Reed ’21: Mueller, Trump, presidential authority

Staff Columnist
Thursday, April 25, 2019

Last week, when the Department of Justice released the partially redacted Mueller Report, liberals and conservatives alike rushed to claim vindication. The report was something of a Rorschach test of confirmation bias. Many conservatives  saw confirmation of the President Trump’s cries of “no collusion.” Many liberals saw the president’s attempts to stymie the special counsel’s investigation as evidence that he obstructed justice. Mueller has seemingly given everyone the ability to frame the report as a win for their side, though recently the President has described aspects of the document as both a “total exoneration” and “total bullshit.”

Questions regarding the proper interpretation of the report can only be answered with a resounding “it’s complicated.” When I read it, what stood out was neither the lack of collusion nor the evidence of obstruction. What was most alarming, and to what few outlets have devoted many column inches, is the documented pattern of  Trump’s advisors defying his directives. There are several instances in the report where the president gives one of his advisors an order, the person says “I’ll get right on that” and walks out of the room with no intention of doing what he asked. I’ve heard some say, approvingly, that these people provide a buffer against some of Trump’s worst impulses. The problem is, no one elected these advisors — and in many cases they are the ones essentially wielding the president’s powers. When you don’t like the president, it’s easy to think that’s a good thing. But, in truth, it’s a double-edged sword, and one edge cuts far deeper than the other.

Mueller describes multiple occasions like these. In one instance, President Trump instructed White House Counsel Don McGahn to call the Deputy Attorney General and order him to remove the special counsel. McGahn, at home on a Saturday, and after having received a second call from the president with the same order, “left the president with the impression that (he) would call (the Deputy Attorney General]),” though he “did not intend to act on the request.” In another instance, Trump ordered then-Chief-of-Staff Reince Priebus to obtain a letter of resignation from former Attorney General Jeff Sessions. “Even though (he) did not intend to carry out the president’s directive, he told the president he would get Sessions to resign.” Mueller’s report includes several more anecdotes like these.

But it’s not only personnel matters and it’s not only the Mueller report where we see this kind of defiance. Last year, the Washington Post reported that, on a call with now-former Secretary of Defense James Mattis, Trump ordered him to draw up plans to assassinate Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Mattis agreed with the President and said he would begin the planning, but when the call ended, he told an aide, “we’re not going to do any of that.”

In these cases, it was a general, a bureaucrat and a lawyer — none of whom are elected, none of whom are accountable to the American people — and not the president who decided whether to fire the Attorney General and the Special Counsel and whether Assad should live or die. It would be easy to dismiss these incidents as the President’s advisors and cabinet members saving him from himself and saving the country from harmful or even illegal actions. But the deception is where this explanation fails to pass muster. When the president gives an illegal order or one that your principles forbid you from following, you say so. You say, “No, Mr. President, that’s not right. I won’t do it, and here are the reasons why…” And if after that, he remains unconvinced, you resign. That’s how it’s supposed to work. But that’s not what happened here.

Thus far, Trump’s advisors’ attempts to neuter his presidency have had little effect. However, one could foresee a scenario in which this propensity toward defiance wreaks havoc on the government and the country. Imagine the president decides to launch a pre-emptive strike on North Korea. Would we then not be worried that such an order may or may not be dismissed as “Trump’s crazy talk”? If the president and his cabinet were sending conflicting messages to the armed services, would this not make us and the world less safe?

These questions should trouble everyone, liberal or conservative. The person we elect to serve as president is the one who must make the big decisions, like them or hate them, trust their judgment or question it. You may not like Trump making the decisions, but it’s far better than someone pulling the strings from behind a veil of unaccountability and, to many Americans, anonymity. If the people making the biggest decisions in the country are not those whom we have elected, what’s the point of a democracy? When a small group of people can not only make the decisions of the president but also actively defy his orders through deception, they have thwarted the democratic will of the people who elected him.


Andrew Reed ’21 can be reached at Please send responses to this opinion to and op-eds to

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  1. You are right to criticize the situation of the president giving orders that are perhaps unwise, and underlings deciding not to carry them out. This is clearly not ideal.

    However, Trump always has the authority to follow through. He can make a follow-up list of orders he has given with dates listed as to when he will check back to see if his orders have been acted upon. This is not hard to do. Most executives do so.

    But what I perceive is likely is that by the time Trump has figured out that his orders were not followed he no longer cares about that issue enough to follow up. He lets it drop.

    This is not a good management style, but maybe it’s better than the alternative of a president who gives impulsive orders and underlings who carry them out without question.

    • Andrew Reed says:

      You make a good point, and you’re pushing an open door with me if you say Trump’s management style is less than ideal.

      But I would say that advisors deceiving him into thinking his orders are being followed (when they have no intention of doing so) is dangerous, regardless of Trump’s ability to check-in to see whether his advisors have carried out his directives. For example, you could easily foresee a scenario wherein time is a critical factor (e.g. in war scenarios). In a circumstance like that, the President has to give impulsive orders. And he needs to be able to trust that those orders are being followed, at that moment he gives them, rather than giving an order and checking-in a day later hoping it has been carried out.

      At any rate, a very interesting discussion that hasn’t been given its due consideration.

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