Is the pres­i­dency changed for­ever?

As norms fall, ex­perts de­bate how much of this is in­deli­ble

The Dallas Morning News - - Front Page - By TODD J. GILL­MAN Wash­ing­ton Bureau tgill­man@dal­las­

WASH­ING­TON — Aside from the prom­ises kept or bro­ken, the tur­moil and tweet rants, his­to­ri­ans are al­ready de­bat­ing whether Don­ald Trump has had a last­ing im­pact on the pres­i­dency.

The Amer­i­can sys­tem of gov­ern­ment hinges not just on con­sti­tu­tional checks and bal­ances but also on norms and ex­pec­ta­tions. In his first year as pres­i­dent, Trump has shat­tered one af­ter another.

That has de­lighted sup­port­ers.

He cast him­self as an out­sider who would shake up Wash­ing­ton and “drain the swamp,” and they wel­come what­ever change he can bring to the of­fice, the longer-last­ing the bet­ter.

The pivots from prece­dent have gone far be­yond pol­icy shifts. The 45th pres­i­dent has done things the first 44 never con­sid­ered.

He re­fused to set aside busi­ness in­ter­ests, ques­tioned the le­git­i­macy of judges whose rul­ings he dis­agreed with and railed at a free press. He’s warned of con­spir­a­cies in his own gov­ern­ment. He’s turned a friendly face to­ward Rus­sia while pres­sur­ing NATO al­lies, and de­manded jail for his main po­lit­i­cal ri­val while urg­ing an open mind to­ward white su­prem­a­cists.

His vul­gar and scorn­ful de­scrip­tion of de­vel­op­ing coun­tries last week was only the lat­est in­stance of

harsh rhetoric to­ward im­mi­grants, fu­el­ing a sense that he’s re­moved some stigma from xeno­pho­bia and racism.

At the United Na­tions, he threat­ened to “to­tally de­stroy North Korea” and mocked its reclu­sive leader as “Rocket Man” af­ter a se­ries of mis­sile tests. In the face of with­er­ing crit­i­cism about his men­tal state, Trump de­clared him­self a “very sta­ble ge­nius.”

None of that is even close to il­le­gal. It’s just not some­thing the coun­try has ever seen in its leader.

Will fu­ture pres­i­dents find it eas­ier to flout con­ven­tion?

“The strict aca­demic an­swer is that it’s too soon to tell. We’ll find out in 25 years how the pres­i­dency has evolved post-Trump,” said Jef­frey En­gel, di­rec­tor of the Cen­ter for Pres­i­den­tial His­tory at South­ern Methodist Univer­sity.

Much will hinge not on Trump him­self but on the next pres­i­dent, and the one af­ter that. On that, schol­ars agree, whether or not they be­lieve Trump has al­ready al­tered the in­sti­tu­tion.

“Our civic so­ci­ety and our sense of what the pres­i­dency means for the coun­try is not writ­ten down,” En­gel said. “He has al­ready laid the seeds of fun­da­men­tally chang­ing the pres­i­dency. … No­body is go­ing to trust norms in the same way that we did be­fore.”

No one would ar­gue that Trump is con­ven­tional, said James Dickey, chair­man of the Texas Repub­li­can Party. But he said the pres­i­dent has “ab­so­lutely” had a good first year, giv­ing con­ser­va­tives much to cel­e­brate, in­clud­ing ju­di­cial picks, the demise of Oba­macare’s in­di­vid­ual man­date, with­drawal from the Paris Cli­mate Ac­cord and a tougher stance on trade.

“The big­gest re­duc­tion in reg­u­la­tion in decades. Big­gest tax re­form in decades,” Dickey said, adding that Trump’s play­book is work­ing. “Clearly, be­ing a tra­di­tional Repub­li­can wasn’t cut­ting it.”

As for any hand-wring­ing about Trump’s im­pact, he said: “I can’t tell you how ex­cit­ing it is to me and other con­ser­va­tives to fi­nally hear Democrats re­mem­ber that there are ac­tu­ally con­sti­tu­tional lim­its on the pres­i­dency. They weren’t lis­ten­ing to us when we were try­ing to raise those con­cerns over the last 20 years.”

Trump has al­ready made clear his in­ten­tion to seek re-elec­tion.

‘He could be a fluke’

H.W. Brands, the Univer­sity of Texas his­to­rian whose 25 books in­clude a num­ber of pres­i­den­tial bi­ogra­phies, notes that Trump’s ma­jor ac­com­plish­ments — the ap­point­ment of Supreme Court Jus­tice Neil Gor­such and pas­sage of a sweep­ing tax code over­haul — “have come through the stan­dard chan­nels.”

Like­wise, he has fol­lowed the model of Barack Obama and, be­fore him, Ge­orge W. Bush in re­sort­ing to ex­ec­u­tive or­ders to im­ple­ment much of his pol­icy vi­sion. His most con­tro­ver­sial was the travel ban aimed at Mus­lim­ma­jor­ity coun­tries, a cam­paign prom­ise he tried to de­liver on at the end of his first week in of­fice. When a fed­eral judge struck down the ban a week later, Trump de­nounced him as a “so-called judge” and pre-emp­tively blamed him for fu­ture ter­ror­ist at­tacks on Amer­i­can soil.

In in­ter­na­tional mat­ters, Trump’s ac­tions have of­ten been less dra­matic than his rhetoric, though he’s man­aged to alien­ate or, at the least, rat­tle even the clos­est al­lies. He just scrapped a visit to Bri­tain, where his anti-Mus­lim tweets had made him a pariah.

“While his state­ments have caused Amer­i­can al­lies to ques­tion Amer­ica’s stead­fast­ness, most for­eign lead­ers seem to chalk th­ese up to Trump and to be re­serv­ing judg­ment on whether they rep­re­sent a per­ma­nent change in Amer­ica’s ap­proach to the world,” Brands said.

In short, he said, “Don­ald Trump hasn’t changed the pres­i­dency, yet. He has in­tro­duced a new style in the White House — blunter, less fil­tered — but so far that’s Trump, not the pres­i­dency.”

One hard-to-miss fea­ture of the Trump pres­i­dency is how un­pop­u­lar he is. Other pres­i­dents have been hob­bled by low ap­proval rat­ings, but none so soon af­ter win­ning of­fice.

Even other pres­i­dents elected without win­ning the pop­u­lar vote have en­joyed a hon­ey­moon that eluded Trump.

The tax over­haul has been his only ma­jor leg­isla­tive win, de­spite a Congress con­trolled by fel­low Repub­li­cans.

“He’s in­ef­fec­tive be­cause he’s un­pop­u­lar,” said Robert Dallek, a re­tired Columbia Univer­sity his­to­rian who has writ­ten bi­ogra­phies of John F. Kennedy, Lyn­don John­son, Richard Nixon, Harry Tru­man, Ron­ald Rea­gan and Franklin Roo­sevelt.

But, he added, “we’re mid-story. We don’t know where this is go­ing to end.”

One of FDR’s ad­vis­ers quipped that Her­bert Hoover, who had led the coun­try into the Great De­pres­sion, was a good act to fol­low. Jimmy Carter’s as­sur­ance that he would never lie to the coun­try buoyed a pub­lic dis­heart­ened by Water­gate. Ge­orge W. Bush promised to “re­store honor and dig­nity” to the Oval Of­fice, a slap at an out­go­ing pres­i­dent, Bill Clin­ton, who had re­cently sur­vived im­peach­ment af­ter an af­fair with an in­tern.

It’s a re­cur­ring pat­tern — a new pres­i­dent of­fers an an­ti­dote to the old one. His­to­ri­ans fully ex­pect the next pres­i­dent to rep­re­sent the an­tiTrump, just as the cere­bral and aloof Obama gave way to a boast­ful and coarse suc­ces­sor.

“He could be a fluke,” said James Pfiffner, a pro­fes­sor at Ge­orge Ma­son Univer­sity’s School of Pol­icy, Gov­ern­ment, and In­ter­na­tional Af­fairs. Fu­ture can­di­dates and pres­i­dents, he said, “aren’t go­ing to do that un­less it works out for him.”

To the es­tab­lish­ment, the Trump model doesn’t look like some­thing to em­u­late — the staff tur­moil, im­pul­sive pol­icy roll­outs, fric­tion with al­lies. To Trump fans, though, the pres­i­dent’s abil­ity to thrive amid chaos and to keep ad­ver­saries off bal­ance, even the en­mity he stirs among po­lit­i­cal elites, is part of his suc­cess.

Ei­ther way, said Pfiffner, “He has vi­o­lated a whole lot of norms.”

Last­ing im­pact

But there’s an al­ter­na­tive sce­nario. Even if the next pres­i­dent is staid and po­lite, a sea­soned Wash­ing­ton hand sur­rounded by loyal aides, there’s the pos­si­bil­ity that Trump has stretched the def­i­ni­tion of ac­cept­able be­hav­ior by a com­man­der in chief.

In par­tic­u­lar, schol­ars point to the way Trump has sown doubts about the in­sti­tu­tions that serve as checks on pres­i­den­tial power: the news me- dia, the in­de­pen­dent ju­di­ciary and fed­eral law en­force­ment.

It used to be big news if the pres­i­dent said some­thing that was un­true. Now it’s rou­tine.

“That’s as­tound­ing,” SMU’s En­gel said.

That and other traits, such as in­ci­vil­ity, can’t be brushed off as idio­syn­cra­sies, he ar­gued, be­cause pres­i­dents are role mod­els — for fu­ture pres­i­dents and, in real time, for the Amer­i­can pub­lic.

“Think about the dol­lar as a con­cept. Eco­nomics 101 says pa­per money has no in­trin­sic value, just the value we think it has. The mo­ment we start to doubt that value, it di­min­ishes,” En­gel said. “What Trump has done is di­min­ish the cred­i­bil­ity of the of­fice and of Amer­ica’s word around the world.”

The next pres­i­dent, and the one af­ter that, can re­build. But in this school of thought, Trump has punc­tured an aura that has long sur­rounded the pres­i­dency.

“Yes, the next pres­i­dent could come in and make a lot of po­lit­i­cal gain by say­ing, ‘I’m not go­ing to tweet and I’m not go­ing to be of­fen­sive.’ But we will be less aghast if he does,” said En­gel.

To Trump’s de­fend­ers, the snip­ing stems from re­sent­ment that he’s un­will­ing to kow­tow to the es­tab­lish­ment.

“He is a po­lit­i­cal ge­nius. … Yes he’s unique. He’s a unique New Yorker. There’s no ques­tion. He is a char­ac­ter. But he is also very bright,” Matt Sch­lapp, pres­i­dent of the Amer­i­can Con­ser­va­tive Union, told Na­tional Pub­lic Ra­dio. “He is an out­sider pres­i­dent, which we prob­a­bly haven’t had since our founders.”

Many schol­ars do see a trans­for­ma­tion un­der­way. They’re just not sure if it’s re­versible.

At Amer­i­can Univer­sity, gov­ern­ment pro­fes­sor Chris Edel­son, whose lat­est book is ti­tled Power without Con­straint: The Post 9/11 Pres­i­dency

and Na­tional Se­cu­rity, ar­gues strongly that Trump has al­ready trans­formed the of­fice.

“It’s not il­le­gal for a pres­i­dent to call a judge a ‘so-called judge,’ or to sug­gest he should be held re­spon­si­ble if there’s a ter­ror­ist at­tack. It’s a vi­o­la­tion of a norm, though, and it un­der­mines faith in the jus­tice sys­tem,” Edel­son said. “The mes­sage he’s try­ing to send is, ‘Don’t be­lieve them, be­lieve me.’”

Re­peat­edly, and as re­cently as this month, Trump has at­tacked the “deep state Jus­tice De­part­ment,” al­lud­ing to a con­spir­acy the­ory about ca­bals se­cretly ma­nip­u­lat­ing the U.S. gov­ern­ment for ne­far­i­ous pur­poses.

There’s a Nixo­nian para­noia to that, Edel­son said, and it dove­tails with an aim of dis­cred­it­ing the Rus­sia col­lu­sion probe. De­fang­ing the watch­dogs is a path to­ward self-preser­va­tion.

“Don­ald Trump is not a dic­ta­tor. But it is true that he has au­thor­i­tar­ian ten­den­cies,” Edel­son said. “He’s do­ing things that sug­gest he doesn’t view him­self as sub­ject to rule of law. That’s dan­ger­ous.”

Dickey, the Texas Repub­li­can chair, ar­gues that the coun­try would have been bet­ter off if one pres­i­dent af­ter another hadn’t let long­time FBI Di­rec­tor J. Edgar Hoover push them around, and he lauds Trump’s firm stand against law en­force­ment of­fi­cials who over­step.

“Are peo­ple lit­er­ally mak­ing the case that it’s worse for bu­reau­crats to be called out for usurp­ing con­sti­tu­tional au­thor­ity than it is for those bu­reau­crats to usurp their con­sti­tu­tional au­thor­ity? That’s crazy on its face,” he said.

Stok­ing racism

Trump crit­ics see him re­shap­ing the pres­i­dency in other ways, too — no­tably the will­ing­ness to tol­er­ate or even en­cour­age racism.

Trump opened his cam­paign by la­bel­ing Mex­i­can im­mi­grants “rapists.” Af­ter deadly clashes in Char­lottesville, Va., in­volv­ing white su­prem­a­cists, Trump in­sisted there was “blame on both sides.” His at­tacks on black NFL play­ers protest­ing po­lice bru­tal­ity by kneeling for the na­tional an­them were widely seen as racially tinged.

“Un­like any other pres­i­dent, he seems to have lit­tle to no in­ter­est in see­ing him­self as the leader of the en­tire coun­try,” Edel­son said. “He sees him­self as the leader of a fac­tion of the coun­try, and a mi­nor­ity fac­tion at that.”

Con­sider the up­roar over the pres­i­dent’s dis­par­age­ment last week of El Sal­vador, Haiti and much of Africa, in a meet­ing at which he prod­ded law­mak­ers to cut off im­mi­gra­tion from such places.

Th­ese are norms that re­late to the pres­i­dent’s role as the voice of the na­tion, and his unique perch from which to con­sole, ca­jole and rally pub­lic opin­ion.

Nixon, LBJ and other pres­i­dents were vul­gar in pri­vate, too. But their habits weren’t fod­der for in­stant re­port­ing.

“As a fan of his­tory and some­one who’s ac­tu­ally lis­tened to some of the LBJ tapes, it’s ab­so­lutely un­true that those things weren’t said by pres­i­dents,” Dickey said. “The big dif­fer­ence is that we live in a 24-hour news cy­cle … and we have a level of peo­ple in­ter­ested in mak­ing the pres­i­dent look bad that is un­prece­dented.”

‘Maybe things will hold’

One of the many re­mark­able fea­tures of the Trump pres­i­dency is the not-so-veiled threat to use his au­thor­ity to put Hil­lary Clin­ton in prison. Chants of “lock her up!” still punc­tu­ate Trump’s cam­paign-style ral­lies, as they did dur­ing the cam­paign.

Pres­i­den­tial schol­ars cite this as one of the more omi­nous ways his be­hav­ior de­parts from the norm, in a coun­try where pol­i­tics is played hard but toss­ing op­po­nents in prison — as strong­men have done in Rus­sia, the Mid­dle East, Latin Amer­ica and Africa — has never been an Amer­i­can tra­di­tion.

His van­quished ri­val is never far from his mind, even if top ad­vis­ers in­sist other­wise.

“We don’t care about her,” Trump ad­viser Kellyanne Con­way told CNN’s Chris Cuomo last week. “No­body here talks about Hil­lary Clin­ton, I prom­ise you.”

But Trump him­self clearly does. On Twit­ter, he has at­tacked “Crooked Hil­lary” 33 times, in­clud­ing the morn­ing af­ter Con­way’s as­ser­tion, as he fumed about the on­go­ing Rus­sia probe and a dam­ag­ing dossier on him that Democrats had funded.

“Where are hid­den and smashed DNC servers?” he tweeted. “Where are Crooked Hil­lary Emails? What a mess!”

There are other lines Trump has crossed that go more di­rectly to the in­sti­tu­tional role of the pres­i­dent in a demo­cratic repub­lic.

Other pres­i­dents have com­plained about bi­ased news cov­er­age, but they’ve still paid homage to the role of in­de­pen­dent jour­nal­ism in hold­ing the pow­er­ful to ac­count. None be­fore Trump has used the press so re­lent­lessly as a foil, or taken such pains to sow doubts about the ve­rac­ity of crit­i­cal re­port­ing, let alone la­beled the press “the en­emy of the Amer­i­can peo­ple.”

“It’s im­pos­si­ble to imag­ine any pres­i­dent say­ing that,” Edel­son said. “It’s a cri­sis for con­sti­tu­tional democ­racy and it’s a test. Maybe things will hold, maybe they won’t.”

Doug Mills/The New York Times

Amer­i­can democ­racy hinges not just on checks and bal­ances but also on norms and ex­pec­ta­tions. Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump has shat­tered one af­ter another — to the de­light of some and the cha­grin of oth­ers.

Chip So­mod­ev­illa/Getty Im­ages

Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump has re­fused to set aside busi­ness in­ter­ests, ques­tioned the le­git­i­macy of judges, railed at a free press and de­clared him­self a “very sta­ble ge­nius” — all things the coun­try has never seen in its leader. Will fu­ture pres­i­dents find it eas­ier to flout con­ven­tion?

2017 File Photo/The New York Times

Even if the next pres­i­dent is the an­tiTrump — staid and po­lite, a sea­soned Wash­ing­ton hand sur­rounded by loyal aides — there’s the pos­si­bil­ity that Trump has stretched the def­i­ni­tion of ac­cept­able be­hav­ior by a com­man­der in chief.

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