Since the election, we’ve repeatedly been told that President Trump has every right to contest the results wherever he thinks something untoward has taken place; and that, as commander-in-chief, he has every right to pull troops from Afghanistan, Iraq, Germany, or wherever he thinks best. Of course, having a right is not the same thing as being right. Delaying a transition out of petulance over an electoral loss and playing a game of Risk with American forces is, to say the least, not what we expect from the nation’s chief executive.
President Trump’s behavior has starkly revealed what might be called the “character lacuna” in the current system. The two and half months between November’s Election Day and the day a new president takes office is not a terribly long time—and certainly an improvement on the March inaugurations we had until 1937. (Imagine what President Trump might have up his sleeve if he had five months to work with.) Nevertheless, a president is still very much a president until he walks out of the White House for the last time on January 20, wielding immense resources, and comparable authority. Given a president’s responsibilities as the nation’s chief executive and commander-in-chief, there is no question that he should wield anything less. Unlike the Congress or the Supreme Court, there is a reason the executive never goes “out of session.”
The president’s discretionary authority has grown from the republic’s earliest days—but perhaps not only in the ways the Founding Fathers would have found surprising. As the federal government has grown, so too have the laws that need to be executed and administered. As the U.S. has become a world power, so has grown the requirement for presidential leadership of the country’s vast military resources and direction of its global engagements.
Per the constitution’s original design, the chief executive’s powers were to be overseen and checked, if necessary, by an equally potent Congress. There would be an institutional interest in the first branch holding the second branch accountable. But the rise of party politics unifying control of the White House and one or both houses of Congress has lessened this interest substantially. Moreover, during this lame-duck window, the normal tools that Congress has at its disposal—legislation, money, hearings—are mostly unavailable or unlikely to be effective.