The country’s founders didn’t want a king. They chafed at the notion that a President would use the tools of state to extend his personal power. It still happened, of course. Over the next 200 years, American Presidents tried to paper over how they used the White House, cabinet members, and other symbols of executive authority in their bids to stay in power. There was a national outcry when it came to light that President Bill Clinton let big dollar donors pay to stay in the Lincoln Bedroom, or when Vice President Al Gore used his White House office to make fundraising calls. President Richard Nixon secretly grabbed the government’s purse strings to support his re-election and tried to hide an attempt to break in and bug his rival’s campaign in the Watergate offices.
Fast forward to President Donald Trump.
His aggressive use of executive power for his own re-election is done in plain view. For his speech accepting the Republican nomination on Thursday, three squat jumbotrons sat on the South Lawn of the White House, illuminating “Trump Pence” in white block letters and Trump’s 2016 campaign slogan “Make America Great Again.” With the atmosphere of a garden party, more than 1,500 guests, most not wearing masks despite the pandemic, packed together on the grass and sang along to “America the Beautiful” in front of the iconic pillars of the mansion’s portico.
Trump has threatened political enemies with jail, and dangled pardons for allies ensnared by the law. His convention, too, has been threaded with outward displays of the power at his fingertips: using the backdrop of the highest office in the land for atmosphere, broadcasting a naturalization ceremony, pardoning on air a convicted bank robber who now runs a nonprofit to help prisoners.
When Trump gave his speech Thursday night, standing before numerous American flags and the imposing facade of the White House, he acknowledged the grand and historic setting in both his prepared remarks and in an off-the-cuff moment. Trump gestured to the mansion behind him and joked, “What’s the name of that building?” The president continued: “The fact is, we’re here, and they’re not. To me, one of the most beautiful buildings anywhere in the world. And it’s not a building, it’s a home, as far as I’m concerned.” The crowd cheered.
The scene was norm-shattering for a political nominating convention, and distant horns, drums and chants of protestors outside the White House gates could be heard by the assembled guests as Trump spoke. But, as Trump’s daughter and advisor Ivanka Trump pointed out when she introduced her father Thursday night, “Washington did not change Donald Trump. Donald Trump changed Washington.”
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The bull is still in the china shop, and the fact that Trump survived the crisis of impeachment has only emboldened him. When the President was impeached late last year, it was a rebuke that spoke directly to Trump’s use of his presidential power to get re-elected. The House found he had used the power of his office to pressure the President of Ukraine to investigate his political rival, former Vice President Joe Biden. Republicans in the Senate, with the single exception of Mitt Romney of Utah, decided the President’s request for Ukraine’s leader to probe Biden was not an abuse of power, and protected him from being removed from office on these grounds. That episode, and the protection Republican Senators gave Trump, now looks like the flipping on of a green light for a President who has tested the boundaries of his power throughout his first term.
“We are very distrustful and skeptical in this country of anything that resembles monarchy. One of those things that people might be uncomfortable with is using the ‘People’s House’—the White House—to advance your re-election prospects,” says Lauren Wright, a political scientist at Princeton who studies presidential power. “From the perspective of fairness, you want an election where both parties follow the same rules. In this case, one candidate is the incumbent and sitting in the White House. That is an advantage in a lot of ways.”
Presidents have long used that advantage when running for re-election. The Oval Office comes with a huge megaphone. As candidates, incumbents fly on Air Force One, landing the iconic plane in battleground states, crisscrossing the country to promote their records. But before Trump, there was a reticence to openly mix brazen political maneuvers with presidential actions.
Trump doesn’t see a difference between the two, says Timothy Naftali, a former director of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum. “He has decided not to even try to hide his use of all symbols of presidential power and the amenities of presidential power to advance his reelection,” Naftali says. The impeachment process was about Trump using the office and foreign policy to advance his re-election, Naftali says, and now that he’s past that, “he feels he’s got a permission slip to do whatever he needs to do to get reelected.”
Nixon ordered his administration to withhold funding from political officials who wouldn’t support him and used the levers of government to intimidate his perceived political enemies. When he was exposed, Nixon eventually lost the support of his party and resigned. “Trump does what Nixon did, but openly and more,” Naftali says.
Doing all that in the open may be Trump’s biggest political innovation. He will be testing whether the American public is watching and, if they are, is willing to accept the mixing of governance with mud-slinging politics. When Jeh Johnson was the Secretary of Homeland Security under President Obama, he says he went out of his way to not be seen as taking political actions. In 2016, he visited both political conventions, not to campaign, but to oversee the security of the events. “It would be naïve to say that, in the life of the presidency, politics has never motivated policy in an election year,” says Johnson. “But there is a point where a line is crossed – when the president uses the instruments and trappings of office to further his own personal, political objectives in a manner that discredits the government’s whole mission.”
During this week’s Republican National Convention, uses of official government power were on display in ways both large and small during the political event. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke Tuesday night in a pre-recorded speech — the first ever sitting Secretary of State to do so. The Demcratic chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee has already opened an investigation into Pompeo’s decision to speak, calling it “highly unusual, and likely unprecedented,” as well as “possibly illegal.”
Pompeo tweeted about his speech from his personal Twitter account, not his official Secretary of State Account, though the speech was filmed during an official visit to Israel. “At the cabinet level, there is the rule that secretaries can participate in politics in their personal capacity,” says Johnson. “But there are certain cabinet positions so prominent that it is a virtual fiction to believe that the person who holds the office can appear on TV as a mere private citizen.”
Most of the displays of executive power at the convention came from the president himself. When the coronavirus pandemic forced a change of plans to the event’s format and location, Trump decided to accept his party’s nomination not from a nearly empty convention hall like Biden, but from the seat of power itself. That decision rankled some government watchdogs and ethics groups, who worried it might violate the Hatch Act, a law that prohibits federal employees in the executive branch from engaging in certain forms of political activity in their official capacities.
In response to concerns about this raised by congressional Democrats, the Office of Special Counsel responded that “the President and Vice President are not covered by any of the provisions of the Hatch Act. Accordingly, the Hatch Act does not prohibit President Trump from delivering his RNC acceptance speech on White House grounds,” but noted that the law would prevent White House employees from assisting with the event while on duty or in a federal building.
Whether or not holding the speech at the White House violates the letter of the law, it may still violate the spirit of it. Biden criticized the president’s decision to give his speech from the White House in an interview with MSNBC on Thursday, saying Trump is “using the White House as a prop now.” Biden continued: “Can you imagine what would have happened if Barack Obama did that when we were running a second time, or I did that from the White House lawn or the Rose Garden?”
On Tuesday night, Trump granted a pardon on the evening’s broadcast to a convicted bank robber named Jon Ponder who has since created a reentry program for former prisoners. It was the first time a U.S. president had issued a pardon during a political convention. The same night, Trump participated in a naturalization ceremony for five new U.S. citizens— another first— and two of them later told the Wall Street Journal they didn’t know their ceremony would be aired during the convention.
Delaney Marsco, ethics counsel at the Campaign Legal Center, said the naturalization ceremony was particularly “unsettling” to her in her perspective as an ethics lawyer. “This goes beyond just using the spaces of the White House for political purposes, and it even goes beyond using the power of one political office… for political purposes,” she said. “That is using one of the fundamental American processes— becoming an American citizen— for a political purpose.”
In his speech Thursday night, Trump took aim squarely at his opponent. “Joe Biden is not the savior of America’s soul,” Trump said. “He is the destroyer of America’s jobs, and if given the chance, he will be the destroyer of American greatness.” Standing on front of a line of more than 50 American flags flapping behind him, Trump claimed Biden would be weak on China, constrain the U.S. economy and allow nearly unfettered illegal immigration.
But Trump’s darkest predictions were about protests and safety in American cities. Trump said there would be violence and anarchy in the streets under Biden, and said every Democratic-led city would end up struggling with unrest like that seizing Portland, Oregon. “No one will be safe in Biden’s America,” Trump said.
It was a political barn-burner, and in some ways an opening salvo in what is shaping up to be an intense fight between the two septuagenarian candidates in the final stretch before Election Day. The fiery speech would have felt appropriate in one of the many sports arenas Trump has held rallies in throughout the country. But instead, it was on the White House lawn— the latest unprecedented move for a President who has tested the limits of his power for nearly four years, and is asking American voters for four more.
The question is: At what cost? “There’s a real danger when we see the party in power, the people in power, transforming these official actions or using their official positions for political purposes, because that diminishes people’s trust that government is actually being done in a nonpartisan way for everybody,” says Marsco. “The insane amount of power that we entrust these people with needs to be used for the benefit of all of the public.”
If Trump loses in November, Naftali, the historian, predicts that American political norms could revert back to before Trump took the stage. But if he’s reelected, “he will have redefined American political life for a generation,” Naftali says. Which is exactly what he’s promised to do.