President Trump’s promise to build a giant wall on the United States’ southern border and to have Mexico pay for it -- so far at least -- has been revealed as so much campaign puffery. By his own admission, ‘the wall’ is a promise he used to rile up crowds at his campaign events, but that he never really intended to keep. Last week’s leak of a transcript of Trump practically begging Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto to stop publicly refusing to pay for the wall should have confirmed that in the minds of any remaining doubters.
But while Trump doesn't see much progress on his border wall, there’s another wall currently under construction in Washington -- and if the president hasn’t noticed it yet, he will soon. That’s because it’s being built around him.
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It’s a joint project being undertaken by senior executive branch officials and members of Congress, and though there are no blueprints or bulldozers, the progress is obvious all the same. Like a body’s immune system trying to wall off an abscess, the institutions of the federal government seem to be coming together to block, or at least limit, the influence of the president on the country.
In some cases, the actions have been straightforward statements about what officials will or will not do pursuant to the president’s public statements about his various priorities -- or whims.
In late July, after Trump unexpectedly tweeted out a declaration that he would no longer allow transgender people to serve in the US armed forces “in any capacity,” the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Joseph Dunford issued a statement making it clear that the US military will not take its marching orders from a series of presidential tweets.
“I know there are questions about yesterday’s announcement on the transgender policy by the president,” Dunford said in the July 27 statement. “There will be no modifications to the current policy until the President’s direction has been received by the secretary of defense and the secretary has issued implementation guidance.”
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When Trump appeared at a rally in West Virginia last week, he once again attacked the special counsel appointed by the department of Justice to investigate possible ties between his campaign and the Russian government.
“What the prosecutors should be looking at are Hillary Clinton’s 33,000 deleted emails,” the president said to a cheering crowd of supporters.
On Sunday, though, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said that, in effect, DOJ is not paying any attention to Trump’s public statements, and might even refuse some orders even if they were given directly.
“I view what the president says publicly as something he said publicly,” Rosenstein said in an appearance on Fox News Sunday. “If the president wants to give orders to us on the department, he does that privately. And then if we have any feedback, we provide it to him.”
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He added, “The president has not directed us to investigate particular people, that wouldn’t be right. That’s not the way we operate.”
In Congress, members are openly defying Trump’s insistence that the House and Senate keep working to repeal the Affordable Care Act before moving on to other priorities. Republican members still want to see the law replaced, but they don’t seem to feel much need to bow to the president’s demands on timing.
“I really do think we probably ought to turn our attention to the debt ceiling and funding the government and tax cuts until we can really get all the parties together,” Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson said on CNN’s State of the Union.
Republican members of Congress have also taken steps to effectively handcuff the president on matters he might otherwise have taken into his own hands.
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Last week, Trump signed a bill imposing sanctions on Russia for its election meddling, as well as sanctions on North Korea and Iran. the president signed the bill reluctantly because the measure contains strong restrictions that bar him from unilaterally acting to lift sanctions on Russia. Trump signed the bill more or less under duress -- the bill was approved almost unanimously by both houses of Congress, meaning that a presidential veto would likely have been easily overridden.
Other members of Congress are drafting legislation that would block trump from firing Robert Mueller, the former Federal Bureau of Investigation director who was named special counsel in charge of the Russia probe.
In an interview on Fox News Sunday, North Carolina Republicans Sen. Thom Tillis, a sponsor of one of the bills, said that the move is about Congress taking back the power it has ceded to the executive branch for too long.
“I think Republicans should get some credit for showing independence and not necessarily deferring to a White House that happens to share their party,” he said. “One of the mistakes that Congresses have made over the past 70 or so years is convey[ing] a lot of authority down the street that they should never have allowed to leave the Congress.”
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However, when pressed, he admitted that concerns about President Trump were driving the push to protect Mueller from dismissal.
And as a parting slap, before they walked out the door for the August break, Republican members of the Senate scheduled a series of pro forma sessions specifically designed to prevent the chamber from officially going into recess. The object was to make it impossible for Trump to fill any Senate-confirmed executive branch positions through recess appointments.
All this takes place as Trump’s new chief of staff is reportedly trying to rein in, if not break, the president’s habit of impulsive tweeting, and to shut down the -all-access Oval Office that trump had established for the members of his inner circle.
One thing that is obvious about Trump is that he does not like to be “managed.” Early efforts by his presidential campaign to make him a more conventional candidate failed, and rumors of various “pivots” toward more presidential behavior since the election, spurred by the entreaties of one adviser or another, have also come to naught.
Now that other parts of the federal government are taking a more active role in fencing the president in, it will be interesting to see whether he submits to the restrictions, or as he has done in the past, rebels against them.