Checking the Powers of the Presidency: Where Do We Go From Here?

By Moira Johnson

February 11th, 2020

2019 ended with a (gavel) bang. Before adjourning for the year, the U.S. House of Representatives approved the articles of impeachment against President Donald Trump on the charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. President Trump now stands as only the third president in American history to have been impeached by Congress. While this is a rarity in our nation’s history, what is even more rare is the grounds on which Trump was impeached. 

The articles presented against the President, abuse of power and obstruction of Congress, were related to the foreign policy powers of the office of the President. This moment in politics allows us to evaluate an ongoing trend and present possible paths to long term solutions to these issues. 

The articles against President Trump were pursued after a formal House inquiry found evidence that the President had solicited foreign interference in the 2020 election to help his re-election bid and then obstructed the inquiry itself by telling members of the administration to ignore subpoenas for documents and testimony. 

The situation at hand harkens back to a question that has been asked quite frequently as of late: Did Trump overstep the foreign policy powers of the presidency? Data from the Teaching, Research, and International Policy (TRIP) Project shows that many International Relations (IR) scholars believe that Trump both overstepped and abused the foreign policy powers of the office.

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While many scholars and politicians alike claim that the Trump administration has made unprecedented choices, the problem of overstep is not unique to the Trump administration. Accusations of an “Imperial Presidency” have been put forth since the 1970s following the expansion of the powers of the Office of the President during the postwar era. Particularly in the 21st century, the Presidency is marked by increasing foreign policy powers, regardless of party affiliation. The foreign policy powers of the President are outlined in Article II of the Constitution, but there are gaps in power made murkier by historical precedents set forth in the U.S. Court System.

Over time, Congress ceded more and more of its power to check the Office of the Presidency on the issue of foreign policy, culminating in the current situation. Congress should take back its power to check the President, as it is legally able to so long as its members believe in the powers set forth by the Constitution. Transcending party lines in the interest of maintaining the core beliefs of this nation seems reasonable, as members of Congress have a duty to educate themselves on foreign policy issues in order to best serve the interests of their constituents and the nation. 

Looking forward, there are many contemporary foreign policy issues that Congress could use to start to regain power. For example, the Administration’s targeted killing of Iranian Major General Soleimani in January occurred without the knowledge or consent of high ranking members of Congress, who historically are at a minimum informed of any major military action, covert or otherwise, before it occurs. While the President is not required constitutionally to consult with Congress about the actions of the Armed Forces, the targeted killing of a high ranking Iranian official could be considered an act of war, thus making the act  fall under the jurisdiction of Congress. 

Another likely battleground for constraint could be on the issue of the US-China trade deal that was recently approved. While not a solid solution to the ongoing trade war between China and the U.S., the trade deal serves as an uneasy ceasefire between the two countries. Many have accused President Trump of having been unconstrained by either interest groups or Congress in the process of negotiating this deal. While the American Executive side of the deal pursues a better deal for farmers, it appears that the interests of American manufacturers, retailers, and consumers were largely ignored. Per Article I of the Constitution, Congress has the power to regulate commerce with foreign nations. Lawmakers could make the case that they deserve to have more oversight into the negotiations of these agreements in order to better protect the interests of the American producers and consumers within their constituencies. 

Moira Johnson is a senior at the college majoring in Government and minoring in Physics. She has worked at TRIP since August of 2018. Her interests include Middle Eastern conflicts, Nuclear Proliferation, and the U.S. Intelligence Community.