All the President’s Power Moves

Trump keeps crossing lines that were set up to protect the office of the presidency.

Donald Trump waving to the camera and looking confident.
President Donald Trump walks along the South Lawn to Marine One as he departs the White House on Jan. 31, 2020. Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images

On this week’s Political Gabfest, Emily Bazelon, John Dickerson, and David Plotz discussed the Democrats after New Hampshire, Trump’s emboldened post-impeachment moves, and COVID-19. This transcript of one exchange from their conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

David Plotz: It is just a week since the president was acquitted by the Senate, and he is clearly chastened. He has only fired his EU ambassador and sacked and had escorted out of the White House a witness against him, along with the witness’s brother. He has caused an extraordinary intervention in the case of his ally Roger Stone, attacked a federal judge in that case, prompted the entire prosecutorial team at the Justice Department to quit the case, withdrawn the nomination of an official who had helped oversee the Stone case, and had his Justice Department set up a special channel to accept seedy back channel information gathered by Rudy Giuliani. He has certainly learned his lesson, hasn’t he, Emily?

Emily Bazelon: He’s so contrite, so constrained.

Plotz: The machinations around the Stone sentencing were truly shocking. The Roger Stone sentence was recommended at one level by prosecutors, and at the order of someone, but certainly with the support of the president, that recommendation has been slashed, causing the prosecutors to quit.

Bazelon: This goes to the heart of the very tricky relationship between the Justice Department and the White House. Since Watergate, we have worried a lot about the independence of prosecutorial investigations that the president cares about. We want to have decisions based on the rule of law, independent principles, not political considerations.

This intervention was about lightening a sentence for Roger Stone, but other interventions are about investigating the president’s enemies. In the future we could see greater punishment for the president’s enemies. When you imagine living in a country in which the president can direct prosecutors to go after anyone he doesn’t like and change their decisions according to his whims, that’s scary. Trump is heading in that direction.

Plotz: John, is this important politically? Is there any constituency that is going to be moved by this, or is this just an insider fight that doesn’t spill out into public support or public outrage?

John Dickerson: Well, the cynical answer is that this will have a strong political effect, and that political effect will accrue to the president’s benefit. We’ve seen from the campaign in 2016, when he endorsed the power move of denying Merrick Garland a hearing, then through his presidency, and now in his reaction to his acquittal, we’ve seen him increasingly take power moves. Each time, one of his power moves has crossed a line that was set up through tradition to protect the office of the presidency. Each time, the line has been erased, and the power move has been applauded. We saw that in the impeachment trial in a number of different ways, not just in the acquittal, but, for example, there was a period when the president said it was fine to receive intelligence information from a foreign country for the purposes of serving your campaign, and a number of Republicans said, no, no, that’s wrong. And then during his impeachment trial, his lawyers said, Oh, it’s fine. And Republicans said, Oh yeah, that’s true. So, you saw the norm shift in the space of a few months. Each time the president has made a power move, it has been applauded and signed up for by the party. This is another power move.

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