If there has been one comforting development during the first weeks of Donald Trump’s up-and-down presidency, it is that the genius of the Founding Fathers is being vindicated. The checks and balances of our democracy appear to be working—at least most of them.
Most conspicuous has been the way that the media have been holding the administration to account by revealing its innermost workings, thanks to a plethora of leaks. Admittedly, as Trump-skeptical conservative Tom Nichols noted in the Washington Post, the press—and even more the Twitterati—have a tendency to freak out over small stuff that doesn’t warrant any hyperventilation. As examples, Trump designating his inauguration day a “Day of Patriotic Devotion,” demanding that all political appointees leave their ambassadorial posts on January 20, or issuing small-scale technical corrections to the sanctions on Russia.
But on the whole, the media have performed their watchdog function in spite of Trump and his aides’ attempts to intimidate them into keeping “their mouths shut.” Even Bill O’Reilly, a Trump supporter, commendably held the president’s feet to the fire in a pre-Super Bowl interview in which Trump tried to wave away Putin’s sins and to claim, without any evidence, that millions voted illegally.
“Saturday Night Live,” an entertainment–not a news–show, has done its part in acting as a check on Trump by continuing to lampoon him and his administration in spite of his vocal displeasure. Indeed SNL hit a new high point this weekend with Melissa McCarthy’s hilarious spoof of press secretary Sean Spicer.
The judiciary has also played an important role in reining in President Trump’s ill-thought-out executive order banning refugees and all visitors from seven Muslim nations. This weekend, Judge James Robart, responding to a suit filed by the state of Washington, issued a sweeping order that prevents the implementation of Trump’s decree across the country. The president fulminated in response on Twitter, writing: “Just cannot believe a judge would put our country in such peril. If something happens blame him and court system. People pouring in. Bad!”
This is a cheap shot and one that entirely ignores the role of Trump’s own incendiary rhetoric and actions in potentially goading more Muslims to become terrorists. But if such rhetoric from the president is intended to intimidate the judiciary, it has not, so far, worked. Robart, after all, is one of many judges who put a halt to the implementation of various parts of the executive order.
Less noticeably but just as importantly, Trump’s Cabinet appointees have begun to act as a check on him as well. According to Josh Rogin, writing in the Washington Post (in an article disputed by the White House), Steve Bannon, the chief White House strategist, tried to prevent retired General John Kelly, the secretary of homeland security, from issuing a waiver that would allow Green Card holders from the seven banned nations re-entry to the United States. If Rogin’s account is accurate, Kelly rebuffed Bannon, telling him that he took orders only from the president. The waiver went ahead.
In similar fashion, thanks to pushback from Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, the White House belatedly granted a waiver allowing Iraqi and Afghan interpreters to continue coming to the U.S. Also apparently due to opposition from Mattis and CIA Director Mike Pompeo, the White House shelved plans to issue an executive order reviving the CIA’s “black site” holding facilities and the use of torture.
Now that Rex Tillerson is confirmed, and once more political appointees join the Departments of State and Defense, it is reasonable to expect that their role as a check on overweening action initiated by White House ideologues will grow.
But so far there is one conspicuously missing check on President Trump: that would be the legislative branch of government. To be sure, individual Republican lawmakers have spoken out against some of his excesses, most notably Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, thereby earning the president’s ire. This weekend, Senator Ben Sasse and Representative Liz Cheney, among others, were laudably forthright in denouncing the president’s attempts to suggest that the U.S. is no better than Russia. But these have been more the exceptions than the rules.
Most Republican lawmakers, while hardly enamored of President Trump, appear to be intimidated by him, fearing, no doubt, that he will mobilize his fervent supporters against them in a future Republican primary. This may help to explain why Congress is not doing more to investigate the mysterious connections between Trump’s camp and the Kremlin after the U.S. intelligence community concluded that Putin’s hackers tried to swing the election for him.
An even more puzzling failure is the unwillingness of Congress to legislate on the subject of immigration. Republican lawmakers spent years rightly criticizing President Obama for ruling by executive order. Now they are standing by as President Trump does the same thing. What happens if the courts ultimately invalidate all or part of Trump’s executive order? Presumably, it will be back to the drawing board—but why should the president and a handful of aides determine the immigration policies that affect tens of millions of people? This is an area where Congress should exercise its prerogative by writing the rules after all due deliberation.
On the whole, however, and despite Congress’s weak showing so far, the system is working, demonstrating that there is far more to our government than one individual in the Oval Office. That should be a cause for guarded optimism going forward.