President Donald Trump, speaking to a group of young conservatives in Washington D.C. on Tuesday, expressed a legal theory about his presidential powers — namely, that he feels they are absolute.
Trump was speaking before audience members at the Talking Points USA conference when he started discussing former special counsel Robert Mueller, who had been tasked to investigate the president and his campaign in 2016 for possible coordination with the Russian government. Over the course of that investigation, Mueller said he was unable to find a link between the two, but that Trump and others in his inner circle may have engaged in acts of obstruction of justice.
TRUMP: "Then I have an Article 2, where I have the right to do whatever I want as president."
(Article 2 does not in fact empower the president to do whatever they want.) pic.twitter.com/qIFP1AbHw6
— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) July 23, 2019
In his speech on the subject, Trump explained even if Mueller had found something nefarious, it may not have mattered. “Then I have an Article 2 [of the Constitution], where I have the right to do whatever I want as president,” Trump said, per reporting from Business Insider.
There are, in fact, many restrictions as to what the president can or cannot do. The office has gained significant powers, to be sure, since the Constitutional government took power 230 years ago. But there are still restrictions, rules by which the president has abide by, that doesn’t make his office absolute.
The president can issue executive orders, for example, but those orders cannot contradict already-existing laws on the book. While wide-ranging, they can only be used to “execute” powers that have already been granted to him.
Indeed, long before he was president, Trump used to criticize his Democratic Party predecessor, former President Barack Obama, for issuing executive orders he lambasted as being “major power grabs.”
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 10, 2012
The power to declare war, too, is a power reserved by Congress. Yet in recent years, due to the war on terror, this power has been watered down, and presidents have been granted tremendous leeway on what they can or cannot do with the military.
Still, a president’s actions are not without “checks” from the other branches of government — best exemplified, perhaps, by the standoffs Trump has had with Congress earlier this year regarding the government shutdown and his proposed border wall, or the many legal cases against his actions that abound within the judiciary. Were he allowed to “do whatever” he wants within his presidency, he wouldn’t have these obstacles standing in his way.
Finally, a president can also be impeached over his actions in the White House, and they needn’t be criminal to warrant expulsion, either. The term “high crimes and misdemeanors” alludes to actions by the chief executive or anyone working under him in his branch of government that are considered abuses of power.
In short, Article II and the evolution of the office over the years have granted presidents an enormous amount of power. But Trump is wrong to state that he can do whatever he wants.