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How Presidential Power Evolved, From The Founding Fathers To Donald Trump

AP Photo/Patrick Semansky
President-elect Donald Trump waits to step out onto the portico for his Presidential Inauguration at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Friday, Jan. 20, 2017.

As President Trump nears his 100th day in office, we take a step back to look at how presidential power evolved in the modern era with Rita Kirk, who directs the Maguire Center of Ethics & Public Responsibility at SMU. She says historians estimate it takes about 20 years before one can get a sense of what happened in the past.

Interview Highlights: Rita Kirk…

On the constitutional view of power:

“Our founding fathers were so distrustful of power by a centralized authority that they wanted to make sure that didn’t happen in the United States so historically, the way that they framed the Constitution was to keep anybody from having power for long and certainly for having too much of it.”

On Congress’ role in a president’s power:

Credit Krystina Martinez / KERA
Rita Kirk directs the SMU Maguire Center of Ethics & Public Responsibility.

“It’s absolutely critical for presidential power. The courts have ruled that if there’s Congressional authority behind a president’s action – see the Use of Force Act with President George W. Bush – granted him virtually unlimited power to do what is necessary. But if Congress backs it, you could in essence become the supreme power in the entire government. If Congress doesn’t approve, [presidents] are really restricted to the powers granted by the Constitution.”

On the public perception of presidential power:

“You may remember Henry Kissinger’s memoirs, he talks about trying to end the Vietnam War and the Paris talks were bogged down, nothing was really happening. And at one point, he talks about saying, ‘all options are on the table, even a nuclear strike’ and the Vietnamese weren’t sure that he meant it and Kissinger replied – this is me paraphrasing his remarks – ‘I don’t know, Nixon’s crazy. It could happen.’

I think there’s this uncertainty that we see with Nixon that we also see in [President] Trump. After the two bombings that we’ve had now, there’s no doubt that he has the will to do it. And the question is: will he have to? Will he feel the need to? Is it an imperative thing that we have to do to protect ourselves? But uncertainty can be an issue of power. If you read ‘The Art of the Deal,’ you get the idea of what it’s like to be a business person where you want the opposition to always be a little uncertain of what’s next.”

Rita Kirk directs the Maguire Center for Ethics & Public Responsibility at SMU. This interview is part of NPR’s ongoing “A Nation Engaged” series.  

Former KERA staffer Krystina Martinez was an assistant producer. She produced local content for Morning Edition and She also produced The Friday Conversation, a weekly series of conversations with North Texas newsmakers. Krystina was also the backup newscaster for the Texas Standard.
Rick Holter was KERA's vice president of news. He oversaw news coverage on all of KERA's platforms – radio, digital and television. Under his leadership, KERA News earned more than 200 local, regional and national awards, including the station's first two national Edward R. Murrow Awards. He and the KERA News staff were also part of NPR's Ebola-coverage team that won a George Foster Peabody Award, broadcasting's highest honor.