The King Lear Era of Donald Trump’s Presidency

Unconstrained by the law, enabled by his staff, the unitary executive is raging.

Donald Trump speaks while pointing a finger to the ceiling.
President Donald Trump speaks to reporters at the Oval Office of the White House on Feb. 11. Mark Wilson/Getty Images

On Thursday, President Donald Trump railed at the Oscars for awarding its highest honors to a foreign film. He then installed an acclaimed insult comic with no national intelligence experience as his acting director of national intelligence, because he prefers hearing from intelligence directors who tell him what he wants to believe as opposed to what is happening. He also indicated that when he threatens judges and jurors involved in federal criminal cases it’s OK because he has First Amendment needs that transcend the demands of rule of law. In other words, in the span of a few days, we’ve moved from unitary executive to peak Lear-wandering-on-the-heath executive. The only remaining operative question is: Who will be rewarded for loving the king as much as the king demands?

The American constitutional order is comprised of two camps in this moment: the president’s enemies and the president’s staffers. Having asserted this week that he is the “chief law enforcement officer of the United States,” and having previously concluded that the Constitution gives him “the right to do whatever I want,” the president has carved the world into the only two categories he comprehends: his interchangeable fixers and his mortal enemies. Attorney General Bill Barr, who auditioned for his position by offering himself up specifically as a fixer, has tried as valiantly as possible to get the president to stop tweeting about ongoing criminal matters. He even said he might quit if the president didn’t stop treating him like the president’s pool boy. Needless to say, he didn’t quit, and is, as a formal matter now, the president’s pool boy.

Even when they depart, nobody ever stops being on the president’s roster of lifelong staffers. Not Don McGahn, not John Bolton, not John Kelly, and not Hope Hicks. Some of them leave the White House and then some drift back to the White House, emptying ashtrays and hampering attempts at obstruction, but they’re forever on staff, lashed to the president by way of elaborate (unenforceable) NDAs, or legal claims of absolute privilege, or by their own paradoxical beliefs that they are not in fact essential to the plot, but also that you should definitely preorder their book about the experience on Amazon.

Staffers are frequently upbraided when they are not appropriately servile. Jeff Sessions is not sufficiently loyal and so is replaced by a Bill Barr. Former acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire, who helped cover up the Ukraine scandal, is not sufficiently loyal and is to be replaced by an internet troll who will be a part-time ambassador to Germany. Because offering truthful information about Russian threats to the 2020 election indicates disloyalty, the only staffers who can remain on the payroll are those who remember to tell the emperor that his waistcoat is superb. This is pretty standard King George III territory, all bowing and scraping and insisting that the sovereign simply cannot be made to understand that there are rules and procedures, until the rules and procedures stop mattering at all.

Judge Amy Berman Jackson deserves immense credit for taking 45 minutes in her sentencing of Roger Stone on Thursday to remind the president that she actually isn’t on his staff. In her insistence that words have consequences and truth still matters and undermining institutions threatens to topple liberal democracy itself, she was uncompromising about the need for law, neutral arbiters, congressional oversight, and proportionality. The president didn’t understand any of this. Instead, he reminded her that he has limitless pardon power that he will deploy when the time is right. Time and again, we are given to understand that Donald Trump simply does not grasp the fact that the Department of Justice isn’t his personal law firm. It seems everyone’s just given up on attempting to change his mind. We are all in agreement: He’s the only arbiter of his constraints. Spoiler: He doesn’t believe in constraints.

It is ironic, one supposes, that the man who believes himself to be unconditionally empowered has somehow allowed himself to be a purely transactional bit player in a larger Russian scheme to foment mistrust of U.S. election systems. It would demand a smaller ego for Donald Trump to recognize that he was already a pawn in 2016 and is still a useful pawn in 2020. But, having surrounded himself with those who see their role as limiting the flow of unhappy news to him, the fact that he cannot understand how little he understands has become the central feature of his presidency. As the New York Times’ push alert for its news story on Russian interference put it yesterday, “Russia is aiding President Trump in the 2020 election, intelligence officials told lawmakers. Mr. Trump complained Democrats might exploit the news.” That extraordinary pairing of sentences now feels rather normal. The constitutional universe is finally shrunk down to the size of one man’s ability to understand the constitutional universe.

Donald Trump is very dissatisfied with Brad Pitt, bad cops, his intelligence agencies, congressional intelligence briefings, a Roger Stone juror, and the fact that they just don’t make films like Gone With the Wind anymore. Because this is the scope of his constitutional aperture, the world is formally split into friends and enemies, loyalists and spies, the underlings and the other, fired underlings. In this one sense only, Donald Trump was wrong about the limitless reach of his own Article II powers: Yes, they are seemingly infinite, but the rest of us occupy a world that is ever more tragically constrained by the failures of his imagination.