Checks and balances on a president’s national security powers have never been more important.
NOV 13, 2016
The president of the United States has vast power — nearly unlimited in the realm of foreign affairs. He can order U.S. troops into combat. He can bomb any country he wants. He can round up illegal immigrants. He can spy on millions of people. Soon all that power will be in the hands of Donald J. Trump, hardly the most sober and restrained individual ever to occupy the Oval Office.
The checks and balances in our system will be more important in his administration than in any other. If Trump truly misbehaves, there is always the possibility he could be impeached. But let’s hope it never comes to that because it would be a terrible ordeal. The courts can also provide a check on some of his executive orders, but they seldom interfere in foreign affairs. Eventually, the voters will get another say. In the short term, however, the most important checks are political appointees, career professionals and legislators.
Trump’s appointees to high-level positions will be of immense importance especially in the realm of national security, where he knows little. The top three layers of jobs at the State Department, the Department of Defense and the National Security Council are the key ones: the secretaries of State and Defense, the deputy secretaries and the assistant secretaries, or at the NSC, the national security adviser, the deputy adviser and the senior directors.
By now, most presidential campaigns would have signed up multiple contenders for every position. That hasn’t been true with Trump, who confronts a schism the likes of which we have never seen before within the national security community.
I was one of 122 national security experts who signed a letter opposing Trump. The temptation now for me and my fellow #NeverTrumpers is to want nothing to do with a candidate we considered unfit for office. The temptation for Trump is to want nothing to do with people who considered him unfit. For the good of the country, I hope the two sides can come together.
Trump could learn something from Richard Nixon who, after winning the 1968 election, appointed as his national security adviser a Harvard professor named Henry Kissinger, whom he barely knew and who had spent the previous decade working for his opponent, Nelson Rockefeller. Nixon was famous for holding grudges, but even he realized the importance of reaching across the intra-Republican divide to get the best minds into his administration rather than simply rewarding his campaign loyalists. If Trump is half as smart as he thinks he is, he will emulate Nixon’s example, and he will not be threatened by the prospect that some of his nominees will disagree with him.
It is vitally important that a president get a full range of views, and that he appoint people who are willing to stand up to him when he’s wrong. Kissinger wrote that those close to Nixon “were expected, we believed, to delay implementing more exuberant directives, giving our president the opportunity to live out his fantasies and yet to act, through us, with the calculation that his other image of himself prescribed.” Trump’s appointees will need to perform a similar function — if he will let them.
That is true as well for the professional government employees who stay on regardless of administration. There are 2.6 million civilian employees of the executive branch and 1.5 million uniformed military personnel. Many of them, especially in agencies such as the State Department and the CIA, where the general political outlook is liberal, will be tempted to quit in disgust because they cannot fathom working for a man like Trump.
As a #NeverTrumper I sympathize with their concerns, but I hope that they will hold their noses and continue to do their jobs as long as they are not asked to do anything unethical or illegal. And if they are asked to take such steps — for instance if Trump carries out his threats to order torture “worse than waterboarding” or to kill relatives of terrorists — their refusal to act will safeguard the rule of law.
The third important check on Trump will be Congress and especially the Senate, which must confirm his top nominees. There are only 51 Republicans, 52 if they win a December runoff in Louisiana — not enough to stop a filibuster. And if even two or three of them defect, that should be enough to defeat any Trump initiative or nominee. That will place huge potential power in the hands of a small number of principled #NeverTrump Republicans such as Sens. Lindsey Graham, Ben Sasse and Jeff Flake. They should not and will not act to block Trump indiscriminately, but they can and should try to stop him if he acts recklessly. They should begin to exercise their power now by quietly urging the president-elect to appoint people of unimpeachable judgment and integrity to top-level jobs.
Trump can be a successful president if he behaves less erratically than he did during the campaign. It will be up to those who work with him on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue to save him from himself.