Glenn Greenwald: Trump will have vast powers. He can thank Democrats for them.
Liberals liked executive authority as long as Obama wielded it. Now they’ve set a precedent.
By Glenn Greenwald
Nov 11 2016
Liberals are understandably panicked about what Donald Trump can carry out. “We have a president-elect with authoritarian tendencies assuming a presidency that has never been more powerful,” Franklin Foer wrote this past week in Slate. Trump will command not only a massive nuclear arsenal and the most robust military in history, but also the ability to wage numerous wars in secret and without congressional authorization; a ubiquitous system of electronic surveillance that can reach most forms of human communication and activity; and countless methods for shielding himself from judicial accountability, congressional oversight and the rule of law — exactly what the Constitution was created to prevent. Trump assumes the presidency “at the peak of its imperial powers,” as Foer put it.
Sen. Barack Obama certainly saw it that way when he first ran for president in 2008. Limiting executive-power abuses and protecting civil liberties were central themes of his campaign. The former law professor repeatedly railed against the Bush-Cheney template of vesting the president with unchecked authorities in the name of fighting terrorism or achieving other policy objectives. “This administration also puts forward a false choice between the liberties we cherish and the security we provide,” he said in 2007. Listing an array of controversial Bush-Cheney policies, from warrantless domestic surveillance to due-process-free investigations and imprisonment, he vowed: “We will again set an example for the world that the law is not subject to the whims of stubborn rulers.”
Yet, beginning in his first month in office and continuing through today, Obama not only continued many of the most extreme executive-power policies he once condemned, but in many cases strengthened and extended them. His administration detained terrorism suspects without due process, proposed new frameworks to keep them locked up without trial, targeted thousands of individuals (including a U.S. citizen) for execution by drone, invoked secrecy doctrines to shield torture and eavesdropping programs from judicial review, and covertly expanded the nation’s mass electronic surveillance.
Blinded by the belief that Obama was too benevolent and benign to abuse his office, and drowning in partisan loyalties at the expense of political principles, Democrats consecrated this framework with their acquiescence and, often, their explicit approval. This is the unrestrained set of powers Trump will inherit. The president-elect frightens them, so they are now alarmed. But if they want to know whom to blame, they should look in the mirror.
Obama’s approach to executive power flipped so quickly and diametrically that it is impossible to say if he ever believed his campaign-era professions of restraint. As early as May 2009, Jack Goldsmith, a Justice Department official under George W. Bush, celebrated Obama’s abandonment of his promises to rein in these authorities, writing that “the new administration has copied most of the Bush program, has expanded some of it, and has narrowed only a bit.” He added that the “Obama practices will be much closer to late Bush practices than almost anyone expected in January 2009.”
By putting a prettier liberal face on these policies, and transforming them from a symbol of GOP radicalism into one of bipartisan security consensus, the president entrenched them as permanent fixtures of the American presidency. As Goldsmith put it, Obama’s actions were “designed to fortify the bulk of the Bush program for the long-run.”
Liberals vehemently denounced these abuses during the Bush presidency. From 2001 through 2008, Democrats called them the embodiment of tyranny, an existential threat to democracy, a menacing expression of right-wing radicalism. “America’s Constitution is in grave danger,” Al Gore warned in a widely praised 2006 speech on civil liberties. Bush had become “the central threat that the founders sought to nullify in the Constitution, an all-powerful executive, too reminiscent of the king from whom they had broken free.” In one 2007 poll, 57 percent of Democrats said they wanted the Guantanamo Bay prison camp to be closed.
But after Obama took office, many liberals often tolerated — and even praised — his aggressive assertions of executive authority. It is hard to overstate how complete the Democrats’ about-face on these questions was once their own leader controlled the levers of power. According to a 2012 Washington Post-ABC News poll, 53 percent of self-identified liberal Democrats and 67 percent of moderate or conservative ones now supported keeping Guantanamo Bay open. After just three years of the Obama presidency, liberals sanctioned a system that allowed the president to imprison people without any trial or an ounce of due process.