Julia Azari and I recently had a little back-and-forth about President Donald Trump's habits on Twitter. I took the argument that Trump's tweeting was irresponsible and possibly dangerous, and that Twitter should suspend his account. Azari pushed back saying that we need transparency from the presidency, and Trump is actually providing some this way, allowing us to evaluate his thought process.
This dialogue was, of course, focused on tweeting, which is an aspect of Trump's presidency that gets a great deal of attention but actually occupies a very small percentage of the president's time and decision-making. But the discussion Azari and I had goes to a much larger debate about how much latitude the president should be granted to decide the terms of his own job. Does the presidency need to be child-proofed?
This is actually a very thorny subject and warrants further reflection. And the questions it raises do not have easy answers. The argument that I made—that the president is using a communications tool irresponsibly and should have it taken away from him—is defensible but has a number of disturbing implications.
What if experienced but unelected subordinates see the president acting in a way that undermines the nation? This president has already freely given intelligence over to Russia in an Oval Office meeting. What if he issued an order to launch air strikes on an ally or prosecute an American citizen without cause? Should military leaders or Department of Justice attorneys simply ignore the president's directives if they perceive those as dangerous or counter to the national interest? In the short term, with this president, those may be smart decisions. But they carry the seeds of some dangerous precedents. Allowing a president to serve but not to govern—to have the title but not the authority—is how a democracy is lost.
On the specific question of the president's tweets, there are some other important problems with reining him in, some of which are anti-democratic and some of which are anti-republican. The anti-democratic problem is what Azari noted in her article: The president is volunteering information on his personal thoughts, paranoias, and prejudices. Are we better off knowing that he thinks these things or not knowing? Is it right to deprive the people of information the president is freely providing just so they can sleep better at night?
The anti-republican argument concerns the idea that we shouldn't be getting the president we elected. Let's recall that, despite what Joe Scarborough said, this Trump is the same one we saw announce for president two years ago. Even back then, he was describing Mexicans as drug dealers, rapists, and criminals, addressing people as "haters and losers" in a Twitter Easter message, and suggesting that Megyn Kelly's sharp questioning of him was somehow related to her menstrual cycle.
The president is volunteering information on his personal thoughts, paranoias, and prejudices. Are we better off knowing that he thinks these things or not knowing?
Comments like these, and many more, were often used to suggest that Trump lacked the temperament to be president. Of course, temperament is not a legal description, and the Constitution does not list temperament as a qualification for the presidency. This is a political judgment. Two political institutions, the Republican Party and the Electoral College, evaluated Trump and found his temperament to not be disqualifying. The institutions that could censure Trump or even remove him from office for this behavior—Congress and the Cabinet—have demonstrated no interest in doing so. They, too, have suggested that his temperament is not disqualifying.
In some sense, shouldn't we get the person who ran for office? Would it be reassuring to know that the president does some things to get elected but behaves completely differently once he's in power? It is certainly reasonable to decry a lack of dignity, but as his campaign repeatedly made clear, in the words of Ice Age's Sid, "Dignity's got nothing to do with it."
I don't have great answers to these questions. And historical precedents are of limited utility. Obviously, history has many examples of executives with diminished capacity or erratic behavior who were, to one extent or another, managed by their subordinates, and almost no governor, president, prime minister, or monarch has complete autonomy. But Trump pushes these concerns to their extremes, forcing us to grapple with questions about just how much power we should allow our elected leader to have.
Taking away some of the president's freedom may, in the short run, be the smart thing to do. And we may hate ourselves in the morning.