04 August 2017

The cowardice of signing statements

As President, Donald Trump is similar to his recent predecessors in one respect. He likes to attach grumbling signing statements to legislation passed with veto-proof majorities in Congress. The most recent case involves the bill imposing new sanctions on Iran, North Korea and Russia. It passed with overwhelmingly bipartisan majorities in both houses of Congress. In the Senate, only Sen. Sanders, who felt it disrupted our nuclear negotiations with Iran, and Sen. Paul, who seems to have little use for sanctions in general, voted against it. It was obvious to the President immediately that the bill would complicate any attempt he might make to reconcile with Russia, not only because it imposes more sanctions, but because it constrains the President from negotiating away those sanctions before getting Congress' consent. Trump believes that this unconstitutionally violates his executive prerogative to negotiate with foreign leaders, and said so in his signing statement. This seems to be a higher-order objection than those that George W. Bush was wont to make in his signing statements, which usually indicated that he would still do whatever he pleased according to his (or Dick Cheney's) notion of executive power. One would think that a President has a duty to veto legislation he believes to be unconstitutional as a matter of principle, regardless of whether the veto will be overriden or not. Yet after expressing his objections, Trump feebly signed the sanctions bill for the sake of "national unity."

In one sense, I can understand Trump's capitulation. The Constitution makes no distinctions among the reasons why a President might veto a bill. Whatever the executive's objections, Congress always has the right to override. There is no procedure for referring a constitutional objection to the Supreme Court, and since the President is not the Supreme Court, Congress has no obligation to take his constitutional objections seriously. Given the consensus in favor of the sanctions, Trump would be SOL trying to dissuade Congress even if he had his immediate predecessor's academic credentials in constitutional law. Still, this might have been the time, given our increasingly tense relations with both Russia and North Korea, for a President who is not supposed to do things the way his predecessors did to do things differently. He still couldn't stop Congress from overriding a veto, but actually vetoing the bill might have been the sort of "profile in courage" gesture that might -- I know I'm being wildly theoretical here -- just might have provoked people into rethinking it. Trump did not do this, I suspect, because on a certain level he's a coward. Determined to win at all times, or to call whatever he happens to be doing a win, he probably could not stand to take a stand that was guaranteed to fail. He most likely didn't want the humiliation of an overwhelming override of what would have been his first presidential veto, particularly on a foreign policy question, as that might make him look weaker on the world stage. Well, that damage has been done anyway, as the world recognizes a reassertion of congressional influence in American foreign policy that the supposed strongman Trump could not resist. Now, presumably, Trump can only reserve for himself the satisfaction of saying "I told you so," not in the event of a Supreme Court vindication of his position, since they'll probably never hear the law challenged, but possibly after further deterioration of American relations with the rest of the world. If he really wants to tell us so, he should have vetoed the bill and damned the consequences. He'd have lost, certainly, but he might have earned a little more respect, in some quarters, at least, than he has now.

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