Ruling reminds public that ‘presidents are not kings’


The Editorial Board


Published 11: 07 PM EST Nov 27, 2019

In justifying their defiance of Congress, Trump administration officials have often asserted broad presidential powers.

Sometimes these assertions have come in lowbrow form, such as presidential tweets or petulant letters from the White House counsel. But sometimes they have come in weightier tones, and from none other than the nation’s chief law enforcement officer.

Attorney General William Barr recently outlined these views to the Federalist Society, saying: “To my mind, the real ‘miracle’ in Philadelphia that summer (1787) was the creation of a strong Executive. … ”

This is utter fiction.

Article I of the Constitution, dealing with the Congress, is lengthy and full of detailed powers — to pass laws, coin money, declare war, raise armies, collect taxes, impose duties and more.  If it could achieve a two-thirds consensus, Congress could in effect run the government itself.

Article II, dealing with the executive, is short and full of powers that are relatively trivial or subject to congressional approval. A president can’t even staff the Cabinet without the consent of the Senate.

At times, courts and Congresses have seen Barr’s expansive view as a useful fiction.

As the agrarian World of the Framers gave way to the industrial revolution, the Civil War, two World wars and the Cold War, the two other branches began to indulge presidential claims to broad power.

One of the more remarkable is the ability to reprogram funds in direct contradiction to Article I, Section 9, which says: “No money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in consequence of Appropriations made by Law.”

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Another is a limited right to withhold information on the basis of executive privilege, which is part, but far from all, of the administration’s case for refusing to cooperate with congressional investigations.

Barr, who has long asserted that the Founding Fathers intended a strong presidency, goes farther. He argues that a president has absolute power over the executive branch, and that power affords him rights to resist subpoenas, even defy laws.

People who make this case often cite the “executive power” clause at the top of Article II, ignoring the self-evident fact that it is only a rubric under which the president’s actual powers are enumerated. In his speech, Barr used as his main source a letter — a letter! — from Thomas Jefferson to John Adams nearly a decade after the drafting of the Constitution.

Congresses and courts have bent and stretched the Constitution on the grounds that an 18th century presidency is impractical in the 20th and 21st centuries, and on the belief that presidents would act in good faith.

Now comes Barr arguing the Constitution needs to be stretched further — this time in the name of a president intent on corrupting the executive branch to his political benefit.  

The attorney general is not only wrong, he will undermine his own cause, forcing courts to revisit their past accommodations. He got a taste of that Monday with a federal court ruling that the administration cannot simply stonewall Congress, declaring that “presidents are not kings.” 

The decision was a useful reminder that if Americans wanted royalty, they wouldn’t have revolted against George III. The vast overreach by Trump and his enablers will, in all likelihood, ultimately result in diminished powers for future presidents. 

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USA TODAY’s editorial opinions are decided by its Editorial Board, separate from the news staff. Most editorials are coupled with an opposing view — a unique USA TODAY feature.

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