Faced with President Trump’s executive orders suspending immigration from several Muslim nations and ordering the building of a border wall, and his threats to terminate the North American Free Trade Agreement, even Alexander Hamilton, our nation’s most ardent proponent of executive power, would be worried by now.
Article II of the Constitution vests the president with “the executive power,” but does not define it. Most of the Constitution instead limits that power, as with the president’s duty “to take care that the laws are faithfully executed,” or divides that power with Congress, as with making treaties or appointing Supreme Court justices.
Hamilton argued that good government and “energy in the executive” went hand in hand. In The Federalist No. 70, he wrote that the framers, to encourage “decision, activity, secrecy and dispatch,” entrusted the executive power in a unified branch headed by a single person, the president.
Many of Hamilton’s intellectual admirers today endorse the theory of the unitary executive, which holds that the Constitution grants the president all of the remaining executive powers that existed at the time of the founding. These include the powers to conduct foreign affairs, protect the national security, interpret and execute the law and manage all lower-level federal officers.
As an official in the Justice Department, I followed in Hamilton’s footsteps, advising that President George W. Bush could take vigorous, perhaps extreme, measures to protect the nation after the Sept. 11 attacks, including invading Afghanistan, opening the Guantánamo detention center and conducting military trials and enhanced interrogation of terrorist leaders. Likewise, I supported President Barack Obama when he drew on this source of constitutional power for drone attacks and foreign electronic surveillance.
But even I have grave concerns about Mr. Trump’s uses of presidential power.
During the campaign, Mr. Trump gave little sign that he understood the constitutional roles of the three branches, as when he promised to appoint justices to the Supreme Court who would investigate Hillary Clinton. (Judge Neil M. Gorsuch will not see this as part of his job description.) In his Inaugural Address, Mr. Trump did not acknowledge that his highest responsibility, as demanded by his oath of office, is to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution.” Instead, he declared his duty to represent the wishes of the people and end “American carnage,” seemingly without any constitutional restraint.
While my robust vision of the presidency supports some of Mr. Trump’s early executive acts — presidents have the power to terminate international agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership, for example — others are more dubious. Take his order to build a wall along the border with Mexico, and his suggestion that he will tax Mexican imports or currency transfers to pay for it. The president has no constitutional authority over border control, which the Supreme Court has long found rests in the hands of Congress. Under Article I of the Constitution, only Congress can fund the construction of a wall, a fence or even a walking path along the border. And the president cannot slap a tax or tariff on Mexican imports without Congress.
Nor can Mr. Trump pull the United States out of Nafta, because Congress made the deal with Mexico and Canada by statute. Presidents have no authority to cancel tariff and trade laws unilaterally.
Immigration has driven Mr. Trump even deeper into the constitutional thickets. Even though his executive order halting immigration from seven Muslim nations makes for bad policy, I believe it falls within the law. But after the order was issued, his adviser Rudolph Giuliani disclosed that Mr. Trump had initially asked for “a Muslim ban,” which would most likely violate the Constitution’s protection for freedom of religion or its prohibition on the state establishment of religion, or both — no mean feat. Had Mr. Trump taken advantage of the resources of the executive branch as a whole, not just a few White House advisers, he would not have rushed out an ill-conceived policy made vulnerable to judicial challenge.
Mr. Trump’s firing of the acting attorney general, Sally Yates, for her stated intention not to defend his immigration policy, also raises concerns. Even though the constitutional text is silent on the issue, long historical practice and Supreme Court precedent have recognized a presidential power of removal. Mr. Trump was thus on solid footing, because attorneys general have a duty to defend laws and executive orders, so long as they have a plausible legal grounding. But the White House undermined its valid use of the removal power by accusing Ms. Yates of being “weak on borders and very weak on illegal immigration.” Such irrelevant ad hominem accusations suggest a misconception of the president’s authority of removal.
A successful president need not have a degree in constitutional law. But he should understand the Constitution’s grant of executive power. He should share Hamilton’s vision of an energetic president leading the executive branch in a unified direction, rather than viewing the government as the enemy. He should realize that the Constitution channels the president toward protecting the nation from foreign threats, while cooperating with Congress on matters at home.
Otherwise, our new president will spend his days overreacting to the latest events, dissipating his political capital and haphazardly wasting the executive’s powers.
Originally posted in The New York Times under the title “Executive Power Run Amok.”