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Larry Pressler: Trump's use of executive power will backfire

In this Friday, Feb. 15, 2019, file photo, President Donald Trump declares a national emergency in order to build a wall along the southern border during an event in the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington.
In this Friday, Feb. 15, 2019, file photo, President Donald Trump declares a national emergency in order to build a wall along the southern border during an event in the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington.
Evan Vucci, AP

President Donald Trump made a mistake. At some point each of the three branches of our government must respectfully yield to another branch. Congress has spoken against the wall, and President Trump should have accepted the congressional view.

Now we are faced with endless court cases. And more importantly, if Trump begins to reallocate funds from the military budget, Congress will object. For example, if the president were to take military construction funds away from Hill Air Force Base in Utah, the Utah congressional delegation would be up in arms. There would be an immediate congressional action to thwart the president, and it would just be an endless fight.

President Trump must realize that we have three co-equal branches of government. It is true that in the past 50 years we have been a president-centric nation. Maybe we subconsciously yearn for a dictatorship. Most of the reporting is on the president. Outsiders think the executive branch is the most powerful. In fact, it is not. Constitutionally, we have the legislative, executive and judiciary branches of government that are intended to be equal.

President Trump should have been strong enough to say “Nancy Pelosi, you beat me on this one. I’m going to back off and let you have a victory here. You have stopped the building of the wall, but you will be politically responsible for the consequences.”

The president’s decision to use executive power to redistribute appropriations for other purposes will backfire. All will remain quiet until he makes the first transfer out of an account and a particular interest group flares up. He will be under constant fire for violating the Constitution.

He will be better off acknowledging that the branches of government occasionally have to accept the other’s ideas and move forward. But that is very hard for President Trump and could be his Achilles' heel.

Recently, I filled out a reference questionnaire for a Harvard Business School candidate seeking admission. One of the questions was about humility, and I asked myself “Why on earth would Harvard Business School want an incoming MBA student to have humility?” Well, in checking with them, they want to ensure against admitting a know-it-all who has never suffered a setback or failure. Sometimes, certain brash young men and women do not have enough humility to accept a defeat or to make a change.

President Trump has certainly experienced a series of spectacular successes in life. But now he has to deal with a co-equal Congress and a co-equal judiciary. And that takes a bit of humility and an occasional stepping back and saying “OK, we will take your input.”

The immigration issue will go on and on. However, of far greater importance will be consideration of such specific reforms like the asylum rules, the Dreamer rules, the guest workers question and other issues.

Also, Trump will find that Congress will claw back capabilities. That is if the president starts to exercise certain power, Congress can “claw back” and restore the balance of power intended by the Constitution.

Meanwhile, the president should be left free to do his job. This self-inflicted wound will take up more of precious presidential time. He has been spending so much effort lately defending himself.

As my former Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz points out, we have never had a president under such persistent legal attacks designed to throw him out of office. We somehow have to find a way to let a president do his job, then either re-elect him or defeat him, and then if there’s a violation and abuse of power, prosecute him once he is out of office. This Washington paralysis goes on and on.

Dershowitz points out that the effort to use the 25th Amendment to remove Trump from office is legally absurd. We also have some officials in the Justice Department who discussed a possible invoking of the 25th Amendment. But as Dershowitz pointed out, the amendment can only be invoked if the president doesn’t have the capacity to serve due to sickness. And the Justice Department has nothing to do with initiating the 25th amendment.

Somehow, we must let this president do his job while he is in office. And the president will have to carefully find the balance and listen to his co-equal partners.

The brilliance of our complex Constitution requires some humility on all sides. As Harvard Business School suggests, no one can be the boss of all the teams all the time.