Here's a quaint memory from a bygone period in American politics: Back in November 2012, after President Barack Obama secured his re-election, The New York Times' Scott Shane reported that with "the possibility that President Obama might not win a second term," his administration had "accelerated work in the weeks before the election to develop explicit rules for the targeted killing of terrorists by unmanned drones, so that a new president would inherit clear standards and procedures."
It was, as Shane noted, the latest attempt to formalize these policies and protocols since reports that previous summer had revealed the "shifting procedures for compiling 'kill lists'" and the like. But -- but! -- it had, apparently, become "particularly urgent" to nail this stuff down once "it appeared that Mitt Romney might win the presidency."
Mitt Romney, folks! Who, for all his faults, seemed to be one of the least power-mad people ever to seek the Oval Office. We're talking about a guy whose chocolate milk intake is probably governed by a spreadsheet -- whose history of high-risk, impulsive behavior seems restricted to that one time he ironed a shirt that he was still wearing. This was enough to get the Obama administration thinking, "Hey, maybe we better batten down the hatches on this loosey-goosey little assassination program we got going on."
You know where I'm going with this. But here's the thing: we've known all along where we were going with this. It's just that not enough people cared. Liberals more or less trusted that their guy would do the right thing with all his power, and conservatives were torn between hating Obama and really, really loving the idea of drones killing people from the sky.
So the drones pounded on, and now the GOP nominee for president is a guy who respects the rule of law about as much as did Heath Ledger's Joker. I refer, of course, to game-show luminary and rogue talking ball of snot from the Mucinex commercials Donald Trump.
Trump's rise through the ranks has, in many quarters, touched off concerns about the ersatz mogul potentially finding himself in close proximity to the nuclear codes. Believe it or not, there might actually be worse things to worry about. America's drone program -- particularly its under-publicized whoopsie-daisy tendency to kill civilians and drive previously non-radicalized people toward apocalyptic death cults -- seems to be precisely the sort of thing you wouldn't want Trump messing with. Especially if the idea of Mitt Romney running the program makes your blood run cold.
Trump is, after all, the presidential candidate who vowed on national television that a cornerstone of his anti-terror policy would be to "take out" the families of known terrorists. Trump left people feeling a little agog and aghast when he said it, but here's a fun fact: This is a thing that President Barack Obama has actually done, intentionally, with drones.
Heck, right at the beginning of his memoir Worthy Fights, Obama-era CIA Director Leon Panetta describes a situation where the U.S. has located a targeted combatant, but unfortunately he's in close proximity to his family. What to do, what to do? Kill him, that’s what, along with his wife -- a woman “with whom this country had no quarrel,” Panetta writes. The CIA chief goes on to assure us that these decisions “are never easy,” and that they often require “the fingering of a rosary, the whispered Hail Mary.” Which actually sounds pretty easy, if I’m being honest.
In fact, there's not a lot of room for Trump to do something truly unique with the drone program, besides his vow to wage a less "politically correct" war with it. Presumably this means that Trump will be more ostentatious in the way he celebrates killing civilians, the same way he seems to get sprung whenever protesters emerge at his rallies. Maybe he’ll skip the whole rosary part, and grant himself his own market-rate indulgence.
At this juncture, let's pause and consider the high school civics student -- if those are still a thing -- who has to answer the question "Who has the power to declare war?" In a more conventional era, the answer would simply be "Congress." Nowadays, it might be more appropriate to give this imaginary student a little more leeway to properly define Congress' role in warmaking, which might best be summarized as "¯\_(ツ)_/¯."
Over at The Week, Michael Brendan Dougherty rightly assails the simpering passivity that has allowed executive power to drift so far from its constitutional bounds during the past two presidencies:
In their lack of jealousy for their constitutional powers, in their opportunistic indifference when the president inserts American troops into a handful of civil wars in the Middle East without congressional approval, in their utter passivity and cravenness before the Executive branch, our ruling class has been implicitly crying out for the rule of a tyrant. Donald Trump is just answering the call.
That's a pretty fair assessment. Congress has reduced its own role in all of this according to its preference for political expedience. Its preferred means of oversight has come in the form of blanket Authorizations for the Use of Military Force, which positions lawmakers as essentially the Statler and Waldorf of U.S. military doings. From that perch, they can take credit when things are going well and offer fervent criticism when they are not, all the while absolving themselves from responsibility. (Unless, of course, the president finds it convenient to put them on the spot for a military action he doesn't want to undertake, as Obama did in Syria.)
It's true that back in 2008, Obama ran for office as someone who'd undo the Bush-era executive-power abuses. But the fact is, Obama took to said abuses with aplomb, overseeing their expansion while Congress just kinda sat around and whistled. Now we have this tidy little "kill chain" process to deliver fully automated death from above, a process that's only occasionally complicated by the fact that, for example, you can't get clear permission to strike from a government that's been taken over by rebels, like in Yemen. Details, details. Just another "politically correct" hiccup that Trump can cut through with his storied autocratic efficiency.
Liberals who abandoned their own criticisms of the Bush era to support Obama -- who definitely wears the white hat, don't worry -- might start returning to their previous point of view on the matter as Trump edges closer to attaining power. How will Congress adapt to these changing times? At a recent briefing with reporters, The Huffington Post asked a Trump-supporting GOP senator whether he was worried about giving The Donald the drone joystick, the chance to waterboard detainees or something even worse. The senator, who requested anonymity, replied as follows:
It's not gonna be Donald Trump singularly, in a room by himself, making decisions. So let me give you one other area where I think the Obama administration has done a good job, that actually impacts all of these questions that you're asking about Trump and national security and foreign policy. If you look at the generals that have been nominated and confirmed... there's a really, really outstanding group of admirals and generals that are running the U.S. military right now... They're gonna have an impact on these kinds of issues and these kinds of questions. With regard to torture, the law is out there right now. It's the Army Field Manual. Right now. That's the law. You know, those guys aren't going away. Chairmans and a lot of the chiefs -- they're coming in and they're going to be here for four-year terms. We have an institutional structure on foreign and national security policy that doesn't necessarily give one person the remote. And the guys around, the guys and women who are already part of that structure, are some of the best members of the military we have.
Leaving aside the fact that the answer wasn't simply "Don't worry, we trust Donald Trump to make good decisions," it's interesting that this senator's response basically boils down to "Don't worry, there are so many smart and responsible people sitting around who will stop bad things from happening."
So... where have those guys been this whole time?
Ryan Grim contributed reporting.
Jason Linkins edits “Eat The Press” for The Huffington Post and co-hosts the HuffPost politics podcast “So, That Happened.” Subscribe here, and listen to the latest episode below.