Hurricane Trump Is Coming—Washington Isn’t Ready For It

From a Michael Schaffer Capital City column on headlined “Hurricane Trump Is Coming—And Washington Hasn’t Bothered to Prepare”:

Two months before the 2020 elections, Jack Goldsmith and Bob Bauer published After Trump, a volume of proposals designed to protect the nation from future rogue chief executives.

The book’s 423 pages are chock full of wonky, granular measures: A reporting requirement for campaign contacts with foreign governments. A ban on presidential participation in a business interest. Mandatory release of candidates’ tax returns. Rules governing revocation of White House press passes. A prohibition against presidential self-pardons. New specificity about what constitutes a forbidden emolument. Laws spelling out how presidents can or can’t sack special counsels and inspectors general. Measures to isolate federal prosecutions from political interference.

Name a Trump ethical imbroglio (or, for that matter, a big-time overreach by one of his immediate predecessors) and there was a proposal for it, from rules about dodgy state-of-emergency declarations to limitations on placing “acting” officials in top executive jobs.

In many ways, the book was the culmination of a conversation that preoccupied Washington during the Trump years, briefly turning members of the Beltway’s legal-ethics and good-government commentariat into local celebrities: How to shore up a system that depends on the observation of fast-fraying American political norms? Goldsmith and Bauer, with long tenures in and around government, may have produced the highest-profile laundry list, but they were hardly the only ones planning for a new age of political reform.

In fact, the premise of the book, and the broader conversation, was that it would be acted on in some future America, either 2021 or 2025, that had definitely turned the page from the 45th president — a country in the mood for a 21st-century update of the post-Watergate reforms that had aimed to Nixon-proof the presidency.

That country, though, hasn’t come into being. And now, as polls suggest that “after Trump” may be turning into “between Trump,” almost none of those reform ideas have become reality, either.

Which means that, if Trump does retake the presidency, he’ll be returning to an office that differs “minimally, if at all” from the one he occupied during his chaotic term, in the words of Ian Bassin, whose Protect Democracy nonprofit is one of the capital’s highest-profile institutional-reform outfits.

Though that grim reality has been well-known to folks who followed the reform efforts in 2021 and 2022, it’s been lost on a larger Washington population that spent those years focused on the pandemic, inflation, Jan. 6 investigations and other more pressing subjects. A number of reform advocates told me this week that they’d started getting alarmed phone calls from folks whose interest in the state of guardrails had suddenly rebounded after a Washington Post poll suggested Trump really might win (and a Trump CNN town hall demonstrated that he was just as determined as ever to shred political norms).

“Almost every reform that we propose in that book ended up being in a bill in Congress,” Goldsmith said this week. “Basically, with a couple of exceptions, neither Congress nor the executive branch have done anything concrete to address the many gaps in norms and legal constraints that Trump made apparent during his first term. There was a lot of discussion about how we had to have reform. It just wasn’t a priority.”

And there’s no reason to doubt Trump will make the most of that lack of limitations. “If he runs and wins after his performance in office in his first term, and after what it clearly appears that he’s running on, which is a platform meant to include pledges to break norms — he can claim that the American people have approved, that his agenda is to rethink the executive branch, the nature of the presidency and the civil service, the deep state,” Goldsmith told me. “And he’ll have a very good argument, frankly.”

“I think it’s a real fear that an unaccountable president who has been reempowered in his position will do worse things,” said Lisa Gilbert, a point person on institutional reform at Public Citizen. “I think the checks we’ve managed to apply for President Trump have not yet proven effective.”

What happened?

Rather than a dramatic betrayal or shocking failure, it’s actually a familiar Washington tale of shifting priorities, wandering attention span, legislative obstruction and relentless partisanship.

Among the constellation of activists, advocacy groups and think tanks that make up the Beltway’s institutional-reform world, the list of plausible answers varies — from reliable villains (the filibuster-ridden Senate that deep-sixed some of the items that passed the House) to more eternal explanations such as politics (Biden needed to do popular stuff and get re-elected, not use all the oxygen for inside-baseball reforms), hypocrisy (the in-party is rarely enthusiastic about measures that would constrain executive power) and, most prominently, broad GOP opposition.

But the reality is that Trump could return to an office that’s unchanged, despite all of their best efforts, has also led to some second-guessing within the reform community.

Soren Dayton, the director of governance at the Niskanen Center think tank, wondered aloud this week whether the decision to go all-in on investigating the history of Jan. 6 made it harder to legislate a less dramatic set of rules erecting constraints on future chief executives.

“I think the mental space of the advocacy community, and the ability to work it out on a bipartisan basis, was probably precluded by the Jan. 6 committee,” Dayton told me. “I don’t blame people for it. I’m not saying that that was a wrong priority. But I’m saying there was probably a trade-off.”

Today, the trade-off is not looking especially good. “We got some knowledge about what happened that day, and we got a gripping narrative that’s pretty damning,” Dayton said. “But that doesn’t seem to have dissuaded Trump’s own voters. And we don’t have most of the changed laws that would make the country safer from him if he gets back into the Oval Office.”

In our conversation, Dayton acknowledged that it was a bit of a far-fetched counterfactual. There was no way Congress wasn’t going to investigate an unprecedented attack. And, given the state of our politics, there was no way that investigation wasn’t going to metastasize into something that gave a partisan valence to even the most bipartisan presidency-reform proposals.

People who study good government for a living may be able to tell the difference between the apolitical reforms like much of the Protect Our Democracy Act (which would have placed new limits on presidents regardless of party) and more divisive endeavors like the efforts to push back against GOP-led voting restrictions. But when they’re cheek by jowl in the news cycle, it’s hard for civilians — or GOP pols afraid of a primary challenge — to tell them apart.

Goldsmith says the measures that did make it were relatively modest bills that retained bipartisan support: last year’s Electoral Count Reform Act (which would have clarified much of the confusion around ratification of the 2020 election results) and smaller measures to protect inspectors general and so called power-of-the-purse reform to stop presidents from simply not spending money Congress appropriates. A couple others, including a tightening of the rules on presidential declarations of emergencies, remain live possibilities.

The common denominator was that the political system didn’t interpret the measures as helping one party over another.

“The Electoral Count Reform Act was almost a miracle of bipartisanship amidst the unbelievable rancor on Capitol Hill,” Goldsmith said. “I can’t emphasize that enough. It took tremendous effort.” He’s not especially optimistic about a repeat.

But I think the state of play also represents an indictment of Washington.

“The book came out in September, and everyone was extremely interested,” Goldsmith told me. “And then after Jan. 6, and after Biden became president, people became less interested. It came down to the priority. It seemed like less of a problem.”

Bassin, a former Obama administration official who founded Protect Democracy in 2016, says the willingness to let reform slip down the list of priorities might also connect to a particular pathology in the capital, one that makes it harder for people to conjure worst-case scenarios.

“The people who have ascended to positions of power in Washington are precisely the people for whom, you know, everything has always sort of generally worked out,” he said this week. “If we wanted to get pop psychological about it, you could say those people might be predisposed to believe that this, too, will work out. And that might be a fatal weakness in the system right now.”

One reason for hope, he said, may lie in the comparison to the post-Nixon reforms. In popular memory, a whole slew of bills passed nearly unanimously the minute Tricky Dick went home to San Clemente, cleaning up American politics lickety-split. In reality, even with an overwhelming Democratic Congressional majority and a GOP determined to distance itself from the disgraced ex-president, many of the efforts took years.

Of course, the post-Watergate reformers weren’t dealing with the ticking clock of a potential unrepentant Nixon return to power.

Still, the prospect of a slightly longer runway, says Public Citizen’s Gilbert, might lower the temperature in a way that enables progress. It just depends on 2024.

“What we’ve been focusing on is this sort of legal accountability, which is very important,” she said. “So it is going to take renewed work on the part of the reform community. Everyone’s going to be diving back in and paying attention to get more of the stuff passed.”

One upcoming move, alas, doesn’t seem especially auspicious if you think the path forward involves lowering the partisan temperature: California Rep. Adam Schiff, author of the ill-fated Protect Our Democracy Act package, told me this week that he’ll be reintroducing the measure. Though the bill is a collection of executive-branch reforms that includes a bunch of ideas championed by Republicans, the association with the Jan. 6 committee member and tireless Trump critic is not likely to boost GOP support.

For the record, Schiff says he thinks a big, attention-getting reform bill is the best way to go. But he won’t mind if some other member wants to break off some discrete chunk — say, the ban on presidential self-pardons — and push it through separately.

Michael Schaffer is a senior editor at POLITICO. His Capital City column runs weekly in POLITICO Magazine.

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