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How Trump Is Remaking the Highest Office in His Own Image


But traditional credibility doesn’t matter to him. The authors say that the president is in it for the grand gesture and the cruel optics, like the swift proclamation of his first travel ban, which caused acute suffering but was hacked together so hastily and shoddily that it got tied up in the courts for more than a year. (He expanded the ban last Friday, on the same day that the Senate voted against calling witnesses in the impeachment trial.) Trump wants to show his supporters, or fans, that he’s acting decisively — if anything, the pushback he gets from establishment institutions only serves to heighten the drama.

Using the metaphor of Trump pressing all the buttons on a dummy switchboard that’s been disconnected, the authors write: “Trump himself doesn’t even seem to know, or even care, that the buttons no longer do anything. He cares mostly whether he is perceived to be operating the switchboard in a commanding fashion.”

Which is why the executive powers Trump brags about the most are those that aren’t subject to legal wrangling or stringent oversight. Among the many phrases Trump likes to tweet repeatedly, the authors point to one — “absolute right” — as the most telling. “I have the absolute right to PARDON myself,” Trump tweeted in 2018. Ever since he discovered his pardoning powers, he’s been dangling presidential pardons as incentives, like a lonely birthday boy promising some awesome goody bags.

“Unmaking the Presidency” was going to press when the Ukraine scandal came to light, prompting Hennessey and Wittes to add a postscript explaining how Trump’s attempt to pressure a foreign government to investigate his political rival is a grubby distillation of everything they write about in their book. It was also, they say, a reckless gambit undertaken by an emboldened Trump. On July 24, 2019, Robert Mueller testified before Congress and gave what the press immediately characterized as a “lackluster performance”; Trump made his request to the Ukrainian president the very next day.

But Trump’s brazenness and his insistent “assertion of prerogative,” the authors write, could teach us something by shining a klieg light on the shadowy corners of executive power. Where other presidents may have worn an uncomfortable mask of hypocrisy, paying “lip service” to lofty ideals of “civic virtue,” the current president doesn’t even pretend to anything so high-minded.

“Whatever Trump is,” they write, “he is not a hypocrite.” Trump’s mask has been off from the beginning. An impeachment acquittal, this book warns, might give Americans a glimpse of what executive power looks like when the gloves come off, too.

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