Governing by grievance, Trump wields official powers against political enemies
By pressuring the Israeli government to bar entry by two members of Congress, President Trump once again used the power and platform of his office to punish his political rivals.
It’s a pattern that has intensified during the first two and a half years of Trump’s presidency, as he has increasingly governed to the tune of his grievances.
The president has grounded a military jet set for use by the Democratic House speaker, yanked a security clearance from a former CIA director critical of him, threatened to withhold disaster aid from states led by Democrats, pushed to reopen a criminal investigation targeting Hillary Clinton and publicly called for federal action to punish technology and media companies he views as biased against him.
Taken as a whole, Trump’s use of political power to pursue personal vendettas is unprecedented in modern history, said Matthew Dallek, a political historian who teaches at George Washington University.
“It’s both a sign of deep insecurity on his part and also just a litany of abuse of power,” he said. “I don’t think anyone really has done it as consistently or as viciously as Trump has. No one has used the power of the bully pulpit in such a public way.”
After Trump publicly and privately campaigned for the Israeli government to block Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) from visiting Israel this weekend, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reversed himself on Thursday and announced the blockade due to the lawmakers’ support for a movement that calls for boycotting Israeli goods and services to protest Israeli treatment of Palestinians.
“It would show great weakness if Israel allowed Rep. Omar and Rep. Tlaib to visit,” Trump tweeted before Netanyahu’s announcement. “They hate Israel & all Jewish people, & there is nothing that can be said or done to change their minds. Minnesota and Michigan will have a hard time putting them back in office. They are a disgrace!”
The president’s unusual intervention encouraging a foreign ally to bar American lawmakers from visiting — and his unfounded claim that the two congresswomen hate Jews — underscore the scorched-earth approach he is taking toward his 2020 reelection bid.
“Representatives Omar and Tlaib are the face of the Democrat Party, and they HATE Israel!” Trump tweeted Thursday afternoon.
The White House did not respond to a request for comment.
As Trump has become more attuned to the powers of the presidency over time, he has shown a greater willingness to wield them against his perceived enemies. A wave of midterm victories last year by Democrats, who gained control of the House, also coincided with Trump’s increasing vindictiveness in office.
In January, during a partial government shutdown that ultimately stretched for five weeks, Trump denied House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) a military plane she had been planning to use to visit U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
“Obviously, if you would like to make your journey by flying commercial, that would certainly be your prerogative,” Trump in a letter to Pelosi just hours before she was set to take off.
As commander in chief, Trump has the ability to ground military aircraft — a power that has not been used by previous presidents to target members of Congress seeking to visit U.S. troops abroad.
Trump’s letter to Pelosi came one day after she used her new authority as speaker to postpone Trump’s scheduled State of the Union address. She cited the ongoing government shutdown in announcing the delay.
“He’s willing to break any norm and abuse any power to cater to his most hard-right supporters,” said Dallek.
Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III documented several instances in which Trump sought to pressure the Department of Justice to pursue a criminal investigation into his 2016 rival, Hillary Clinton, for her use of a private email server. In his report, Mueller found that Trump encouraged then-attorney general Jeff Sessions in 2017 to reverse his recusal from any Clinton-related matters to pursue new charges.
The FBI closed its investigation into Clinton’s email practices in 2016 without charges, a decision Trump pledged as a candidate to reverse. Sessions did not reverse his recusal but did assign the U.S. attorney in Utah, John Huber, to examine the Clinton investigation. Trump fired Sessions in November.
Democrats, some of whom have called for Trump’s impeachment, have said his attempts to have Clinton prosecuted represent a clear example of abuse of power.
Trump has also wielded his authority over the federal budget to intervene in spending decisions related to various natural disasters. He has publicly shown disdain toward disaster-stricken states where Democrats outnumber Republicans, and in some cases threatened to withhold disaster funding from them.
As historic wildfires ravaged California earlier this year, Trump lamented the amount of money the federal government was spending to provide relief.
“Billions of dollars are sent to the State of California for Forest fires that, with proper Forest Management, would never happen,” Trump tweeted in January. “Unless they get their act together, which is unlikely, I have ordered FEMA to send no more money. It is a disgraceful situation in lives & money!”
FEMA did not ultimately end its disaster funding for California, but the threat alone sparked outrage among Democrats.
After hurricanes crushed the island of Puerto Rico in 2017, Trump also personally intervened to block aid funding. For weeks, as Congress debated a disaster aid package earlier this year, Trump told his advisers that he did not want any additional funds going to Puerto Rico — a U.S. territory where the government estimates about 3,000 people died after Hurricane Maria.
The mayor of San Juan had been publicly critical of Trump’s response to the hurricane, leading the president to call her out on Twitter.
The Mueller investigation into Russian election interference has also led Trump to test the bounds of presidential power.
Last year, Trump moved to revoke the security clearance of former CIA Director John Brennan, who had become a leading critic of the president. The White House also released a list of other former officials whose security clearances were under review. All were public critics of Trump, who as president has sole authority to deny security clearances from current and former officials.
Trump, who also has exclusive authority to declassify government records, used his power last year to give Republicans access to secret documents related to the investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election. The president also voiced support for ousting Justice Department officials who were involved in the Russia investigation.
Former acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe filed a lawsuit against the FBI and the Justice Department last week alleging that Trump used his position to force out Justice Department officials not seen as loyal to the president. McCabe was fired shortly before he was set to retire with a full pension.
“It was Trump’s unconstitutional plan and scheme to discredit and remove DOJ and FBI employees who were deemed to be his partisan opponents because they were not politically loyal to him,” the lawsuit alleged.
Trump and his allies have accused Democrats of using their political power to target him in unprecedented ways. He has regularly complained of “presidential harassment” and branded the Mueller investigation as an effort by Democrats and bureaucrats to frustrate his nascent administration.
“Every day, they sue me for something,” Trump said Tuesday during a speech to construction workers at a petrochemicals plant in Pennsylvania. “I got sued on a thing called ‘emoluments.’ Emoluments. You ever hear the word? Nobody ever heard of it before.”
Trump has also targeted companies, including Google, Twitter, Amazon, CNN and Facebook — calling for investigations or signing executive orders that all but explicitly single out the firms. He has threatened to use antitrust laws and other executive authority to go after the companies — which he has accused of political bias. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.
Trump’s intervention in Israel’s decision about whether to let Tlaib and Omar visit — and to take a position against the U.S. lawmakers — was an especially aggressive move, said Dallek.
It comes as Trump has increasingly been accused of racism, with polls showing a majority of Americans view him as a racist.
During the 2016 campaign, Trump called for a ban of all Muslims seeking to enter the United States. His push to ban the only two Muslim women in Congress from traveling to Israel comes just weeks after he suggested Omar, Tlaib and two other progressive minority lawmakers to “go back” to other countries.
Michael McFaul, a U.S. ambassador to Russia during the Obama administration, said the decision could ultimately backfire on Israel.
“Trump will not be president forever,” he said on Twitter. “The people of Israel who care about preserving US-Israeli ties might want to remind their prime minister of that obvious fact.”