump seems to interpret this loyalty and obedience as political support for him personally. He simply cannot be around them without finding a way to politicize it, and them in the process,” Kirby wrote in a CNN opinion piece.
Testing the boundaries of the presidency
The Thanksgiving calls were not the only time in recent days when the President has rejected constraints that traditionally pen in the presidency.
He rode into the holiday on an extraordinary feud with Roberts after the chief justice objected to his attacks on the US 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. A judge from the Northern District of California – where cases get appealed to the 9th Circuit – ordered officials to resume accepting asylum seekers in contravention of a presidential order.
“It’s a terrible thing when judges take over your protective services, when they tell you how to protect your border. It’s a disgrace,” Trump said in his call to service personnel.
On Wednesday, Roberts issued an unusual statement rejecting previous accusations by the President that “Obama judges” were thwarting the law in reining in his immigration policy.
“We do not have Obama judges or Trump judges, Bush judges or Clinton judges. What we have is an extraordinary group of dedicated judges doing their level best to do equal right to those appearing before them,” Roberts said in a statement. Trump replied in a tweet faulting the chief justice’s argument.
Again, Trump is not the first president to be frustrated with the Supreme Court. Franklin Roosevelt once threatened to increase the size of the nation’s top bench because it kept blocking his New Deal legislation. President Richard Nixon had a long-running feud with former Chief Justice Earl Warren. And President Barack Obama several times chided the justices over the Citizens United ruling on campaign finance.
Roberts broke his silence after repeated attacks on the judiciary by the President, often precipitated by anger over adverse court judgments on immigration, including his ban on entries for citizens of some mostly Muslim nations and rulings on the policy of separating undocumented immigrant parents from their children when they crossed the border.
But it is the frequency and vehemence of Trump attacks on institutions that are so remarkable as he lays siege to American governance and tradition on multiple fronts.
Before Thanksgiving, for instance, reports emerged of the President’s attempts to get the Justice Department to prosecute two political enemies, former Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and fired FBI Chief James Comey.
Also last week, the White House admitted defeat after a court battle unleashed by its decision to seize the permanent press pass of CNN correspondent Jim Acosta, who had vigorously questioned the President at a news conference.
Trump supporters often counter critiques of the President’s unrestrained leadership style by saying he is doing exactly what he promised to do – shake up the Washington establishment and break the codes of behavior followed by traditional politicians. But more and more, Trump’s refusal to submit to convention, in addition to further distancing himself from any constituents from beyond his political base, is leading him into dangerous legal and constitutional territory.
For instance, the President has often appeared to believe that the Justice Department is not sufficiently protecting him, seemingly seeing the agency as an arm of his personal power and not an independent arbiter of the law.
Trump’s increasingly unrestrained behavior comes at a time when he is remodeling his Cabinet and White House staff after the loss of the House in the midterms and gearing up for his 2020 re-election race.
The reshaping of his team is likely to leave the President even more freedom to push against presidential conventions and test the limits of his power.
But his anger at restraining forces is only likely to escalate when Democrats take control of the House in January in a transfer of power that ensures a new era of scrutiny and oversight for the Trump White House.