Trump: the system is working

If you’re at all like me, you see and hear a bunch of people complaining that with the election of Donald Trump to the US presidency, the world has gone mad and anything could happen. The New York Times today published a column by a former assistant attorney general in the George W. Bush administration, Jack Goldsmith, that should act as a tonic.

Goldsmith points out an important fact about the Trump presidency: The system appears to be working. The Trump presidency is just two months old, and already Trump’s seemingly remarkable connections to Vladimir Putin’s Russian government are being investigated by the FBI. And with attorney-general Jeff Sessions recusing himself, that investigation is being led by a respected career prosecutor who is now deputy attorney-general, Rod Rosenstein.

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Meanwhile the Senate and House intelligence committees are both doing their own reviews, and Republican members of Congress like John McCain are needling Trump pretty sharply. You remember McCain. He’s the former presidential candidate and POW of whom Trump quote: “He’s not a war hero. He was a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.”

If you’re as cavalier as Trump seems to be, your deeds and statements catch up with you.

Notes Goldsmith:

… While there is no doubt that partisan politics will inform what many in both congressional parties do in this matter, one should not overlook what is truly remarkable here: In the second month of a new presidency, several bodies in a Congress controlled by the president’s party are conducting high-profile, politically fraught and hard-to-control investigations that potentially implicate current and former administration officials and former campaign officials.

All of these actors and institutions are holding the Trump presidency to account. They are endeavoring to uncover the truth about the manifold Russian mysteries. And they can, if they see fit, take action with effects ranging from publicity and embarrassment to political damage with electoral consequences to criminal prosecution to impeachment if appropriate.

It’s true that the process of accountability is halting and frustratingly slow. But this is as it should be. The stakes could not be higher for our democracy …

I could be wrong (as I was about the chances of Trump winning) and a year from now this will all have gone away. But don’t dismiss the possibility that systems of checks and balances work.

About David Walker

David Walker runs publishing consultancy Shorewalker DMS ( and is commissioning editor of Acuity magazine. David has previously edited the award-winning INTHEBLACK business magazine, been chief operating officer of online publisher WorkDay Media, held policy and communications roles at the Committee for Economic Development of Australia and the Business Council of Australia, and run the website for online finance start-up eChoice. He has written professionally on economics, business and public policy since 1987 and spent three years in the Canberra Press Gallery for News Limited and The Age.
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9 Responses to Trump: the system is working

  1. Nicholas Gruen says:

    The US constitution has always had the resources to handle the situation. The problem has always been in my mind that the Republicans are crazy like other conservatives are not. I agree that so far some Republicans have been prepared to do their jobs and the political activism of the people at large around which American democracy is built (as it isn’t here) is also having its impact in frustrating the new Administration’s attempts to play ‘bait and switch’ with RomneyObamacare.

  2. Nicholas Gruen says:

    Some other thoughts. I’m unclear as to how comprehensively Trump could clean out the heads of executive agencies like the FBI and CIA over time. Also, if ze founding parents really had checks and balances on their minds it’s sad they gave the President so much power over war, or, as one might put it differently, that the President has been able to acquire so much power over war without authorisation from Congress.

    It may also turn out to be a big mistake for Trump to have appointed Pence as his VP, as he’s a pretty smooth face for various crazies. Might mean they’re happy to move Trump on as Australian governing parties moved Kevin, then Julia and then Tony on.

    • David Walker says:

      This strikes me as exactly right – the US president’s power over war is the one place where checks and balances are conspicuously lacking. Australia has a similar problem …

      • Nicholas Gruen says:

        At the time of Gulf II, I tried to sell to some quite senior figures in the ALP that it would make unilateral commitment to never send Australian troops into combat overseas without bipartisan support. This would have been useful to it in opposing the Howard Government’s membership of the coalition of the willing, but the hard heads explained to me carefully that it would be a very dangerous commitment that could constrain the authority of a future ALP Government. I still can’t imagine a conflict to which ALP Government might want to send Australian troops for combat that it couldn’t get its right of centre opponents to back.

  3. paul frijters says:

    seems more like the Republican party brass is using this in an attempt to keep Trump under pressure and make him a running joke, a lame-duck. I doubt it will work.

    Related to Nick’s point of the large concentration of power in the office of the US president, I only recently found out that the US president indeed has the sole authority to use nuclear weapons and that it would require mutiny to refuse his orders. I was amazed at first that the Americans had not built in more decision makers who would have to approve the use of nuclear weapons.

    I suppose it comes from the historical reality in previous centuries that you needed a commander-in-chief who could order things that took months to eventuate. In the modern age, where our weapons can be deployed in minutes and can destroy the earth, you obviously do not want to give any single individual such powers (particularly not in an emergency), but I can imagine that it would take a US constitutional amendment to put more checks and balances into the deployment of nuclear weapons. And we all know how hard they are to get through the US system….

    • Ravi Smith says:

      The current arrangement came through the “War Powers Resolution of 1972” and can be changed by the regular legislative process. Also, the head of whatever department is in charge of the nukes would likely refuse and take the President to court (claiming he was acting unconstitutionally). The US constitution is so flexibly interpreted that one could say it represents judicial supremacy.

      • paul frijters says:

        interesting, thanks. The commander in chief business is in Article II of the US constitution, but I guess there are some issues up for grabs. Are you sure though that the arrangements around nukes can be changed by regular majorities?

  4. Ravi Smith says:

    Think of the US constitution as consisting of two principles. The first is the Connecticut Compromise (legislation requires a majority of people and states). The second is judicial review (whenever there is a conflict between branches or levels of government, the courts decide). This means that states or cities can pass a law contrary to the federal government, find something in the constitution that might authorize it, and then take the federal government to court. Parliamentary sovereignty has many attractive features, but doesn’t work in strongly federal countries (Canada has moved towards judicial review since 1982). I think the most likely outcome of the Trump Presidency will be a shifting of power towards the states and cities. I expect to see more progressive action at the local level and in interstate compacts.

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