Trump and the internal separation of powers

In the Times, Daniel Hemel and I argue that the Mueller Report shows the presidency’s vulnerability to agency costs (though we don’t put it quite that way for the general reader). Our argument echoes some of the claims made by Neal Katyal in his 2006 article “Internal Separation of Powers,” but we are (or at least I am) more skeptical than Katyal and other authors that institutions within the executive branch can reproduce the “external” separation of powers, which was intended to keep the executive (as well as the other branches) in check in the first place, but seems to have failed.*

As we note in the piece, the mechanism in question—the ability of aides and other official in the executive branch to defy the president’s orders—is ambiguous in its normative implications. They can defy good orders as well as bad orders; they can constrain for good or ill, as the Hoover example was supposed to show.

The literature should pay more attention to within-executive branch mechanisms. Let me suggest two:

1. Selection. The president selects aides from a pool of candidates. The candidates differ along two dimensions: preferences (which might align more or less with the president’s) and ability. A president must make tradeoffs between the two dimensions. However, if a president wants to be effective, he must take account of talent, and if preferences are normally distributed, this will push him in the direction of the median. Thus, more extreme presidents will be moderated, and this seems to be what has happened with Trump. Most of his better aides disagree with Trump’s more extreme views and projects, while the cronies seem pretty incompetent. (Bannon and Miller have been the exceptions: apparently competent, though I’m not sure, as well as ideologically committed.) Of course, where executive-branch positions require senate approval, the extremist president will also be pushed toward the middle (as we are seeing with Fed nominations).

2. Ex post discipline. The president has very limited tools for rewarding or punishing his subordinates. To reward them, he can promote them, but promotions are limited and usually not very attractive to top officials who want to cash out by leaving government after a couple years. To punish them, he can publicly humiliate them, but he can’t, for example, throw them in jail. The president cannot give bonuses to loyal aides, nor can he (as we are learning) credibly offer them pardons in advance of breaking the law since aides rationally anticipate the president may never issue a pardon, which can be politically costly.

The biggest problem for the president is that officials can continue to pursue their careers in the private sector (or, later, in politics) only if they avoid being tainted by their service in the presidency. Lawyers face the risk of being disbarred if they engage in illegal or unethical conduct.

Both mechanisms suggest that the policies of a president like Trump can be moderated by internal executive-branch constraints (that is, agency costs), but they weaken as the elites polarize. If you imagine a bimodal distribution, for example, the president may find adequate talent away from median, and career opportunities might be available even to people whose actions offend much of the public. Moreover, the mechanisms will subvert a “good” president who seeks in good-faith to act in the public interest under conditions where most people (at least temporarily) disagree with him. (FDR ahead of World War II remains the preeminent example.)

The mechanisms, and particularly the second one, show how important it is for the president to maintain credibility. Subordinates who do not share his preferences need to be sure that he will punish them if they defy his wishes, and reward them if they obey. Executive Unbound argued that “for presidents, credibility is power…. Without credibility, the president is a helpless giant.” This seems to be an accurate enough prediction about Trump, and becoming more accurate every day.

* Note that there is a sense in which the separation of powers might be vindicated. The president was constrained by subordinates who feared being prosecuted under the obstruction of justice statute—which requires the involvement of the judiciary, as well as Congress, which needed to pass the statute in the first place. But this is not what people usually mean by the checking power of other branches. The statute remains dormant, and the judiciary uninvolved, unless the “executive branch” acts—by launching the investigation, cooperating with the investigation, and (ultimately) refusing to pardon.