It is not news that politics is a domain of partisans and opportunists and talk-radio loudmouths whose job is to tell their audiences what they want to hear. The big disappointment of the Trump era is seeing respected elder statesmen join their ranks.
One of those disappointments has been Brit Hume, whom I used to watch regularly on Fox News Channel’s Special Report. He’s retired now, but not from Twitter. Repeating the current party line of Trump apologia, Hume recently linked to an article on Lt. Colonel Alexander Vindman’s testimony on Ukraine and made the following observation: “This from the article: ‘he was deeply troubled by what he interpreted as an attempt by the president to subvert US foreign policy…’ There is a huge fallacy in this. Anyone know what it is?”
If we didn’t know what it was supposed to be, Hume told us: “the president is the constitutional author of foreign policy, so the idea he is ‘subverting’ it is illogical.”
This sentiment echoes the new line which has been taken up by the loudmouths and opportunists who are beneath Hume. On Laura Ingraham’s show, for instance, they have been smearing Vindman for, well, basically for doing his job by advising his Ukrainian counterparts on how to respond to pressure from Trump sycophants operating outside official channels.
But in Ingraham’s view, this means he was “working inside the White House apparently against the president’s interest.”
There is a huge fallacy in all of this. Anyone know what it is?
“The president’s interests” are not the goal of U.S. foreign policy. More important, the president is not the sole author of U.S. policy. In the case of Donald Trump and Ukraine, these two facts ought to be obvious, because the whole scandal is about the president arbitrarily withholding aid to Ukraine that had been approved by the U.S. Congress.
The president takes the lead in the implementation of U.S. foreign policy—but as with his other responsibilities, he does so in partnership with Congress. The U.S. Congress influences foreign policy through its ability to grant or withhold its approval for the president’s chief foreign policy and military officials—including the secretary of State, the secretary of Defense, the National Security Advisor, and U.S. ambassadors—through its ability to grant or withhold its approval of treaties, and through the power of the purse, which allows Congress to mandate financial support for some countries or programs while withdrawing it from others.
The president doesn’t make foreign policy by himself, nor does he make it for himself.
He holds an office of trust on behalf of the people of the United States and is required to act in their interests alone—not to sacrifice their interests for his own personal ambitions. Which is precisely what Donald Trump is accused of doing right now. Heck, it’s what he has admitted to doing. He did not ask whether it was in the interest of the United States to support Ukraine. Instead, he asked what he could get out of his dealings with Ukraine that would fulfill his own political needs.
The foreign policy of the United States is not the president’s foreign policy. It is the foreign policy of the United States.
I previously pointed out that the bureaucracy serves as a check on abuse of power by the chief executive. One way this works is that the president has to publicly write down his policies in order to communicate them to the bureaucracy, which creates commitments that are then difficult to undermine through unofficial, backchannel pressure.
When it comes to foreign policy, Congress mandated in the Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986 that executive agencies must work together to produce an official National Security Strategy, which defines the national interests of the United States and describes the strategies the administration intends to follow to secure those interests. The purpose of this requirement is precisely to facilitate cooperation between Congress and the president on national security, military spending, and foreign policy.
Right there in the current National Security Strategy, the 2017 version bearing Donald Trump’s signature, is this passage.
“The United States will deepen collaboration with our European allies and partners to con- front forces threatening to undermine our common values, security interests, and shared vision. The United States and Europe will work together to counter Russian subversion and aggression.”
First, notice that this can only be a reference to Ukraine, since this is the primary object of “Russian subversion and aggression” in Europe.
Second, notice that this policy does not add a clause saying, “unless European countries don’t give the president what he feels he needs for the next election.” The benefit of having a National Security Strategy that is written down is that it has to be stated in general principles and in terms of the enduring interests of the United States, not the momentary preferences of a current office-holder.
The idea that the president is the sole author of American foreign policy is bunk from top to bottom. But Trump’s defenders have been busy creating a whole novel doctrine of one-man rule. In this theory, the president is not merely the “chief magistrate,” as the Founders called him. In their view, the president is not simply responsible for managing the administration of the government. Rather, he is a kind of elected, short-term autocrat who is neither accountable to Congress nor bound by any sort of principle or precedent.
You can see why Trump’s defenders have been forced to create this view of the presidency. It’s because Donald Trump doesn’t really stand for an idea or a movement. He stands for the notion of his own “great and unmatched wisdom,” and for the illusion that whatever he feels like doing at any particular moment must be right. You need a theory of one-man rule to defend Trump, because the one man is all he has to offer.
This gives us an idea of what is at stake in the impeachment battle.
The Trump apologists’ view of foreign policy as the personal domain of a single leader, to be used to serve his personal ambitions, is a common one around the world—in authoritarian dictatorships.
That’s why Congress needs to smack down this idea immediately by asserting its power to judge the president’s action—and to remove him if he is abusing his power in a way that undermines the foreign policy of the United States.