Stories about what is now the longest government shutdown in US history dominated news reports during the past week. President Trump’s decision to force a standoff with the newly empowered Democratic majority in Congress over his desire to complete a border wall along America’s southern border with Mexico has so far not dimmed opposition resolve.
In response to Democratic resistance, Trump has been hinting at attempting to get his goal accomplished without the Congress by some type of executive fiat. First, there were reports that he would find a way to build the wall by simply issuing an executive order. When that did not gain much traction, suggestions appeared Trump might declare a state of national emergency along the southern US border to permit him to divert other federal funding to find the estimated $5bn it would take to complete the barrier.
There is scant expert opinion that there is anything approximating an emergency situation along America’s southern border. Most of Trump’s hysterical claims have been denounced in mainstream media reports and dismissed as simply more prevarications from the liar-in-chief. But at the same time, the current political posturing over Trump’s wall does beg the question of how an American president has gained so much power.
Enter Dick Cheney. The subject of a critically panned but controversial recent American motion picture entitled “Vice,” (pun absolutely intended), this once bright rising star in American politics is portrayed in the film as a venal, cynical manipulator. The film assigns to him major responsibility for the concentration in recent decades of power in the White House almost for its own sake, largely at the expense of the U.S. Congress.
In his long public career, Cheney was White House Chief of Staff under President Gerald Ford, Wyoming’s delegate in the House of Representatives, Secretary of Defence under Bush 41 and then the most powerful vice president in American history under Bush 43. In his younger days, Cheney had been viewed as a potential president.
Cheney was recently on television, sitting in the second row at the December funeral of former president George H. W. Bush. He comments infrequently on American politics these days from his comfortable retirement perch on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. He receives little more public attention than does his daughter Liz, a rising star in the GOP congressional caucus and, like her father before her, Wyoming’s only member of the House of Representatives.
While Vice depicts Cheney as accumulating power for its own sake, a different view comes from political historian James Mann, who gained widespread acclaim with his best-selling chronicle of George W Bush’s war cabinet, entitled Rise of the Vulcans. In a recent review in The Washington Post, Mann refers to a document Cheney issued as Secretary of Defence in 1992. In this policy statement, Cheney argues for the unilateral, universal, unchallenged accumulation and use of American power in the world.
Mann acknowledges the idea that Cheney, operating behind the scenes in the Bush 43 administration, played a role in the expanded power conferred on the American chief executive. After figuring out a way to dodge the military draft at about the same time Trump did during the Vietnam War, Cheney was a young staffer in the Nixon and Ford administrations. He was, as Mann reports, appalled by the pushback from Congress at the continuing presidential pursuit of a massively unpopular and apparently senseless war in Vietnam.
Congress in the 1970s passed a series of laws limiting a president’s unilateral power in foreign affairs. Mann writes that “Cheney denounced ‘aggrandising intrusions by Congress’ into policy matters, and harshly criticized ‘the boundless view of congressional power’ that took root in reaction to the war in Vietnam.
It now seems safe to say while Cheney is not solely to blame for the executive power Trump so disastrously wields, he did quite a bit to nurture the thinking that has led all presidents since Nixon, including Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, to gather and exercise as much of that power as they can.
Surely one development after Trump leaves the White House – and perhaps while he still resides there – will be a renewed congressional effort to check American executive power.