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Trump's team doesn't understand the American presidency

President Donald Trump speaks on the phone with Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Oval Office of the White House, January 28, 2017, in Washington, DC.
President Donald Trump speaks on the phone with Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Oval Office of the White House, January 28, 2017, in Washington, DC.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

I'll start by saying that a lot of political scientists have misunderstood the presidency too. The mainstream of the field has spent decades marginalizing the study of the presidency, where we have few "cases" to work with and a tradition of doing qualitative and historical work (though this has changed a lot), and the most important developments are difficult to measure. I hope that the events of the past year, the past week, and the past 48 hours have left us ready to jettison these disciplinary prejudices.

But much more important is the failure of the White House's new occupants to understand how the presidency works. Where mainstream political science has focused on the limits of presidential power, the new administration has embraced its unilateral capacities.

This on its own is not completely unique. As I note here, presidents are often quite active early on in their terms, and they use executive orders to symbolically and substantively break with their predecessors.

The most disruptive action so far has been an executive order that meant various immigrants and visitors to the US, including green card holders, were turned away at the nation's airports on the basis their countries of origin. The response was a wave of protests at many airports, some of which featured elected officials. (As far as I know, there were no Republicans among the elected officials who joined the protests, which is unfortunate in light of the eloquent conservative condemnations of the immigration ban.)

Presidential power is a blunt and heavy instrument. A lot can be changed with an executive order, with political effects that reverberate far beyond the immediate policy impact. Trump and his team have figured this out, but they haven't quite gotten the other side of the equation.

The flip side of this is that because of this immense power, presidents have an obligation to speak and to listen. The informal norm that has developed over time is that when they take strong, disruptive action, presidents speak to the nation to explain the trade-offs and constitutional principles at stake. FDR did this with his "fireside chats" when he took extreme, unilateral actions like declaring a bank holiday. Barack Obama did this when he announced the Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals policy. George W. Bush addressed the nation to explain the troop surge in Iraq in early 2007, after losing a midterm election.

These leaders were not perfect, not by a long shot. Intelligent, engaged Americans disagree passionately about whether these actions were correct. During recent administrations, many of us were probably too complacent across the board. But in each case, the rationale was laid out and put in context of the national interest. Bush and Obama carefully linked their justifications to American history and values. They also address and validate the concerns of critics. Trump's weekly address on Saturday, by contrast, was basically a laundry list of his executive orders.

Lest we write this off as mere inexperience, there are signs that rhetorical negligence is part of a larger misunderstanding of how the presidency and the Constitution work. In his first meeting with national news outlets, White House press secretary Sean Spicer said that accountability would be a "two-way street," and the White House would hold the press accountable.

No, sir, that is not how the presidency works. It is not how the First Amendment works. Because of the immense power of the presidency, it is strictly not allowed to exert control over the media. Both the news media and the executive branch are accountable to the people of the United States. The Constitution grants freedom to the press; to the presidency, obligation.

These distinctions and relationships are important. Let's say for the sake of the argument that both the "mainstream media" and the government are full of out-of-touch elites. In a tie, the victory still goes to the side of freedom.

The Supreme Court has been very clear on freedom of the press and freedom of speech more generally, sometimes to the annoyance of both ends of the political spectrum. Tomorrow, according to reports, Trump will announce a Supreme Court nominee. The president gets to do this. The trade-off — in Constitution-reading circles, we call these checks and balances — is that the executive branch must abide by Court decisions.

A similar warning is invited by White House adviser Kellyanne Conway, who tweeted Saturday, "Get used to it. @POTUS is a man of action and impact."

Nope. Say it with me now: That's not how the presidency works at all. The office is certainly one conducive to action and impact, I'll give them that. And Trump, by winning the Electoral College, has earned the right to use those considerable, but not unlimited, powers. The highest office in the land is subject to the highest degree of public scrutiny and critique. You do not tell citizens to get used to it; elected officials need to get used to working for the public trust that is the price for their authority. Mr. Trump, you are an officer of the Constitution. Never forget, and remind your staff: You work for us.