NEW YORK (Reuters Breakingviews) - After exhortations to build a wall and lock up Hillary Clinton, the most popular rallying cry during Donald Trump’s campaign for the U.S. presidency was “drain the swamp.” The phrase, which first surfaced as an anti-capitalist slogan a century ago, refers to the practice of drying up wetlands to stop mosquitoes from breeding. Since taking office less than a month ago it has become evident that Trump had a different definition in mind.
Trump’s idea of a swamp looks more like what the founding fathers of America’s constitutional democracy intended as a system of checks and balances on the power of the executive branch of government. And over the past week, the denizens of that noble muskeg have risen up and exerted the separation of powers that Trump’s victory always promised to test.
The judiciary, the legislative branch and fourth estate – institutions ennobled by the framers of the Constitution and its Bill of Rights – have delineated important limits to the reality-TV star’s governance. For proponents of unfettered executive power, not to mention investors who have pushed stock prices to new highs amid hopes for speedy tax cuts and other bottom-line bolstering measures, this all may come as a disappointment.
That may be why the president and his proxies are attempting to rebrand the virtues of the American political system as quagmire. Sean Hannity, the Fox News propagandist, proclaimed that “the DC swamp is rising up” and colluding to take down the 45th president. On the contrary, Trump’s failure to rule through the bully pulpit of Twitter and ill-considered and poorly constructed executive decision-making should be celebrated.
Consider Trump’s freshest ignominy, the defenestration of his nominee to run the Department of Labor, Andrew Puzder. The chief executive of the company running the Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr hamburger chains was forced to withdraw from consideration for the job because he lacked sufficient votes in the Senate to reach a simple majority.
Though a successful fast-food entrepreneur, Puzder was a controversial pick to run a branch of the government designed to give the working man a voice. But to face nay votes from as many as a dozen GOP senators, as CNN reported might have been the case if Puzder’s nomination went to the floor, suggests something close to a mini-revolt.
In that sense, Puzder is the first instance in which the legislative branch – even one controlled by the president’s own, albeit recently adopted, party – has said no to him. And not for any single reason, but a plurality of them, ranging from lefty complaints about working conditions at CKE Restaurants, his views on workers and the over-the-top ads he sanctioned to sell burgers, to worries on the right that he was too soft on immigration and failed to properly document an illegal immigrant in his employ.
Puzder’s failure to pass muster with a sufficient number of lawmakers who have six years to make their case to voters, should not be taken as evidence of swamp muck. It should serve as a lesson to the White House that it needs to select its candidates more carefully and be prepared to defend its choices more robustly. That logic also should extend to issues of policy, where in most cases it will need to bring along a few Democrats.
Similar reasoning applies to the humiliating resignation of Trump’s national security adviser Michael Flynn on Tuesday. Though there may be legitimate questions about leaks emanating from the White House and intelligence officials about Flynn’s conversations with the Russian ambassador involving sanctions, it was only when the matter was made public by the media that Trump made the call to push him out, according to the New York Times.
The Flynn affair, therefore, represents a victory for an institution the president and his advisers have consistently sought to discredit and even branded as the effective opposition: the press. The exercise of the First Amendment of the Constitution is not the swamp rising up, but rather as Thomas Jefferson wrote, “our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost.”
Lastly is the decision by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to stay an executive order restricting travel from seven majority-Muslim nations a week ago. The ruling put the order on hold until the courts can decide on the underlying merits, and address questions about the extent of executive power on matters of immigration and national security.
An appeals court may ultimately find for the president. Like the Puzder case, however, the battle over the travel ban should force the White House to subject its actions, not to mention the language of its orders, to the extreme vetting they deserve. Again, this is in keeping with the separation of powers enshrined in America’s founding documents.
Contrary to ridding Washington of the metaphorical gnats sucking the money-blood of the federal government, Trump has empowered Wall Street bankers, corporate executives and vulture investors with roles throughout his administration and in numerous federal agencies. It is a handy but dangerous fiction for the president and his proxies to simply brand each of these setbacks as uprisings from the Washington swamp they promised to drain.
Reuters Breakingviews is the world's leading source of agenda-setting financial insight. As the Reuters brand for financial commentary, we dissect the big business and economic stories as they break around the world every day. A global team of about 30 correspondents in New York, London, Hong Kong and other major cities provides expert analysis in real time.
Sign up for a free trial of our full service at https://www.breakingviews.com/trial and follow us on Twitter @Breakingviews and at www.breakingviews.com. All opinions expressed are those of the authors.