First, a series of predictions: The U.S. House of Representatives will impeach Donald Trump. He will not resign, so the Senate will conduct a trial on whatever charges are brought against him. The next couple of years there’ll be plenty of talk about the meaning of “high crimes and misdemeanors.” At the end of the day, once all the evidence is in, I will approve of President Trump’s removal from office for “high crimes and misdemeanors.” Until then, I will try (not always successfully) to keep an open mind. I will view some participants and spectators as sharks in a feeding frenzy. And I will not be able to restrain myself from commenting, especially when I think the street buzz fails to appreciate nuances or fails to put today’s events in historical perspective.
Anticipating all that, and before the gavel brings the first meeting of the Impeachment Committee to order, I thought I’d ask a question intentionally broader than the eventual “high crimes and misdemeanors” question. Namely, is Donald Trump the most independent, egotistical maverick who has ever served as president?
Perhaps he is. Perhaps cabinet shake-ups, midnight tweets, criminal investigations and mounting criticism by members of his own party demonstrate that the man is out-of-control, a rogue who has lost all sense of attachment to the country and even to his own political party, an egotistical maverick who thinks he’s smarter than the combined wisdom on Capitol Hill and is prone to take the law into his own hands.
But on the subject of mavericks, I thought I’d take a look at two pieces of historical data. One of these is how often presidents have used their veto power. An independent maverick willing to assert himself over the views of the Congress would seem likely to use the veto more often.
The other is a president’s use of the Executive Order. Bypassing Congress, presidents have sometimes attempted to make law by executive order. The courts have often found that executive orders have exceeded proper presidential powers. This is certainly not true of all executive orders. The first such order recognized by the American Presidency Project was George Washington’s order that his cabinet members report back to him on the status of matters in their respective areas of responsibility. There’s obviously a big difference between the executive activism suggested by that order and, say, Harry Truman’s order nationalizing the country’s steel mills. So as a measure of presidential activism, the count of a president’s executive orders may be more problematic than a count of his vetoes. As with vetoes, a president whose party is in control of Congress might be expected to use executive orders less than a president with an opposition party in power on Capitol Hill. So there are obviously variables at play, not accounted for by the raw numbers Still, one might expect a president who’s apt to take matters into his own hands, a president who tries to control the country personally rather than letting Congress do so, might be expected to issue more executive orders than a more docile, less activist president.
My thought was that the frequency of presidential vetoes and executive orders may provide at least some insight into the degree of ego and power various presidents have attempted to wield while in office.
In the following table, from FDR through Donald Trump, I’ve included the data for all the presidents. Before FDR, I’ve included only those presidents who set new record highs for use of executive orders or vetoes. I’ve used the president’s months in office to convert absolute numbers to monthly rates. Here’s what I get, using data from the American Presidency Project and the U.S. Senate.
* Figures for Donald Trump are to date, i.e., December of 2018.
The numbers above don’t tell the whole story by any means. For example, hundreds of Cleveland’s vetoes were of private pension bills for Civil War veterans. Congress wanted to grant pensions to individual, named veterans after the Pension Bureau had investigated and denied them. The bills presented the same issue again and again, and the result drastically inflated Cleveland’s total vetoes.
So the bare counts are no doubt subject to all sorts of explanations and interpretations. But for me, the counts suggest a couple of things worth keeping in mind.
The first is that there have been two growth spurts in presidential activism as measured by these indicators. The first spurt was when the country was being rended apart and put back together again over the slavery question. President Pierce nearly doubled the prior record of executive orders, Lincoln advanced it again, and after Lincoln’s assassination, Johnson and Grant, while trying to put the country back together again, more than doubled it again. Meanwhile, Johnson and Grant each set new records for presidential vetoes, and did so by large margins. It was certainly a tumultuous time.
The second spurt began with Teddy Roosevelt and ended with Harry Truman, a period spanning the Great Depression and two world wars. That spurt is evident in both executive orders and vetoes, with FDR setting the all time record for both, despite the fact his party was in control of both houses of Congress for his entire presidency. More tumultuous times.
Judged by that historical observation, in this time when the country is so polarized and divided, one might expect we’d have an activist president, at least as assessed by these measures.
The second observation I would make is more subjective, but I think important to think about, even so: namely,the correlation between a president’s “executive activism” as suggested by this data, and his reputation as a great president, as judged by history . To me, this will be important to keep in mind as we face the impeachment proceedings to come – not to argue that Donald Trump is a great president, but to help us remember what standard we’re judging him by, and if we remove him from office, what it is we remove him for.
Putting Grover Cleveland aside, consider how history has regarded the other notables on the list: Shortly after his election to office, President Lincoln ordered the arrest of several Maryland legislators who favored secession, right before a scheduled vote on secession, for the transparent reason of keeping Maryland from voting to secede. (Now that was a bold display of executive activism!) Yet history has judged that bold presidential action by all but forgetting it.
Two years later, when Lincoln issued his most famous executive order (the Emancipation Proclamation) he took great pains to make sure it was “legal.” Lincoln disagreed with the U.S.Supreme Court’s recent decision in the Dred Scott case that, because slaves were private property under state law, the federal government had no right or power to free them. That decision was the law of the land, but Lincoln circumvented it by asserting that he did have power to confiscate property being used in rebellion against the federal government. So rather than having Congress do it, Lincoln freed the slaves by a stroke of his executive pen. But recognizing the Supreme Court’s ruling, he only freed those slaves in the states that were in armed rebellion against the national government. That respect for the rule of law is something Lincoln is much criticized for today. Current progressive thinking would probably treat him better if he had contravened the law as then decided by the Supreme Court, and used his executive power to free all the slaves. Lincoln was a maverick, but as judged by history, possibly not maverick enough.
Nearly a hundred years later, when President Truman used an executive order to place the country’s steel mills under federal control, the Supreme Court held his order unconstitutional. Truman is also third on the list of most active vetoers in history. Yet Truman is highly regarded for his independence today.
Theodore Roosevelt, who set new records for issuing Executive Orders and established a reputation as one of the most egotistical mavericks to ever occupy the office, got his face enshrined on Mount Rushmore. He is often considered one of the five greatest Presidents in American history.
And Franklin Roosevelt, who tried to pack the Supreme Court when too much of his agenda was ruled unconstitutional, who set the record for issuing activist executive orders by a large margin, and who set the record for presidential vetoes even though his own party controlled Congress throughout his presidency, is widely hailed by many as the best president in history. He is certainly highly regarded by today’s “progressives” for his executive activism.
The point is that, as I see it, history has generally looked upon presidential activism with high regard — at least when it approves of the goals a president has pursued.
So where does President Trump fall, on these measures of ego and executive activism? He has used the Executive Order more frequently than President Obama, but then, Obama’s use of the Executive Order was the lowest in modern times. When compared to other modern presidents, Trump’s rate has been comparatively low. And as for his use of the veto power, there have been 2,574 presidential vetoes since 1789 — not one of them by Mr. Trump.
There are a lot of ways to measure a President’s ego, independence, and executive activism. If measured by midnight tweets and rash statements made to the television news media, President Trump is surely the most arrogant President in history. (That’s an easy claim to make considering Andrew Jackson and Ulysses Grant had neither twitter nor TV.) But measured by such quantifiable things as frequency of executive orders and vetoes, Mr. Trump has been far less of a maverick than either of the Roosevelts , Wilson, or Truman. And as far as I can tell, being mavericks who were not always in line with their own parties had a lot to do with why such men have been regarded well by history.
My point? I simply hope that, as the impeachment proceedings progress, we keep in mind that impeachment was not designed to punish presidents for having policies and positions we disagree with. Impeachment was not intended as a remedy for presidents with big egos, or even for those who run counter to the views on Capitol Hill or within their own political parties. Let’s not impeach Donald Trump because he’s a maverick, unless we think that presidents yet to come who are cut from the mold of Jackson, Lincoln, Wilson and both Roosevelts will deserve to be impeached for their roguishness. Let’s think long and hard, with a sound historical perspective, about the separation of powers, the presidency, and the best meaning to give to “high crimes and misdemeanors.”
I may be wrong, but I predict I’ll have more to say in the months to come about that term. But those are my thoughts for now. I look forward to hearing yours.