The Constitution prescribes but a few qualifications for the office now held by Donald J. Trump.
The president must be a natural-born US citizen who is at least 35 years of age and has lived in the country for no less than 14 years.
The Commander-in-Chief can be morally bankrupt, believe men can grab women by parts of their anatomy, side with dictators, belittle Gold Star families, call opponents names, and own a business without divulging debts.
The power of the presidency has swelled in the last century. Beginning with Teddy Roosevelt and his cousin Franklin, through Lyndon Johnson up until (and including) Trump, the executive branch has grown beyond what the founders intended. But over time, Congress — through willful abdication — allowed presidents of both parties to take more bites of the apple until the legislative branch had few remaining.
After Watergate, Congress passed sweeping reforms — including the Freedom of Information Act and the Ethics in Government Act — to shine a light on government and prevent another scandal.
Should Trump lose in November, we may find ourselves at an inflection point where we can stop another Trump figure from inhabiting the Oval Office.
Being a blowhard narcissist who makes bad decisions is not illegal, but there are concrete steps the next Congress and next president can do to ensure we never find ourselves in a similar position. While former Vice President Joe Biden has not voiced an opinion on the powers of the presidency, he may have reservations once in office, even with a Democratic House and (possibly) the Senate.
I remain acutely aware of the uncertain constitutionality of these ideas, but nevertheless, they would still be well worth the effort for the good of our republic and the power of the American people to try to affect meaningful change.
Make Tax Returns Public
Trump became the first major candidate and the first president not to release his tax returns since Richard Nixon. As the owner of a multinational corporation with global reach, his returns would have certainly been informative — perhaps instructive.
Trump had a responsibility to share his business interests with the American people. As stated above, the requirements for the presidency are minimal, so doubt exists if a federal law requiring a candidate to release taxes would prove constitutional. While a federal judge struck down a California law over privacy matters last year intending to do just that, other state legislatures should push the issues by trying to require candidates to release tax returns (say seven years, to match the parameters of a federal audit, as Trump has claimed to be under) to qualify for ballot access. No tax returns, no name on the primary or general election ballots.
Strengthen The Emoluments Clause
Before 2017, most Americans never heard of the “emoluments clause” in Article I of the Constitution, which says no office holder (including the president) can receive any gift or “emolument” (a fancy word for money) without Congressional consent. Trump’s opponents have invoked it to say he has profited from his office by forcing the government to pay for stays at Trump properties by White House staff, Vice President Mike Pence and his staff, and the Secret Service, among others. Trump has personally encouraged Pence and others to stay at his properties, creating an almost-certain windfall for his once and future company.
Despite the clause’s wording, it has never been codified by federal law. Congress can make it a crime for future presidents to profit from their position and require them to sell stakes in businesses, put money into blind trusts, and expand executive branch regulations to include the president — not just administration members.
Protect Executive Branch Employees
Since April, Trump fired five Inspector Generals, including at the Departments of State and Transportation. The State Inspector General, Steve Litnick, was reportedly investigating Secretary Mike Pompeo over an arms sale to Saudi Arabia. While presidents should have the right to hire and fire executive branch employees, Congress should limit the ability of them to remove Inspector Generals and make IGs independent arbiters.
Congress should also protect US Attorneys, especially those investigating incumbent presidents, as in the case of Geoffrey Berman. While presidents should not be forced to keep people around they neither want nor trust, Inspectors General and US Attorneys should be free to do their work by whatever metric the Congress deems appropriate.
Mandate Congressional Approval On Global Agreements
Since our founding, international treaties ratified by the Senate have been preferred over executive agreements. However, since World War II, more than 90 percent of agreements between the U.S. and other nations have been without the consent of Congress.
Almost immediately after taking office, Trump removed the country from the Paris Climate Agreement, making us one of only eight other nations not to sign. Since then, he reneged on the controversial Iran nuclear deal and announced withdrawal from the World Health Organization (during a pandemic).
Thankfully, the WHO exit will not take effect until next year and Biden has said he will not let it lapse if he wins. Despite that assurance, Congress should make an effort to debate international agreements or restrict the ability (as much as the Constitution allows) of presidents from unilaterally removing the country from them.
Monitor Dealings With Heads Of State
At a 2018 summit in Helsinki, Finland, Trump famously met with Russian President Vladimir Putin for more than two hours with only a translator in the room. When pressed, the American president said what transpired with the leader of our biggest adversary is “none of your business.” With no accounting of what was discussed and no notes, there is no way to know what deals or concessions Trump made on behalf of the United States. Congressional Democrats tried to subpoena the translator but to no avail. Congress should require multiple parties at the table — such as the Secretary of State or National Security Advisor — when presidents meet with world leaders.
Curb The Power To Wage War
Ever since the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin Resolution escalated the Vietnam War, presidents have been granted more authority over military matters, much to the chagrin of legal scholars and historians, who believe the power to declare war begins and ends with the legislative branch.
Congress also passed the War Powers Resolution during the Nixon administration to ensure presidents cannot enter wars without consent. But ever since the 2001 authorization for the use of military force (AUMF) gave George W. Bush a wide range to fight the war on terror, three successive presidents expanded it. This Congress failed to restrict Trump’s use of the military in Iran, Syria, and Yemen but future Congresses should not be dissuaded from limiting presidential authority — or withholding funds as their only recourse — for the good of the country and mankind.
As stated earlier, these ideas are merely suggestions. They are jumping-off points intended to spark discussion and debate. There is more to be done, including limiting family members from working in the West Wing, rolling back a Justice Department rule forbidding presidents from being tried in criminal courts, and restricting the ability of future Commanders in Chief to use — or withhold — federal funds for personal vendettas.
We need to start somewhere. The best place to start is by going to the polls in November and voting to do what the Senate was incapable or unwilling to do — remove Donald Trump from office.
Ross M. Wallenstein is Vice President of J Strategies, Inc., a communications and government relations firm with offices in New York City, Albany, and Boston.
Previously, he was an aide to former US Representative Gary L. Ackerman and served in the administration of former New York governors Eliot Spitzer and David A. Paterson.
Find him on Twitter @RossWallenstein