“It is such a weird time to ask a question about presidential power in this moment when you have got this huge distorting effect of Donald Trump,” lawyer Neal Katyal said. “It is kind of like asking what you think about white while you are staring at the sun.”
Attorney George T. Conway III and Katyal sat onstage in Statler Auditorium on Tuesday night for a discussion on executive power in the first seminar of the “Civil Discourse: The Peter and Marilyn Coors Conversation Series.” The series aims to provide the Ithaca campus community with a forum for intellectual discourse on difficult yet timely issues facing the nation, according to the event page.
The discussion was moderated by Prof. Sarah Kreps, government, who kicked off the conversation by asking about the relationship between partisanship and executive power in the United States.
Conway, counsel in the litigation department of law firm Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz, stated that there is an “imperial presidency” problem — over many years, the presidency has gained power due to the growth of government.
“I think that [the growth of executive power] is something that long predated the Trump administration and is going to long survive the Trump administration,” Conway said. “I think a lot of the pushback on the power of the presidency is politically motivated.”
Conway stated that, although President Trump has been successful in persuading legislature to pass minor bills or appoint Supreme Court judges, his methods of persuasion have fallen short.
“One of the things that political historians are going to point out about President Trump is that he was an exceedingly weak president,” Conway said. “He has accomplished very little in terms of legislative accomplishments.”
Katyal, a professor of law at Georgetown University and a partner at Hogan Lovells, explained that it is difficult to analyze the role of presidential power in the midst of the Trump era. The president has defied Congress in ways that the country has not yet seen in U.S. history, Katyal said.
Conway explained that, in the United States’ political system, the president is not only the head of government, but also the head of state. For that reason, the president bears the responsibility of not just enforcing the law — but also standing for the country’s values.
“[President Trump] has to stand up for these greater values and speak to them,” Conway said. “His often and frequent willingness to say things that undermine the core of our Constitution, democracy and civil society, are corrosive.”
Kreps then segued into Conway and Katyal’s opinion on the role of Congress, asking what can, or should, Congress be doing against the backdrop of political polarization.
“The tendency among members of Congress is that they like to have it both ways,” Conway said. “The problem is that the law has developed that allows them to do that.”
Members of Congress prefer to take credit when the nation sees success, Conway said, but condemn political failures and respond to them with hearings.
In light of the upcoming election, Kreps concluded by asking for Conway and Katyal’s political predictions in the coming months.
“When you think about strengthening executive power, the whole key is accountability. By focusing popular intention on one person, you hold them accountable,” Katyal said. “The nation watches that person and will police them. That doesn’t seem to be happening in this hyper-factionalized, hyper-partisan environment.”