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A Lilliputian Congress Needs to Grow Up

In a deeply polarized era, Congress must reassert its own constitutional powers and rein in the reigning monarch in the Oval Office.

August 28, 2017

The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.

CHILMARK, Mass.—Conforming to every conservative cliché about the media, I am typing these words on Martha’s Vineyard. I suppose I could claim that I am here solely for journalistic reasons—maybe by sampling the agricultural vote at the West Tisbury Farmer’s Market. But any illusion of vacation keeps being marred by the omnipresent specter of Donald Trump.

The Vineyard in August offers a crash course in East Coast elite liberal opinion. A few months ago, it seemed like impeachment was the dominant anti-Trump fantasy. But, now, everyone on the island comes equipped with his or her own Trump resignation scenario.

The rationales for Trump moving out of a White House that he castigates as “a real dump” are as varied as they are creative. And many are introduced with a whispered credit to Washington insiders, who are invariably Democrats.

The simplest version has Trump jumping ship to return to his old life —a hedonistic existence mercifully free of both Kim Jung-un and Mitch McConnell. Other popular possibilities imagine Trump fleeing Washington to avoid destroying his business brand or inflicting a debacle of a 2018 election on the Republican Party.

Special counsel Robert Mueller often looms large in these Trump-goes-vamoose predictions. An artful, if unproven, theory suggests that the Russia investigation will lead to allegations of money laundering by the Trump empire. The supposed result: Trump will resign in exchange for a pardon from President Mike Pence.

Far from me to claim that any of these scenarios are impossible. If nothing else, the last two years have taught us about the infinite number of jests that God has in mind for America’s experiment with democracy. But without any first-hand knowledge of the Mueller investigation or Trump’s psyche (a chilling place to visit), I am inclined to believe that these resignation fantasies represent just the latest wrinkle in liberal wish fulfillment.

The truth is that nothing in our constitutional framework has prepared the nation for a president like Trump. Governing as a guttersnipe ignoramus is not an impeachable offense. Nor is there any constitutional requirement that a president refrain from threatening a nuclear attack against prominent senators of his own party.  

So I understand the continuing need to believe that our seven-month national nightmare will soon be over. If only the Trump presidency could be erased in the style of the 1980s blockbuster TV series “Dallas,” which eliminated a misguided plot twist by announcing that it had all been a bad dream. But there is not apt to be a deus-ex-machina moment in this drama when a Greek god suddenly appears from the sky to yank Trump off stage.  

Short of our reality-show president retreating to his personal Elba in Trump Tower or the Mueller investigation unearthing a signed contract between Trump and Vladimir Putin, what are we to do? There has to be some alternative to passively accepting the next 41 months of Trump’s assault on the presidency.

The place to look for inspiration is the early 1970s when liberals were rightly enraged over another Republican president. The Nixon years brought with it something beyond impeachment—and that was an intense questioning of what historian Arthur Schlesinger called “the uncritical cult of the activist Presidency.”

In his 1973 book, The Imperial Presidency, Schlesinger, a prior advocate of presidential power, acknowledged the dangers of Congress abdicating its war-making power under the Constitution to whoever occupies the Oval Office. As Schlesinger summarized in an afterword in the 2004 edition of the book, “In the last half century, international crises, genuine, contrived or imagined, has at last given Presidents the opportunity to exercise…almost royal prerogatives.”

With congressional Democrats and many Republicans (at least, privately) aware of the dangers posed by Trump, this is an apt time to rein in the reigning monarch in the Oval Office.

At minimum, there is the proposal by Massachusetts Sen. Ed Markey and California Rep. Ted Lieu, both Democrats, to require a congressional declaration of war before a president could launch a nuclear first strike. (Why exactly are we depending on Trump’s good judgment to protect us from blundering into a nuclear exchange on the Korean peninsula?). In similar fashion, bipartisan groups of senators are toying with legislation to limit Trump’s ability to fire Mueller as a way of shutting down the Russia investigation.

But there are dozens of avenues—large and small—to legislatively protect the nation against a president whose unhinged rampages appall over 60 percent of American voters.

Why, for example, has Congress funded an oversized communications staff in the White House if mendacity and stonewalling is their stock in trade? Why absent a credible threat is the Secret Service providing nonstop protection for Trump’s adult children? (A single Eric Trump business trip to Uruguay cost the Secret Service $100,000 for hotel rooms alone). Why has Congress allowed government secrecy and presidential executive privilege to expand to such degree that large swaths of Trump World are shrouded from public view? And isn’t it time for Congress to pass a federal shield law for reporters and to explicitly protect journalists from being charged under espionage laws in leak investigations?

In a deeply polarized era, reasserting its own constitutional powers may be one of those rare causes that could win bipartisan support in Congress. For a Lilliputian Congress cannot protect us against a demagogue in the White House. 

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