Axios is releasing its interview with Donald Trump piecemeal in drips and drabs. In the latest installment, the president says that attacking the press on Twitter and at rallies is his “only form of fighting back.”
At least that’s what I think Trump is saying. The president seems to miss some of Jim VandeHei’s point, so it’s a little hard to tell for sure whether or not they’re talking past each other. VandeHei is not objecting to “fighting back” per se but to how Trump fights back, namely calling the press the “enemy of the people.” Obviously that isn’t the only form media criticism can take. Other presidents have complained about the press without calling journalists the enemies of the people.
From context, I think Trump mostly means his Twitter account and, to a lesser extent, his rallies. And if that’s what he actually believes, that’s a good thing. Because it’s not true. It’s not true on a bunch of levels — presidents have had the bully pulpit from the beginning. It’s not like presidents were powerless before Twitter to get their message out. The president always has the biggest megaphone.
But that’s not my point. What Trump said is also not true in far more serious ways. The president is the most powerful person in America. And the presidency has far more legal power than it has had in the past (I tend to think the presidency often had more informal power in the past that the legal system simply turned a blind eye to). The president is also the head of his party, which confers huge extra-legal power.
So if Donald Trump actually believes the only means he has at his disposal to punish his critics and political foes is Twitter and some schtick at rallies, that’s really good news. Woodrow Wilson, FDR, LBJ, and, of course, Richard Nixon looked at the powers of the presidency and saw a whole arsenal of weapons to use against their enemies (and, many would argue, so did Barack Obama). Now I don’t like much of Trump’s rhetoric, and I think it’s making a lot of things worse. But I’d much rather a president stick to just words than the full menu of options for fighting back.