His claim that he is blocking aides from disclosing what they know because he wants to strengthen the institution of the presidency over the long term echoes justifications of other presidents in previous disputes, like the George W. Bush administration’s range of efforts to expand presidential power.
The men who drove that Bush agenda — Vice President Dick Cheney and his top lawyer, David S. Addington, a key leader on the administration legal team — held longstanding ideological views about executive power, said Jack Goldsmith, a Harvard professor who led the Office of Legal Counsel in the Bush administration.
But “that is not true of Trump, I don’t think,” Mr. Goldsmith said, noting that Attorney General William P. Barr, who believes in stronger executive power as a lifelong principle, is an exception. Instead, the Trump administration’s legal positions “seem like short-term tactical moves,” Mr. Goldsmith said.
Much of the line where Congress’s power stops and the president’s begins is blurry, with few definitive precedents. That ambiguity gives presidents freedom to maneuver. But, Mr. Goldsmith warned, if an aggressive president pushes an extreme theory all the way to the Supreme Court, it can risk a definitive ruling tying future presidents’ hands.
The danger for the institution of the presidency, Mr. Goldsmith said, is that “really aggressive assertions of executive power often end up creating bad executive power precedents.”
To be sure, Mr. Trump may also be hoping that the Supreme Court — with its majority of five justices appointed by Republicans now including two by him — could eventually rule for him, just as it ultimately voted, 5 to 4, to permit a watered-down version of his travel ban even though lower courts had blocked it.
Many administrations have sometimes made privilege and immunity claims to fend off or delay congressional attempts to pry information out of the executive branch, Mr. Lederman noted. But prior presidents, unlike Mr. Trump, were willing to resolve disputes through negotiation and compromise long before they could reach the Supreme Court.