The president-elect need not be a potted plant [UPDATED]

Ruth Marcus, the liberal Washington Post columnist, advises Donald Trump that “there can be only one president at a time.” This slogan raises, but does not answer, the question of what the president-elect should say or do when the lame duck takes highly controversial action with which his successor-to-be strongly disagrees. More on that in a moment.

But first, let’s share a laugh over Marcus’ invocation of Richard Nixon in defense of the idea that the president-elect should be seen but not heard. Marcus writes:

President Richard Nixon, at a news conference a week after being sworn in. . .noted that, in conversations as president-elect with Johnson administration officials, he had “scrupulously followed the line that we have one president at a time, and that he must continue to be president until he leaves office on January 20.”

It was Nixon, though, who as a candidate for president (not president-elect) worked to scuttle Vietnam peace talks. Fearing that the prospect of peace talks would harm his election campaign (his opponent Hubert Humphrey was cutting into Nixon’s once-large lead), Tricky Dick let the South Vietnamese government know it could get better terms if it obstructed peace talks.

Clearly, Nixon did not believe that the U.S. “can have one president at a time.”

As for the two other presidents cited by Marcus as having mouthed this cliche — Bill Clinton and Barack Obama — there is no reason to believe they would have sat silently by as the outgoing president moved at the last minute to bind the U.S. to policies they strongly opposed. This is the situation Trump faces.

In the last days of his presidency, Barack Obama has radically altered U.S. policy on treating Israel at the U.N. By doing so, he has set the stage for an international assault on Israel and, in Trump’s view, diminished the likelihood of successfully negotiating a peace agreement — something he says he very much wants to do.

Marcus cites no precedent for passivity by a president-elect in such circumstances. It would be a lame president-elect who displayed such passivity. After all, Trump will have to cope with the mess Obama is creating in the dying embers of his presidency.

A moment’s reflection should be sufficient to conclude that there’s nothing wrong, for example, with Trump telling Egypt how he will respond, once he’s president, to its sponsorship, before he becomes president, of a resolution he thinks is damaging. Presidential candidates make such threats all the time. For example, as a candidate, Obama announced his intention to attack terrorists inside Pakistan, which was contrary to U.S. policy at the time.

Why should a president-elect be unable to say kind of things he is free to utter as a candidate? I can’t think of a reason.

It might be objected that in the case of Egypt, Trump’s statement interfered with U.S. diplomacy regarding Israel and the U.N. But Team Obama denies that it was pushing Egypt or anyone else to propose the anti-Israel resolution. In its telling, the administration engaged in no such diplomacy

Perhaps for this reason, Marcus doesn’t cite the U.N. resolution as a case in which Trump acted as co-president. Instead, she points to Trump’s phone conversation with the head of Taiwan.

But it is routine for a president-elect to accept congratulatory calls. And even if chatting with Taiwan’s leader sent a signal that Trump might alter U.S. policy, so what? Candidates for the presidency routinely do more than just send signals about changing U.S. foreign policy if elected. Surely, the president-elect can talk about the changes he intends to make once in office.

We will read much mindless criticism of Donald Trump in the coming years (and, no doubt, some criticism that’s deserved). I doubt there will be many attacks as mindless as Marcus’ latest, but perhaps I’m taking too charitable a view of liberal punditry.

UPDATE: I am grateful to my friend Nathan Silver who brought to my attention, in the context of Ruth Marcus’s column, the incident about Nixon’s underhanded behavior as a presidential candidate. I should have have noted his contribution in my original post.


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