Fact Check: President Trump First to Turn to Absolute Power?
(RightWing.org) – On Monday, President Trump declared he has “total authority” when it comes to lifting restrictions states put in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Immediately, his statement created a backlash from Democrats, some Republicans, the media, and even a few legal scholars. Many argue the president does not have a claim to absolute power. Some have even said his statement sounded more like that of a king than a president.
Throughout American history, many presidents have used extraordinary powers not explicitly granted to them in the Constitution. In some cases, Congress passed laws giving unprecedented authority to a president for a specific purpose, but never put a timeframe on the law or abolished it.
Trump’s statement begs an answer to the question: during a time of crisis, does the president have absolute power?
From George Washington to Donald Trump, presidents have used laws and executive orders to fulfill their agendas and protect what they saw as the public interest. Congress was designed to move slow. However, in a time of crisis, some decisions have to be made quickly. At times throughout history, it’s led to dangerous decisions with significant consequences.
There’s a foundation that allows Trump to exert near-absolute power if he chooses to use it during a time of crisis. In each historical circumstance, the Supreme Court refused to get involved, being careful not to overrule the president’s actions during an emergency — which amounts to de facto permission.
Let’s look at a few past presidents as examples of how executive power has expanded over time:
President Jefferson was the first commander-in-chief to expand presidential power. Presidents Washington and Adams, with permission from Congress, paid bribes to Tripoli pirates to prevent them from raiding US merchant ships off the African coast. Jefferson found it unacceptable as he wanted the US to become a powerful trade nation. Jefferson refused to pay the bribes, and Tripoli declared war on the United States.
Using the US Navy, Jefferson waged an offensive posture against the Tripoli pirates, without a declaration of war from Congress, to protect US merchant ships in the region. Being out of town, Congress learned what was going on after the fact. Jefferson explained that he did not have time to wait on Congress, and his actions set a precedent forever changing the presidency and use of force.
President Lincoln is most known for suspending the writ of habeas corpus. This important recourse, preventing the government from detaining people suspected of a crime, indefinitely. Lincoln justified his action by arguing in a time of emergency the president had to act without Congress. It wasn’t the only legally-questionable action he took. Lincoln tried wartime prisoners in military tribunals instead of the civilian court system. The Supreme Court said, after the war, he didn’t have the authority to do it — but that was a moot point.
Franklin D. Roosevelt
Like Lincoln, FDR expanded and abused his power during both the Great Depression and World War II. Roosevelt became the father of the modern-day executive order. By using executive orders and bypassing Congress, FDR:
- Enacted a temporary program that became the basis for social security.
- Expanded labor regulations by creating the National Labor Relations Board.
- Declared bank holidays.
- Built internment camps to house Japanese Americans away from the public, creating suspicion they were enemies of America.
- Suspended habeas corpus in Hawaii during World War II.
In 1933, at the height of the Great Depression, FDR used the 1917 Trading with the Enemy Act to seize from all citizens gold valued at over $100.
In 1957, President Eisenhower used the 1807 Insurrection Act to deploy soldiers in the US to help desegregate schools in Arkansas.
Other presidents have used executive orders or been given more authority by Congress. Most recently, President George W. Bush authorized the wiretapping of American citizens after 9/11. In addition, Congress gave significant power to the president through the Patriot Act.
Based on this limited historical context alone, it’s easy to see how Trump can use previous laws, emergency powers, and executive orders to create a form of absolute power.
Currently, 123 laws provide the president with exceptional emergency powers alone. They range broadly from military powers to agricultural exports to public contracts. He’s free to use any of them. Just because politicians, the media, and the public are not aware of the exceptional powers granted to the president by law doesn’t mean they don’t exist.
Combined with ambiguous terms, a rich well of statutory emergency powers, the power of executive orders, and strong historical precedent — Trump may be right. He may have absolute power if he chooses to exercise it.
The question is, will he, and should he? If he does, it’ll expand executive power in a way that’s never been done before.
By Don Purdum, Freelance Contributor
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