TERRY GROSS, HOST:
That is FRESH AIR. I am Terry Gross. We’ll speak about how Trump has modified the presidency and the way he is persevering with to vary it through the pandemic. My visitor Benjamin Wittes is the co-author, together with Susan Hennessey, of the brand new e book “Unmaking The Presidency: Donald Trump’s Conflict On The World’s Most Highly effective Workplace.” Wittes co-founded and is editor-in-chief of Lawfare weblog, a self-described non-partisan web site dedicated to dialogue of laborious nationwide safety decisions. He is a contributing author at The Atlantic and a former editorial author at The Washington Publish. He is additionally the co-author of the 2015 e book “The Future Of Violence: Robots And Germs, Hackers And Drones – Confronting A New Age Of Risk.”
Ben Wittes, welcome to FRESH AIR. I hope you are feeling effectively at this time.
BENJAMIN WITTES: Thanks. I am effectively, and I hope you’re as effectively.
GROSS: I’m, too. Thanks for asking. So once you wrote your new e book, you thought the large unanswered query was going to be the result of impeachment. You had no concept there was a virus on the best way. Has the virus modified or deepened your considerations about President Trump?
WITTES: Yeah. I imply, it has very a lot deepened the anxieties that led us to write down the e book. And so whereas the phrases coronavirus by no means seem within the e book, the behaviors that the president is engaged in in coping with this disaster is exactly the topic of the e book.
GROSS: So that you describe President Trump as working a really expressive, a really private presidency. And by that, you do not imply that he’s, you understand, actually personable to folks, that he expresses himself effectively. I need you to elucidate what you do imply by a private and expressive presidency.
WITTES: Yeah. So, you understand, the thought of a private presidency is to tell apart from what we’d name the method presidency, proper? So the – as the manager department grew all by the 20th century, you had this downside. Presidents have this downside, which was – how do you handle these businesses which will have very totally different pursuits? The State Division could wish to do one factor, however which will battle with what the Protection Division or the Company for Worldwide Improvement desires to do in the identical area on the identical time. And so we developed all of those processes for finding out disputes inside the authorities and to permit the president – as points percolate as much as the president, to make use of solely one of the best data and to essentially give attention to solely these points that solely the president can resolve that may’t be resolved at points – at layers far down beneath him within the authorities.
The non-public presidency, which we consider as a creature of – within the fashionable period, of Donald Trump, is when the president says, I do not care about any of these processes. I simply wish to shoot from the hip. And we have gotten very used to, over the many years, the presidency being very process-driven. Presidents need one of the best data they will have, and Trump doesn’t. He desires to do what he desires to do, and he desires to do it regardless of what the so-called interagency course of advises him. And also you see that in a really deep means proper now within the coronavirus disaster.
GROSS: So that you say, like, he is not occupied with listening to data which will contradict what it’s that he simply personally desires to do. The opposite day at certainly one of his press conferences, when requested if he had consulted earlier presidents about how they’ve dealt with comparable conditions, he brushed it off and mentioned that he – mainly, that he did not suppose it was vital. He had nice folks on his group, and he wasn’t going to seek the advice of different presidents. Is that the form of factor you are considering of, too?
WITTES: Nicely, so that’s – you understand, this kind of brings me to the expressive dimensions of the workplace. The presidency has expressive elements, proper? It is an unbelievable platform. Theodore Roosevelt famously referred to as it the bully pulpit. However it’s – at its core, it isn’t an expressive workplace. It is a administration workplace. It is the apex of a big sequence of interlocking bureaucracies. And the basic job is to run these businesses, to run the federal government, proper? It is – there is a motive it is referred to as the manager department, not the expressive department.
And Trump, the – one of many core options of the Trump presidency is the elevation of the expressive, private dimensions of the workplace, what we name within the e book the vainness plate components of the workplace, over all of these administration features. And so it is the fixed tweeting, the giving of the every day press convention the place he talks so much about himself. It is the saying issues on this – in these dramatic gestures that he loves. It is the rallies. And that is profoundly totally different from the steadiness that different presidents have dropped at the workplace. Different presidents have actually exploited the expressive dimensions of the workplace, however Trump has actually made them the central function of the presidency.
GROSS: I believe one of many issues that has been regarding a number of Individuals is when President Trump says issues – as an illustration, at his coronavirus press conferences – that are not true concerning the virus, about the right way to behave through the virus. After which one of many medical consultants form of underplays that or, you understand, like, walks it again. And I believe lots of people are questioning when the president says one thing utilizing all the ability of his podium and says issues that are not true and constantly – like, and continuously does that, what energy does anybody have to forestall that from occurring once more?
And simply it constitutionally, you say that after we ask about President Trump, can he do this, the reply is normally sure. There’s nothing written. There’s nothing within the regulation. There’s nothing within the Structure that claims he cannot. So let’s take the instance of the president saying issues on the podium concerning the virus which might be unfaithful. What’s there to cease him from repeating issues like that?
WITTES: That is a wonderful query. The quick reply is there may be nothing, and the normal expectations of what would inhibit that aren’t clearly working. So the primary part that’s purported to inhibit a president from mendacity – and mendacity so much – is the oath of workplace, proper? The president swears an oath to faithfully execute the workplace of the president and to do his greatest to make sure that the legal guidelines are faithfully executed. Now, it’s laborious to sq. that with serially misrepresenting issues. And so the primary part is simply conscience – proper? – that folks truly – bear in mind; the founders had been – lived in an honor tradition the place an oath actually meant one thing. We’re much less dedicated to that, however folks swear an oath, and it does act on them. In order that’s purported to bind him.
The second factor that’s purported to bind him is the concern of political destructive penalties – proper? – that for those who lie so much then you haven’t any credibility, that there’s a reserve of credibility within the workplace of president that you simply want. You want it in your interactions with Congress. You want it in your interactions with overseas leaders. In case your phrase doesn’t suggest something, it is truly tougher to get folks to do one thing as a result of for those who promise them a profit in return for doing the US a superb flip or doing the manager department a superb flip, they may not imagine you, or they will not imagine you. So the concern of destructive penalties is meant to have an effect. After which the third one – that, you understand, is clearly working on the Trump administration, however it does not – it isn’t working adequately.
Then the third one is, you understand, political retaliation from voters, and we can’t know till November whether or not that’s an enough one to take care of this example. However look – all presidents lie not less than typically. This president is totally different. He lies, you understand, a number of occasions a day in a style that’s unprecedented within the historical past of the nation, and it is likely one of the options of his presidency that’s most, most placing.
GROSS: Let’s take a brief break right here, after which we’ll discuss some extra. In the event you’re simply becoming a member of us, my visitor is Ben Wittes. He is co-author of the brand new e book “Unmaking The Presidency: Donald Trump’s Conflict On The World’s Most Highly effective Workplace.” He is additionally co-founder of Lawfare weblog. We’ll be proper again after we take a brief break. That is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: That is FRESH AIR. And for those who’re simply becoming a member of us, my visitor is Benjamin Wittes, co-author with Susan Hennessey of the brand new e book “Unmaking The Presidency: Donald Trump’s Conflict On The World’s Most Highly effective Workplace.” Wittes can be the co-founder of Lawfare weblog, which is dedicated to dialogue of laborious nationwide safety decisions.
The president continues to be attacking the media as faux information, and Individuals are tuning to cable information and tuning to the radio and studying newspapers to attempt to perceive what is going on on with the virus and the way they’re purported to behave to maintain secure or how they’re purported to care for their family members who’re ailing. And I assume as any individual who’s concerned with monitoring nationwide safety points, it appears to me the virus is a nationwide safety concern as a result of the safety of all Individuals is at stake right here. So what do you consider by way of nationwide safety once you hear the president persevering with to assault the media as faux information? What do you consider once you hear that?
WITTES: Proper. So that is essentially the most damaging factor you are able to do within the context of a virus. In the event you discuss to public well being folks about administration of those crises, one of many issues that they’ll inform you is that public data is likely one of the most essential issues. So what the president is doing right here is remarkably counterproductive and damaging. Now – on this particular context. Now, it is usually a part of a long-standing conflict that he’s combating not simply towards the media however towards different establishments as effectively. And the president’s assaults on these establishments embrace the media, however there – additionally embrace federal regulation enforcement, the intelligence neighborhood, the normal overseas coverage equipment.
And so, you understand, all of those entities have one factor in frequent, which is that they visitors in data that must be true with a purpose to be helpful and isn’t – not less than not when the establishments are functioning effectively – not propagandistic on behalf of the president. And that’s some – you understand, that unifying function of all of them makes them inconvenient for him and damaging for him and threatening to him, and so he assaults them.
GROSS: So I wish to get again to one thing that you simply say within the e book, which is commonly what folks say about an motion President Trump has taken – after they say, can he do this, you say, sometimes, sure, he can; there is no regulation, there is no factor within the Structure that claims he cannot. So when he assaults intelligence businesses who’re giving him data that’s the greatest data they might get, when he assaults the FBI after they give him data that is one of the best data they will get, when he discredits them, is there something within the regulation, is there something within the Structure that stops a president from stopping the circulation of essential data and discredits that data, when a president assaults his personal intelligence businesses and the leaders of these businesses?
WITTES: Proper. So that is, I believe, one of many core themes of the e book. You recognize, after we suppose in American historical past about abuse of presidential energy and about, you understand, threats of tyranny, we typically take into consideration illegality, proper? It is Nixon masking up the break-in on the Watergate and related exercise. Its unlawful detention of Japanese Individuals throughout World Conflict II, proper? We’re eager about circumstances through which authorities are exceeding their lawful energy.
However one of many core arguments that Susan and I make on this e book is that there’s one other technique to abuse energy, and that’s not illegality, however it’s merely nonfaithful use of the powers that you simply completely have. And the core of Donald Trump’s abuse, although there are illegalities, is just not illegality; the core is abusing powers that truly the president has. So the president has the ability to fireside the FBI director. The president has the ability to fireside the legal professional normal as a result of he recused himself in a case that the president wished him to, because the president mentioned publicly, shield him in, proper? These will not be presidential powers which might be disputed; they’re presidential powers which might be undoubted.
The president has the ability to talk. All the abusive assaults on regulation enforcement and the media contain the president talking. The president completely has the ability to try this. The president has the ability to pardon individuals who – for fully self-interested causes of his personal. These powers will not be disputed. And one of many core options of the Trumpian presidency is just not illegality, not exceeding presidential energy, however abusing the undisputed powers of the presidency.
GROSS: So, you understand, your e book “Unmaking The Presidency” is concerning the methods through which Trump has modified the presidency into an workplace that’s – as an alternative of being an govt workplace, the CEO of all of the businesses coordinating all of the businesses, he is made the workplace about himself and the issues he desires, typically ignoring what the businesses inform him. And also you’re eager about the 2020 election and whether or not voters will say, sure, that is the form of presidency we wish to proceed or, no, we reject that type of presidency.
Now it appears the entire election is on shaky floor proper now as a result of if the virus continues, then folks will not wish to go to the polls, for apparent causes. Plenty of states will not be outfitted for any form of long-distance voting by mail or some other kind. Some individuals are questioning, effectively, can the 2020 presidential election be postponed in the best way that some primaries are being postponed? So based mostly on all of your data of the Structure and regulation and presidential regulation, what can we find out about what occurs to a presidential election in a disaster like this?
WITTES: The reply is it can’t actually be postponed, and there are two causes for that. The primary is that there is a federal regulation that is specifies the date on which it has to happen. And so, you understand, that statute is very unlikely to be amended, you understand, between now and November, and due to this fact it can’t legally be postponed. The extra essential motive is that the Structure requires that the subsequent president, whether or not the incumbent for the second time or any individual else, takes the oath of workplace on January 20 of 2021, and that particular person can’t achieve this with out the Electoral School having formally elected her or him.
And so there isn’t any authorized foundation for Donald Trump to take the oath of workplace a second time if there has not been an election, you understand, between at times that authorizes him to take action. And so realistically, there isn’t any technique to postpone the election. I believe the extra vital risk is that the election will likely be carried out in a style that’s actually poor, as you describe, by way of folks’s entry to voting in a style that’s not a serious public well being hazard and a hazard to themselves as individuals who, you understand, should not be standing in traces and occupying crowded areas.
GROSS: So some primaries have already been postponed. Who is aware of what is going on to occur? Are you able to envision the opportunity of primaries being canceled? Would that be authorized? What if primaries occur however most individuals cannot actually vote? I imply, how can we be assured concerning the main?
WITTES: Proper. So the excellent news on – with respect to the primaries, is that their – the stakes are comparatively low within the sense that the – there’s a presumptive Democratic nominee at this level, though many Bernie Sanders supporters, together with Bernie Sanders, do not appear to just accept that. The end result is comparatively effectively understood. And so, you understand, the stakes are comparatively low. There isn’t a precise requirement that states have a main. They might – they will theoretically choose their delegates by different means. And that is largely, due to this fact, a query of state regulation that totally different states are going to deal with otherwise. There isn’t any good reply to this downside within the sense that you simply ideally need as many individuals to vote as potential in as many states as potential. However in contrast to the November election, it is a comparatively low-stakes and comparatively high-flexibility scenario.
GROSS: Let me reintroduce you right here. In the event you’re simply becoming a member of us, my visitor is Ben Wittes. He is co-author with Susan Hennessey of the brand new e book “Unmaking The Presidency: Donald Trump’s Conflict On The World’s Most Highly effective Workplace.” He is additionally the co-founder of Lawfare weblog, which is dedicated to dialogue of laborious nationwide safety decisions. We’ll be proper again after we take a brief break. I am Terry Gross, and that is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: That is FRESH AIR. I am Terry Gross. Let’s get again to my interview with Ben Wittes, co-author of the brand new e book “Unmaking The Presidency: Donald Trump’s Conflict On The World’s Most Highly effective Workplace.” He is additionally co-founder of Lawfare weblog, which is dedicated to dialogue of laborious nationwide safety decisions. We recorded this interview on Tuesday. I recorded this from my dwelling, and Ben Wittes was in his dwelling.
So you understand, a theme by your e book that we have talked about throughout this interview is when folks ask about President Trump – can he actually do this? – the reply is commonly sure, he can as a result of there is no regulation and nothing within the Structure that claims he cannot.
Did the Founding Fathers need it that means? – you understand, ‘trigger on the one hand, they wished to be sure that the president did not turn out to be a king and simply concern orders. On the identical time, as you identified, they’d religion in oaths. They’d religion in civic advantage. So did they wish to outline the presidency in a extra open-ended means?
WITTES: It is a actually attention-grabbing query, and I believe there’s two solutions to it. The primary is that the founders themselves didn’t have a single perspective concerning the presidency. They really disagreed about how empowered the president must be. And people disagreements actually got here into the fore within the 1790s.
That mentioned, they made sure decisions, they usually made them intentionally. They made the president a single particular person, proper? In parliamentary methods, the federal government is a collective physique, proper? So it is a very totally different function of the American presidency from kind of European parliamentary authorities. They made the president a single particular person, what’s referred to as a unitary govt. In addition they vested the president with simply immense discretion. And a few of that’s simply an inherent function of an workplace that may be a form of normal govt, proper? Anytime you go a regulation that claims the president could do that – proper? – that entails discretion as a result of there is a hundred methods to implement that regulation.
And they also intentionally created a presidency that may be a very versatile workplace, that may be a unitary workplace and that’s an workplace that has discretionary authority over every kind of issues. And that checklist has grown as Congress has handed legal guidelines commanding the president to do sure issues. And so yeah, I believe at some degree it was a deliberate alternative. It was a option to have a presidency that’s succesful, energetic and capable of adapt to circumstances in a short time and capable of act. And sure, it additionally has risks.
GROSS: You recognize, we’re speaking about how President Trump has modified the presidency. And naturally, the presidency has modified so much for the reason that days of the Founding Fathers. I imply, there weren’t all these businesses for the president to supervise. The nation was, after all, so much smaller. You speak about how President Grover Cleveland answered the White Home cellphone by himself – I assume telephones had been model new then – and the way Washington would, like, oversee every thing – he analyzed the funds of the U.S. publish workplace and simply form of micromanaged every thing as a result of he may. I imply, every thing was on a a lot smaller scale. What are among the key adjustments that you simply suppose have redefined the presidency through the years, over the centuries?
WITTES: Yeah. So an important one, which is alluded to by your query, is simply the expansion of the federal authorities, proper? So when, in Washington’s Cupboard, there was the secretary of state Thomas Jefferson and there was the secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, after all who hated one another – and the State Division on the time that Jefferson ran, I imagine, was composed of, like, 5 – 6 or seven clerks. You recognize, it’s – this was an establishment that he ran that was not that a lot bigger than himself. And so when the State Division and the Treasury Division had a dispute, that meant that Hamilton and Jefferson had an argument, proper?
Now fast-forward, and these establishments begin rising. And what we now would name Thomas Jefferson, who’s within the present period Mike Pompeo, is a huge constructing full of individuals. Proper? And Alexander Hamilton is one other large constructing full of individuals. And after they have an argument, the secretaries themselves could not even know that their businesses are having an argument. Issues must percolate up. And so an important distinction within the presidency is that the quantity of people that work in businesses that the president finally supervise is counted within the thousands and thousands now.
The second factor is that public expectations of the president and the president’s conduct have modified radically. So within the 19th century – all by the 19th century, presidents didn’t give coverage speeches. Once they wished to speak a few coverage matter, they did it in writing. And so they did it to not the general public however to Congress. We now have – beginning within the early 20th century, the presidency turned outward and have become a public-facing workplace in a means that it by no means actually was earlier than.
After which the ultimate factor is that the president’s – an entire material of regulation has grown up round presidential conduct – and – by which I imply the conduct of the company is that he supervises. And so you could have a extremely regulated workplace that’s public going through and that’s gigantic somewhat than a mainly unregulated workplace that was very private and small.
GROSS: So that you describe Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt because the presidents who actually modified the notions of what a presidency is. How did they modify it?
WITTES: The important thing actor right here is Woodrow Wilson. Within the 19th century, presidents didn’t converse to the general public besides in ceremonial settings. Proper? They talked to Congress. And Woodrow Wilson modified that in a profound means. He gave coverage speeches. Roosevelt did this somewhat bit within the years earlier than him, however this – the actual actor right here is Woodrow Wilson, who makes the presidency right into a form of rhetorical workplace. And this provides rise to what the – you understand, to all the hearth chats that the Franklin Roosevelt administration did, the kind of Saturday morning radio addresses – proper? – the speeches with laundry lists of coverage proposals. All of these are creatures of this variation that Woodrow Wilson put forth.
And what we’re experiencing now, I believe, is a further proposal for a radical change within the rhetorical nature of the presidency, which is Donald Trump is placing on the desk that the president must be in your ear on a regular basis – proper? – he must be tweeting a number of occasions a day; he must be insulting folks, proper? The concept that the president must be doing playground bully insults is a totally novel concept in presidential rhetoric.
And so one of many issues that I believe is basically on the desk after we take into consideration the Trump presidency is, do we would like an earthquake in presidential rhetoric on a scale of what occurred within the flip of the 20th century, when Woodrow Wilson started – actually modified the best way the presidency sounds?
GROSS: Nicely, Ben Wittes, I wish to thanks a lot for speaking with us. Please keep effectively.
WITTES: You, too. And to your whole listeners, social distancing is essential, even when it is uncomfortable.
GROSS: Ben Wittes is the co-author of the brand new e book “Unmaking The Presidency.” He co-founded and is editor in chief of Lawfare weblog. After we take a brief break, we’ll bear in mind playwright Terrence McNally. He died Tuesday of issues from the coronavirus. He was 81. He wrote the books for the musicals “Kiss Of The Spider Girl” and “Ragtime” and wrote the performs “Love! Valour! Compassion!” and “Grasp Class” and received Tonys for every of them in addition to a lifetime achievement Tony final yr. We’ll pay attention again to my 1993 interview with him. That is FRESH AIR.
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