February 1, 2017
Chances are, if you’ve ever seen a clip from past seasons of The Apprentice, it’s a scene from the infamous boardroom—the place where Donald Trump ruled over his cowering contestants as they desperately pleaded their case on why he should allow them to remain on the show for another week. He was clearly in his element there, glaring across the bigly table, their fate resting in his don’t-call-them-small hands. He is typically flanked by two of his three adult children, who are supposedly there to act as advisers, but in the end, it is always Trump himself who points an impressively-long-not-short-in-any-way finger at the chosen target, erupting at just the right moment to issue his signature decree: "You’re Fired!"
Trump’s unilateral decisions in the Apprentice boardroom are final; there is no appeal process, and his word is law. And while he may no longer be appearing on the show now that he’s been sworn in as the 45th President of the United States, he still can’t seem to let go of the script, or the absolute power that he enjoyed while serving as the self-appointed judge and jury for 14 seasons. It was a heady, ego-nourishing experience that is proving difficult for the new Commander-in-Chief to leave behind.
Relegated to an Oval Office in “the People’s house”—with its unflattering lighting, pedestrian decor, and nary a teleprompter in sight—Trump is clearly struggling with a new reality: He doesn’t get to rule by fiat anymore. It seems that every time he tries to get something done, there’s this pesky system of checks and balances in place that he can’t just ignore.
Or can he?
The three branches of the U.S. Government—Legislative, Executive, and Judicial—were created in 1787 at the Constitutional Convention because our country’s founders wanted to avoid lapsing back into the type of oppressive, authoritarian rule they had suffered under the British monarchy. Each branch had a clearly defined role: The Legislative Branch, consisting of the U.S. Congress (the Senate and House of Representatives), was tasked with making the laws; the Executive Branch, led by the President and various agencies that serve under his direction, would be in charge of enforcing those laws; and the Judicial Branch, consisting of the U.S. Supreme Court and Federal court judges, were given the authority to interpret the laws, and how they are applied. Seems simple enough, right?
Trump’s failure to understand even the most basic tenets of the Constitution has come as no surprise to those who’ve been paying attention during these early days of his presidency. On January 19, he warned that he would be signing “very meaningful” Executive Orders right after his Inaugural speech “to get the show going.” (Some context: The last Republican president, George W. Bush, waited nine days before signing his first Executive Order—Dubya, knew the ropes, a bit, having served as the governor of Texas for six years, and was, of course, the son of the 41st president and two-term vice-president whose political career spanned 26 years.)
Perhaps Trump was planning to do a little brushing up on the role of the Federal court system before he signed the orders, but wouldn’t you know it, the Judicial Branch public information page suddenly vanished from the official White House website on Inauguration Day, and was not reinstated until just a couple of days ago—with no explanation given for its disappearance.
Though he’s only been in office for 13 days, President Trump already has 42 federal lawsuits pending against his administration—nearly four times the number filed against President Obama during the same period. Although a total neophyte when it comes governing, he nevertheless signed a prolific number of Executive Orders, including one that was slammed as so blatantly unconstitutional that it sparked widespread national protests within hours of its signing.
The administration’s disregard for jurisdictional authority reached a whole new level after he issued an Executive Order putting stricter regulations in place for immigrants coming to the United States from seven Muslim-majority countries. The directive, which even many Republicans criticized for the haste with which it was enacted, threw the immigration process into chaos. Lawyers from the ACLU quickly took to Federal courts across the country, successfully securing a stay on the ban for those who were already in transit to the U.S. at the time the EO was signed. (One can only imagine the fact that all four of the Federal judges who issued the stays happened to be women probably did not sit well with the pussy-grabbing president, who has responded to being challenged by a woman in the past by describing her as having “blood coming out of her wherever.“) Although the stay orders were valid nationally, Customs and Border Patrol agents were said to be ignoring the stay order, and even refusing to allow detainees to meet with legal representation.
While walk-back on several aspects of the immigration ban didn’t take long—notably, it was clarified that green card holders will be permitted entry after an enhanced screening process—the order itself has not been overturned. Meanwhile, the court battle over the constitutionality of the immigration ban will continue on February 21st, when the ACLU returns to court to argue their case more fully.
The situation took another dramatic turn on Monday evening, when Acting Attorney General Sally Yates, a holdover appointee from the Obama administration, announced that she would not allow the Department of Justice to defend the Executive Order on immigration in court challenges, due to her concerns that the ban did not pass constitutional muster. Her refusal to follow the predetermined script incensed the president, who found himself once again being challenged by a woman in a position of authority. Within hours, Trump fired Yates, issuing a blistering statement claiming that she had “betrayed the U.S. Department of Justice” by her actions, calling her “weak on borders, and very weak on illegal immigration.” Her interim replacement, newly appointed Acting Attorney General Dana Boente, quickly fell in line and affirmed that he will defend the EO in court.
Amid the controversy surrounding Yates’s departure, confirmation hearings on Trump-chosen successor, Alabama senator Jeff Sessions, were delayed yet again, but as expected, his nomination was approved today along party lines, 11 to 9, and now heads to the full Senate for a vote.
While Yates was widely applauded for her bravery in standing up to Trump (the hashtag #ThankYouSally quickly began trending on Twitter after her announcement), others accused her of trying to be a “holdover hero,” claiming she had overstepped her authority.
Gosh, if only someone could have seen this coming, and predicted how Yates would have responded to a situation like this. Oh, wait … let’s go to the videotape!
On Tuesday morning, compelling video surfaced of Yates’s 2015 confirmation hearings, where this very topic emerged during questioning by none other than: Senator Jeff Sessions. Acting as a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sessions grilled Yates on March 24, 2015, about what she thought the Attorney General should do if given orders from the president that may be unwise or improper. “I will do everything in my power to protect the integrity of the Department of Justice,” Yates assured him. She went on to point out that it is the obligation of the Attorney General and Deputy Attorney General to “follow the law and the Constitution, and to give their independent legal advice to the president.” Which is exactly what she did … right before she was fired.
As the American public anxiously awaits the results of the confirmation hearings for additional Trump Cabinet members in the weeks ahead, the questions about this administration’s overall grasp of Constitutional law—or lack thereof—continue. Harvard Law School professor Mark Tushbert, a specialist in Constitutional Law and Theory, explains it simply: “The way this has unfolded so far demonstrates a high level of incompetence in the administration.” Compounding the problem: Trump and his advisers’ reported refusal to heed input from knowledgeable sources, which might help mitigate the type of rookie mistakes that are already becoming commonplace.
There has even been speculation that the roller-coaster drama surrounding not just the immigration order, but other head-scratching decisions—not the least of which involved replacing key advisers on the National Security Council with Trump’s Chief Strategist Steve Bannon, a man whose most recent job entailed running an neo-Nazi, fake-news website—indicate a more sinister plan to upset the balance of power that exists between the government branches.
What we’ve seen over the past two weeks is nothing more than a man who spent years carefully crafting a so-called “reality show” where he enjoyed total command, now finding himself front-and-center on a much larger stage, where no matter how hard he tries, he can’t control the script.