Many presidential promises require the action of Congress. Trump does not have the constitutional authority to enact the tax plan that he promised. It requires congressional passage. Perhaps we can conclude that a president is hypocritical in making promises that are not entirely in his control, but many, if not most people, know this when the promise is made and reasonably conclude that the promise really is, “I will work for the enactment of a law that will do this.” On some level the promise is broken if the promised law is not enacted, but this broken promise is not as bad as other unfulfilled promises if the president has worked sincerely and diligently for the passage of the promised legislation.

More blameworthy are Trump’s promises where a president has no role or authority in their implementation. For example, Trump said that he would sign an executive order that would require convicted cop killers to be executed. No president has the authority to do this. The sentences for killing state and local police offers are determined by state law. The president does not have authority over state criminal laws. The federal government does have a death penalty, but not one that imposes that sentence on cop killers. Even if the federal government could constitutionally authorize executions for the murder of police officers (and that is a big if), it would require legislation passed by Congress, and the president has proposed no such legislation. Instead, he said that he would sign an executive order to accomplish this death penalty, but the president does not have the constitutional authority to decide how and when crimes are to be punished. (Dare I say that that only happens in dictatorships.)  Furthermore, the Supreme Court has held that the Constitution forbids the automatic imposition of the death penalty for any crime and that juries must weigh aggravating and mitigating factors to decide whether a death sentence should be imposed. A mandated death penalty for cop killings is unconstitutional. In other words, Trump made a promise that would require him to take an unconstitutional action.

This promise of executions for cop killers may have just been empty words. Trump may never have had this as a policy goal; perhaps he made the statements merely because the statements appealed to his supporters. If so, however, it falls into the hypocritical category. If he was sincere, he had to be ignorant of presidential limitations and the basic structure of separation of powers and our federal system. If the promise fell into this latter category, how should this death-penalty promise be considered? My view: A person in authority or seeking authority should comprehend the limits of that authority. The promise that the maker knows or should know cannot be fulfilled is the equivalent of being hypocritical. The adage is appropriate here: Ignorance is no excuse.

Politicians may also backtrack on promises claiming that circumstances have changed since the promise. For example, Woodrow Wilson ran for re-election in 1916 proclaiming that he had kept us out of the Great War. Less than a year later he was asking Congress for a declaration of war, but he said that the continuing destruction of neutral shipping by Germany now made war necessary. A politician may acknowledge that he promised to build a dam, but he no longer would support the new dam. He might say that when he made the promise the dam would have cost $1 billion and now it be $2 billion. The dam no longer makes sense, he says, and it will not be built.

Surely promises should not be followed if changed circumstances make a once wise promise unwise, but in judging the broken promise, we should not just accept the changed-circumstances rationale. With that dam, for example, we should question the cost estimates. Were the numbers sound or the product of ignorance or fabricated for the politician’s purposes? If the promise-maker knew or should have known that the estimates were not truly sound, then the promise and its breaking was hypocritical or ignorant. However, even if the numbers are solid, it still may be hard to determine if the new circumstance is the real motivation for the change. The politician may have promised a dam he did not intend to build and seizes the fig leaf of valid numbers to explain a result he always intended—no dam.

Trump’s promises so far, however, have not fallen into the category of not-fulfilled-because-of-changed-circumstances. They probably won’t in the future either because it seems unlikely that Trump would ever admit that he had not kept a promise.

(concluded on August 20)



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