To Head Off Strongman Governance, Keep Presidential Power in Check

  • January 30, 2024
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Walter Olson

The group Protect Democracy has just published90‐​page report (“The Authoritarian Playbook for 2025”) laying out six areas to watch should a restored Donald Trump decide to push the limits of current presidential authority in pursuit of strongman governance of the Orban or Erdogan sort. The six are: 1) misuse of presidential pardon powers, specifically when lawbreaking has been committed in the political interests of the president and his allies; 2) law enforcement investigations of opponents; 3) regulatory retaliation against those not in political step with the authorities; 4) federal law enforcement overreach, and steps toward consolidation of a domestic federal police force; 5) domestic deployment of the military, with or without the invocation of the Insurrection Act; and 6) legal and street‐​based resistance to leaving office after failing to win re‐​election.

Over the years Cato has been a voice, at times a lonely one, warning of dangers in each of these areas. In the first five, abuses have occurred through multiple presidencies and at times at multiple levels of government— as with, for example, regulatory retaliation against political foes. (On number six, resistance to leaving office after electoral defeat, Trump’s offenses really do appear to put him in a class by himself in modern America.)

To sample just one item from the Protect Democracy list, misuse of the presidential pardon power, Cato senior vice president Gene Healy wrote about Trump’s end‐​of‐​term pardon spree, his earlier pardon of “unrepentant, serial abuser of power” Joe Arpaio, the pardon of presidential crony Roger Stone in between, and the vexed issue of presidential self‐​pardon. The posts also cite the notorious pardon records of Bill Clinton and Richard Nixon in their day.

Were I to nominate a seventh entry to the already useful compilation here, it might be abuse of the array of dangerous emergency powers available to the president.