by Bob Cesca
Donald Trump continues to decimate institutions, one after another, along with the traditions of decorum and dignity that go along with the American presidency. He isn’t schooled enough to realize that it’s the norms of the office that hold the system together, preventing the presidency from descending into a dictatorship. That said, Trump has chosen to ignore the constraints of the office, either because he believes he’s too great — the greatest! — to be bound by the past or because his people insist that he behave like a new kind of president who’s unlike all previous chief executives.
As I’ve been saying since the beginning, everything he says, every tweet, every childish nickname or insult, every deviation from political norms is causing damage to the system. It’s happening incrementally, one egregious trespass after another, and some of us might not even notice that Trump is establishing all new loopholes in executive power that won’t easily be undone. All presidents leave their mark on the office, but most of the time they don’t seriously disrupt the continuity of how presidents behave or how they manage the federal bureaucracy.
For example, this week, Trump ordered the Pentagon to organize a military parade in his honor, to be held sometime later this year. According to reports, it’ll include tanks, artillery, soldiers, of course, and, if he’s borrowing from President Xi of China or ever Putin, there might be an ICBM or two included in this bullshit procession down Pennsylvania Avenue. Suffice it to say, this sort of thing never happens, other than in the immediate aftermath of a successful war effort, and usually it doesn’t include cumbersome military hardware. Indeed, this parade is torn directly from the despots and warlords handbook — it’s an event better suited for Kim Jong-un than an American president, and certainly not one who dodged the Vietnam draft with alleged bone-spurs.
As we’ve all observed, whether we voted against him or not, Trump treats the rules and statutes constraining the presidency as purely optional. His people will support him no matter what, so why should be obey the rules? I suppose the upside is that he’s daily exposing serious gaps in the system, making it easier than ever before to know where exactly to reinforce the constraints on presidential power with new laws. True, some of the rules are technically optional, but presidential character is tested by how well or poorly our presidents abide even the most minor unwritten rules, and Trump just doesn’t care.
Not to get too far ahead of ourselves, but one of these days, Trump will leave office. And once he does, Congress needs to convene hearings and introduce a slate of new laws that will begin to repair at least some of the damage from too many years of Trump, while also preventing the ascendancy of the next Trump.
Here are some suggestions for these reforms of our presidential system.
1. Civics aptitude test for every presidential candidate. The point of this should be obvious. The test should involve questions about the American government, international affairs, the Constitution and American history, with a focus on presidential history, of course. The questions ought to be sufficiently randomized and officially proctored by a nonpartisan commission. The test results should be immediately released to the public. If a candidate scores lower than 70 percent, he or she has to wait until the next presidential election before they’re permitted to run again.
2. Social media usage should be greatly restricted. Antagonistic tweets or Facebook posts that embarrass the country should be viewed as national security risks, since any president who behaves in a childish manner online compromises the president’s ability to conduct him- or herself as chief diplomat, while unnecessarily diminishing America’s reputation on the world stage. Put another way, it makes America look weak and frivolous. How this rule is enforced is up for debate, but as with any clear and present risk to national security, the consequences should be grave.
3. Mandatory release of tax returns. Every presidential candidate has to release, unredacted, tax returns, including 1040s and business returns. If this is a requirement to apply for a mortgage or to buy a car, why isn’t it required by law from presidential candidates? No tax returns, no campaign.
4. Mandatory divestment. Trump has somehow gotten away with not divesting from his businesses, allowing him to personally profit from his weekend excursions to Mar-a-lago and Bedminster. No more. All candidates have to relinquish their control over whatever businesses they might own, while providing documentation to that end, or else they won’t appear on the November ballot.
5. No more nepotism. Relatives and business partners should be barred from working inside the White House. Nominees for Senate confirmable posts will be blocked and summarily rejected from hearings should they be materially linked to the president and vice president.
6. Mandatory physical. The president should be physically capable of withstanding the rigors of the office. As with the civics test, an independent commission would be tasked with supervising this examination and releasing the results, untouched, to the public.
7. Mandatory mental health exam. This would weed out a lot of candidates, even some otherwise good ones. The problem, however, is that even good candidates can have serious issues lingering just under the surface. Remember, it takes a colossal ego to run for president, so the chances are there’s something else under the hood to go along with that ego and it’s not always positive. At the very least, we’ll know whether our presidential candidates are more fucked up than they let on.
8. Definitely no military parades. Unless we happen to win a war, of course.
9. Security clearance vetting. Presidential nominees shouldn’t simply be just handed a security clearance without a full understanding of whether they’ve been, for instance, compromised by a foreign power, which we now know is more likely than we could’ve ever imagined.
10. Limits on vacation and personal travel. Camp David is there for a reason. Spending millions and millions of dollars on shuttling the president to Florida and back every weekend is not only wasteful, but a poor use of presidential time. If the president needs exercise or leisure time, he should get it the way the rest of us do. Two or three weeks of vacation every year on his or her own dime.
11. Yes, the president can be indicted for crimes. No more gray area here. If the president commits a felony, that’s it.
This is just a start, covering the broadstrokes of what Trump has exposed by his irresponsibility and his routine flaunting of the rules. Oh, and I’d strongly suggest constitutional amendments along these lines, proposed by a bipartisan commission.
Ultimately, though, it’s kind of shocking some of these rules weren’t already in place, given how Article II of the Constitution already includes a few qualifications: citizenship and age-requirements, specifically. So why not a few more to help assure we get better leaders at the top of the heap? Otherwise, in the post-Trump era, literally anyone will have a shot to become president because our current dingus will have already softened the ground with his corruption and ineptitude. I assure you, it’s already started — freaks, weirdos and B-list celebrities are probably already lining up for 2020.
Yeah, we’ll have a pile of work to do as we eventually emerge from this dark ride. If we do the right thing and push for these reforms, the country will be better off for it, and the damage Trump is inflicting won’t have been in vain.