Why the Presidency Can’t Just Go Back to ‘Normal’ After Trump
The “norms and traditions” that Trump has incinerated aren’t timeless features of American democracy; they’re actually quite new—and brittle.
By Joshua Zeitz
President Donald Trump has spent three years incinerating a group of practices commonly lumped together under the nebulous category of “norms and traditions,” causing the chattering class to worry that he’ll “destroy the presidency,” “undermine American democracy,” “erode” our institutions with each break with precedent or decorum. There are also those, including presidential candidate Joe Biden, who insist that things can go back to normal when Trump is gone. Either in January 2021 or January 2025, these optimists hope, America will experience a restoration of these timeless customs.
Here’s the problem: Many of these “presidential norms and traditions” that Trump has left by the wayside aren’t timeless at all; they’re actually quite new. They grew up alongside and in reaction to the expansion of both the federal state and the presidency—a process that began in the early 20th century but gained steam from the 1930s onward. With the growth of what Arthur Schlesinger Jr. called the “imperial presidency,” each occupant of the Oval Office has left his imprimatur on the development of what we think of as normative presidential conduct.
That means that whatever impact Trump has might not be so easy to undo.
Take, for example, three cherished institutions—White House news briefings, independent courts, nonpartisan law enforcement agencies and a nonpartisan civil service. Their foundations are more young and shaky than you might think, and once altered, they may not be easily restored. Future presidents may regard newer precedents as more binding. A once-sturdy nonpartisan civil service and equally assured nonpartisan courts may be too weakened to enforce a return to prior norms. A public once conditioned to expect certain things of its presidents may have lost a critical amount of muscle memory. In short, anyone who expects a restoration of the status quo circa 2017 may be in for a rude awakening.
Though at critical junctures—the Civil War, the Progressive era, World War I—it swelled temporarily in size and importance, the presidency for almost the first century and a half of its existence remained a limited office with a small staff and constrained purview over national affairs. That changed in the 1930s and through 1950s, as first the New Deal, then World War II and—finally—the Cold War necessitated a vast expansion of permanent federal authority and, with it, an increasingly powerful and autonomous executive branch.
Recognizing the growing importance of the office, Congress in 1939 passed, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed, the Reorganization Act, which enabled the creation of the Executive Office of the President, an administrative umbrella that included the Bureau of Budget, National Security Council, Council of Economic Advisers and Office of Emergency Planning. It had 1,350 staffers by the 1960s and an enlarged White House staff numbering roughly 250 political, policy and clerical workers. In addition, the growth of the welfare and warfare states gave rise to myriad Cabinet departments (the Defense Department in 1947; Health, Education and Welfare, 1953; Housing and Urban Development, 1965; Transportation, 1966—and so on) and affiliate agencies whose combined workforce numbered in the hundreds of thousands.
While these departments and agencies have been led by political appointees since their inception, much of the outrage at the Trump administration’s politicization of the bureaucracy—particularly, intelligence and law enforcement agencies that are supposed to eschew partisanship—stems from a tacit belief that civil servants have always operated free of political influence. In fact, in the early decades of the “imperial presidency,” nothing could have been further from the truth. It wasn’t until several decades after the emergence of the modern state and modern presidency these norms emerged.
From the 1940s through the 1970s, intelligence agencies including the FBI and CIA (founded in 1947), as well as other branches of the federal government, functioned in large part as political arms of the presidency. Under President John F. Kennedy, the Department of Justice approved wiretaps on Martin Luther King Jr. and ordered the IRS to audit Richard Nixon, JFK’s once and presumed future opponent. On President Lyndon B. Johnson’s watch, the FBI illegally bugged King’s hotel rooms, attempted to blackmail him into suicide, and famously infiltrated and attempted to sabotage the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party at the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Under LBJ, the CIA also ran extensive, extralegal sabotage of domestic political organizations, while the FBI placed violent saboteurs in the ranks of peaceful anti-war demonstrators.
President Nixon, whose abuses of office are well-documented, built on this sordid tradition when he instructed the IRS to audit wealthy Jewish Democrats, whom he privately denounced as “cocksuckers.” At White House chief of staff H. R. Haldeman’s request, the agency subjected Edward Bennett Williams, the Washington Post’s attorney in the Pentagon Papers case, to three consecutive audits. (“I wouldn’t want to be in Edward Bennett Williams’ … position after this election,” Nixon told his staff members. “I think we’re going to fix the son-of-a-bitch. Believe me. We’re going to. We’ve got to, because he’s a bad man.”) On the advice of Pat Buchanan, a conservative White House speechwriter, Nixon ordered the IRS to investigate the finances of liberal organizations like the Ford Foundation and Brookings Institution; the agency complied, compiling data on over 1,000 institutions and 4,000 individual citizens.
It wasn’t just the IRS. When news of the highly secret bombing campaign in Cambodia broke on the pages of the New York Times in late 1969, then-national security adviser Henry Kissinger ordered FBI wiretaps on 13 of his own aides and four journalists. When even the FBI balked at tapping the phone of Joseph Kraft, a highly respected syndicated columnist for the Washington Post, John Ehrlichman, Nixon’s chief domestic policy adviser, hired a private detective to do the job without the cloak of legal authority. Nixon even ordered FBI taps on his younger brother, Donald, whom he suspected of trading on his name for business purposes. The Supreme Court later ruled that all unwarranted taps against American citizens were unconstitutional, even when purportedly undertaken in the interest of national security.
Nixon also ordered the FBI, CIA and NSA to surveil New Left organizations and instructed the Justice Department to arrest several thousand anti-war protesters who marched on Washington, D.C., in May 1971. The federal courts overturned many of the convictions. But the judges did not know the half of it. Coordinating the arrests from the Oval Office, Nixon heartily approved of plans by Charles Colson, a top political aide, to have rank-and-file teamsters rough up the protesters before their detention. “They’ve got guys who’ll go in and knock their heads off,” the president beamed. Nixon’s chief of staff, Haldeman, confirmed this point. “Murderers. Guys that really, you know, that’s what they really do … they’re going to beat the shit out of some of these people.”
In the wake of Nixon’s disgrace, Congress undertook a sweeping investigation of these abuses, leading to new congressional oversight mechanisms and restrictions on FBI and CIA political activity.
All of which is to say, the idea of independent agencies staffed by nonpartisan career public servants, free of political interference, is a very recent development. Once unraveled, it is not certain to be reassembled.
Critics are also wringing their hands over the Trump administration’s phase-out of the White House news briefing. It’s been almost a year since the White House press secretary has taken to the podium to answer reporters’ questions, pausing a cherished—or at least familiar—institutional norm.
At least since 1896, when President Grover Cleveland’s staff designated a fixed work space for reporters assigned to the White House, presidents have acknowledged the importance of accommodating the journalists who cover their administrations. President William McKinley made a habit of traveling with a press pool and, on one occasion, declined to visit the Vanderbilt family’s Biltmore Estate unless reporters were permitted to accompany him. Theodore Roosevelt was the first president to meet regularly with trusted journalists.
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But it was President Woodrow Wilson who initiated the practice of staging regular presidential news conferences. In his two terms as president, he held 159 formal news conferences. His successors took to the practice: President Calvin Coolidge spoke to the White House press corps 521 times; President Herbert Hoover, 268 times; Franklin Roosevelt, over 1,000 times in his 12 years as president.
Wilson’s private secretary, Joseph Tumulty, also initiated the practice of briefing reporters regularly, a tradition that was later formalized by presidential press secretaries Steve Early (FDR) and Jim Haggerty (Dwight Eisenhower). With the advent of television news in the 1960s, JFK and his press secretary, Pierre Salinger, made on-camera news conferences and briefings a staple of political life. And so a relatively new tradition entered the canon.
Understandably, people are upset that the administration has ended this custom. People assume naturally that if in their lifetime or memory the presidential press corps enjoyed certain prerogatives, those prerogatives must be deeply woven into our political fabric. Not entirely the case.
Presidents from Teddy Roosevelt through Franklin Roosevelt enforced a strict off-the-record rule when they addressed reporters. In effect, their news conferences weren’t news conferences in the way we think of such affairs today. Staff briefings were also generally conducted on background, without attribution, excepting cases when Tumulty or Early might have authorized publication of a canned statement. Only with the advent of television did briefings and presidential press “avails” become what we know them as today. In effect, the institution is scarcely 50 years old.
Neither should we romanticize the relationship between presidents and their press secretaries and the Fourth Estate that covered them. Teddy Roosevelt and Wilson cultivated reporters because they saw political value in it—not out of a heightened sense of obligation. “I feel that a large part of the success of public affairs is the newspaper men,” Wilson remarked shortly after taking office in 1913. “Unless you get the right setting to affairs—disperse the right impression—things go wrong.” Though he had worked since his days as governor of New York at providing reporters with a veneer of access, FDR happily disintermediated the press by speaking directly to citizens by radio, much as Trump has proved a master practitioner of social media.
Two of Johnson’s press secretaries, George Reedy and Bill Moyers, struggled to retain their credibility with an increasingly hostile press corp. By late 1966, some members of the press spoke openly of the “Moyers Gap”—that yawning gap between truth and dissemblance, particularly on the administration’s Vietnam policy.
Under Nixon, the relationship turned positively toxic. Ronald Ziegler, a former barker at Disneyland who transitioned at age 29 from midlevel account executive at the J. Walter Thompson company to presidential press secretary, could scarcely conceal his contempt for reporters. Reporters, in turn, found him utterly hapless and tongue-tied. “This is getting to a point beyond which I am not going to discuss beyond what I have said,” he once told the press room. “I am completed on what I had to say,” he informed them on another occasion. Nevertheless, it was the Nixon administration that constructed the press briefing room over what had once been the White House swimming pool—the same room that is collecting cobwebs today.
In the aftermath of Watergate, a succession of presidents—some media-savvy (Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama) and others less so (Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush)—attempted to create a more courteous relationship with White House reporters. It’s that pattern we remember today. But it’s a recent innovation.
While many observers have taken umbrage at the seemingly too-close relationship between Trump’s federal judicial nominees (including and especially his Supreme Court picks) and partisan conservative organizations, in reality, it is a fairly recent development that members of the federal bench are expected to be clean of politics.
As late as 1954, the Supreme Court that unanimously decided Brown v. Board of Education included three former United States senators (Hugo Black, Harold Burton and Sherman Minton), a former governor of California (Earl Warren), and a former law professor (William O. Douglas) who was a perennial and often active candidate for the presidency or vice presidency while on the bench. Indeed, as late as 2006, the court included one justice, Sandra Day O’Connor, who had served four years as a state senator in Arizona.
As late as 1968, Johnson frequently sought the political counsel of Justice Abe Fortas, just as FDR had done with Felix Frankfurter 30 years earlier. Aides viewed the relationship as unusual but not so much so that they advised Johnson or Fortas to scale back their relationship. Fortas was compelled several years later to leave the court over a string of financial and ethical improprieties. It was one of several scandals, including Watergate that forced a wholesale reimagination of government ethics, including a more scrupulous insistence on judicial independence and ethics. Going forward, justices would keep a marked distance from the presidents who appointed them and keep their noses out of politics.
The takeaway is not that certain traditions lack value. On the contrary, it’s pretty reasonable to expect that presidents not misdirect law enforcement and civilian officials to do their political bidding, that presidents be transparent with the media, and that courts remain free of political influence. The point, rather, is that these norms were not timeless features of our system. They emerged over 50 or so years in response to excesses that accompanied the growth of the federal state and in response to a popular sense that citizens required greater visibility into, and accountability from, federal officeholders whose purview grew enormously in the modern era.
Practices that young may prove fragile constructs. The protections that emerged in the 1970s haven’t planted deep enough roots to survive every storm. Who’s to say that the next president, if he or she is a Democrat, will immediately resurrect and submit to an unwritten code that’s been left in tatters? Already, some presidential candidates have pledged to instruct the Department of Justice to investigate specific political opponents and business leaders—the same kind of targeted use of law enforcement that caused so much hand ringing in 2017 and 2018. Or, if the next president is a Republican, who’s to say that he or she won’t decide that eight years of precedent has created a new set of norms and traditions? Already, there seems to be consensus among some senators that it’s really not that big of a deal to invite foreign interference in an election. Take that norm to its logical conclusion
Much like an unwritten constitution, political culture evolves contingently, and presidents—especially in recent decades—enjoy sweeping ability to leave a lasting imprint on that culture. They also have broad authority to smash old ways of doing things. To paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, who did his share of norm bending: Broken eggs can’t be mended.
Joshua Zeitz, a Politico Magazine contributing editor, is the author of Building the Great Society: Inside Lyndon Johnson’s White House. Follow him @joshuamzeitz