President Donald Trump on Wednesday signed bipartisan legislation to slap more sanctions on Russia, Iran and North Korea — but a signing statement the president issued could undermine the efforts of Congress to punish those countries.
Andrew Rudalevige, a professor of government at Bowdoin College and author of The New Imperial Presidency, told Raw Story the language used in Trump’s statement leaves open some room for interpretation of how the law will be carried out.
“The question of implementation (‘faithful execution of the law’) is always at issue with signing statements,” the professor explained. “He is certainly claiming the right to implement sections of the bill ‘in a manner consistent with the President’s constitutional authority to conduct foreign relations,’ which certainly leaves an open door for not implementing them at all – though I haven’t matched up the sections of the bill cited with that language.”
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) also warned the Trump administration may try to “wriggle out of its duty to impose these sanctions.”
“President Trump’s signing statement raises serious questions about whether his Administration intends to follow the law, or whether he will continue to enable and reward Vladimir Putin’s aggression,” she said in a statement.
In his signing statement, the president said the sanctions bill contained “clearly unconstitutional provisions” that “purport to displace the President’s exclusive constitutional authority.”
In an accompanying statement, Trump criticized the legislation for limiting his negotiating powers and bragged about his business success. The legislation “improperly encroaches on Executive power, disadvantages American companies, and hurts the interests of our European allies… I built a truly great company worth many billions of dollars. That is a big part of the reason I was elected. As President, I can make far better deals with foreign countries than Congress,” Trump remarked.
“If the legislation is ‘clearly unconstitutional,’ he should have vetoed it. That was the point of the veto power in the first place,” Rudalevige noted.
“He seems to have released two signing statements. One is closer to boilerplate than the other, but neither uses the exact language developed by the last several administrations to complain about congressional interference in foreign policy. The one bragging about his great dealmaking is more of a press release than a signing statement as we have come to know them.”
George W. Bush and Barack Obama both used signing statements to challenge laws they signed. During their administrations, the American Bar Association warned that signing statements were morphing into a replacement for the veto — giving presidents the power to ignore certain provisions of law.
Former ABA President William T. Bill Robinson said in 2011 that “[w]here a signing statement is used to nullify a provision of law, the President is effectively usurping the power of the legislative branch by denying Congress the opportunity to override a veto of that law and may be abrogating the power of the judicial branch to make a determination of constitutionality.”
But the language in Trump’s signing statement was not as antagonistic as it has been in previous administrations.
“The language in the ‘real’ signing statement is actually more conciliatory than one might have expected (‘careful and respectful consideration,’ etc) though this could be window dressing. David Addington in the George W. Bush administration, who was a systematic developer of signing statements, didn’t care for such niceties,” Rudalevige told Raw Story.
So will federal agencies feel free to disobey the new sanctions law? While it’s impossible to predict the future, Rudalevige said that agencies usually follow the law sincerely — especially when they can be held accountable.
“Usually it is very difficult to study this aspect of signing statements, because it is hard for outsiders to track systematically their effects on the ground,” he explained. “But the studies that do exist generally find that agencies implement the law – and this is a pretty high-salience case, not top secret like the Bush administration’s ‘enhanced interrogation’ practices when it was near impossible to tell if they were adhering to the statutory ban on torture.”
In his signing statement, Trump also said the sanctions bill conflicted with the Supreme Court’s 2015 decision in Zivotofsky v. Kerry. Congress had attempted to force the United States to recognize Israel’s sovereignty over Jerusalem. But then-president George W. Bush issued a signing statement arguing it violated his constitutional authority. The Supreme Court eventually ruled that the president has the exclusive power to recognize foreign nations.
“Zivotofsky of course is new law but while the Court did give exclusive recognition power to the president in that case, it also made plain it thought there was a lot of room for legislative guidance of foreign policy generally,” Rudalevige explained. “There’s a famous line from a 1930s case that the president is the ‘sole organ’ of foreign policy – presidents love it, but it is out of context and the Zivotofsky case made clear that even if the president is playing the organ, Congress can choose the tune.”