Trump Battles Constraints on His Power

 In U.S.
President Trump has never been shy about making his displeasure known—on any given subject—and last week, he offered criticism regarding the limits of his executive power. In a radio interview, the president declared:

You know, the saddest thing is that because I’m the president of the United States, I am not supposed to be involved with the Justice Department. I am not supposed to be involved with the FBI. I’m not supposed to be doing the kind of things that I would love to be doing. And I’m very frustrated by it.

This alone would have been noteworthy: a president openly declaring his wish to direct American law enforcement for political ends. Taken in the context of certain developments this week, Trump’s words are even more remarkable. In three separate instances, the president and his advisers appear to be unconcerned about improperly exerting pressure on outside agencies—or indifferent to creating the appearance of improperly exerting such pressure—to achieve partisan gains. As for those gains, they include attempting to discredit the work of American intelligence agencies, to muzzle a major American media outlet and to deport 57,000 American residents.

On Tuesday, the The Intercept reported that CIA Director Mike Pompeo had been “urged” by the president to meet with government whistleblower-turned-conspiracy theorist named William Binney, who asserts that the 2016 hack of DNC computers was not, in fact, at the hands of Russian intelligence (the conclusion reached by U.S. intelligence agencies) and was instead an inside job. Trump, who has been critical of reports detailing ties between his campaign and Russian intelligence, has reportedly been enamored of Binney’s theory, as it undercuts the notion that Russian interference assisted Trump in his quest for the White House.

The prospect that the president dispatched one of the nation’s top intelligence officials to undermine the work of American intelligence agencies—in service to the president’s agenda—is, needless to say, highly problematic. According to The Intercept:   

The meeting raises questions about Pompeo’s willingness to act as an honest broker between the intelligence community and the White House, and his apparent refusal to push back against efforts by the president to bend the intelligence process to suit his political purposes.

Later in the week, on Wednesday, AT&T and the Justice Department found themselves at odds over a proposed AT&T merger with Time Warner. In a New York Times report, several people who attended a meeting between the two entities said that the Justice Department demanded AT&T divest one of its two subsidiaries—Turner Broadcasting (which owns CNN) or DirectTV— in order to gain approval for the merger. (Both are highly profitable, and at present, AT&T has not said it will sell either.)

The Justice Department disputed this account and insists that it was AT&T, not the federal agency, that suggested spinning off CNN. On this point, my colleague Derek Thompson points out that AT&T stands to benefit from the narrative that “the Justice Department might be mistreating it.”

Either way, what remains indisputable is that Trump does not like CNN. Castigating the network for broadcasting what he terms “fake news” is one of Trump’s favorite social media subjects, and senior administration officials earlier this year in fact floated a “potential point of leverage over their adversary”—the pending merger of CNN’s parent company and Time Warner. Whether divesting CNN was AT&T’s idea or the Justice Department’s, the optics on this are very clear. As Ben Smith of Buzzfeed concluded:

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