Jay Bookman

Opinion columnist and blogger with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, specializing in foreign relations, environmental and technology-related issues

Opinion: The limits of Trump’s power


On multiple occasions, President Trump has pressured the U.S. postmaster general to double parcel-delivery rates charged to Amazon, which is owned by Jeff Bezos. Bezos also owns the Washington Post -- “the Amazon Washington Post,” as Trump calls it -- and is viewed by Trump as a bitter political enemy.

So far, that pressure from Trump has been fended off, but even to make the attempt to use governmental power to punish a political opponent is extraordinary and contrary to American principles. Under any other president, in any other Congress, it would inspire oversight investigations and even potentially impeachment, but in this Congress, under this president, it’s as if it hasn’t happened.

And that’s hardly the only example of an aggressive seizure of power by the Trump White House.

Last week, Trump ordered Energy Secretary Rick Perry to take immediate steps to bail out the nation’s coal industry, which has found it difficult to compete economically with low-cost natural gas. Citing a false claim of national security, Trump apparently plans to order private electric utilities to burn coal instead of less-expensive alternatives, which is tantamount to trying to nationalize our power-production system and then micromanage it from the White House for political purposes. 

Such a move would raise electrical rates significantly for consumers and businesses, while subsidizing profits for Trump’s big donors in the coal industry. Like the attempt to punish Bezos through the U.S. Postal Service, it would represent an extraordinary presidential intervention into the economy, with Trump asserting the personal power to decide who will be the winners and who will be the losers.

These moves come on the heels of a Trump decision to unilaterally impose tariffs on steel and aluminum imports from our allies in Canada, Mexico and the European Union, using national security as his excuse. He is also exploring a presidential edict to slap a 25 percent tariff on all imported autos, again citing national security. 

And then of course there are the assertions of grand, sweeping presidential power contained in letters written by Trump’s private attorneys to the office of special counsel Robert Mueller. In those letters, Trump’s attorneys argue that as president, he has vast authority that pretty much lets him do anything he wants over the Department of Justice.

According to those letters:

  • He can arbitrarily order an end to any criminal investigation, including an investigation into his own potential wrongdoing. 
  • He can demand investigations be opened into anyone he wishes, which makes his Twitter demands for criminal investigations into everyone from Hillary Clinton to James Comey all the more chilling.
  • He can pardon anyone he wishes, for any reason, and cannot be charged with obstruction of justice in doing so. He can even pardon himself.
  • He cannot be indicted, not even if he were to shoot the FBI director dead in the Oval Office, as Rudy Giuliani put it. 
  • He also cannot be forced to testify before a grand jury, even if Mueller issues a subpoena.

In the past, Trump has claimed that “I have absolute right to do what I want to do with the Justice Department,” and suggested that he was holding off temporarily in using that power. These letters represent a formalization of that claim as well as a declaration of all-out war by Trump on the Mueller probe.  In fact, given how quickly Trump, Giuliani and others have rushed out in a coordinated media push to assert Trump’s power over the Justice Department, it’s pretty clear that these letters were leaked by the White House specifically to create this controversy.

And while Giuliani tried to claim that talk of Trump pardoning himself was so theoretical that it wasn’t worth discussing, somebody else seemed very very interested in the issue:


My fellow Americans, that is not the behavior of an innocent man.

I’ve been warning for months now that we haven’t seen anything yet, that as whacky and bizarre as things might seem in Washington, much worse is coming. Given these attempts to expand and exaggerate presidential power by an administration that has shown complete disdain for legal limits, I’m sticking by that prediction. The restraints needed to control Trump clearly won’t come from this Congress, and maybe not from the courts either. They will have to come from the people, or they may not come at all.


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About the Author

Jay Bookman writes about government and politics, with an occasional foray into other aspects of life as time, space and opportunity allow.