Here are the checks and balances on President Trump's power — and how he's already undermining them

President Donald Trump holds an African-American History Month listening session.
Source: Pool/Getty Images
President Donald Trump holds an African-American History Month listening session.
Source: Pool/Getty Images

The president of the United States does not have the same power as a dictator or an autocrat. Strictly speaking, he or she doesn’t even have the same power as a prime minister in a parliamentary system like the United Kingdom or Canada.

President Donald Trump, though, seems to be looking to skirt the checks and balances built into U.S. constitution.

Demonstrators march past the U.S. Capitol during the Women's March.
Source: Jim Watson /AFP

A quick civics lesson

There are three branches of government: executive, legislative and judicial. The executive branch is made up of the president and his picks to lead the various executive departments of government. The legislative branch consists of the House and the Senate. The judicial branch includes all federal courts, with the Supreme Court of the United States at the top.

The U.S. Constitution includes a series of “checks and balances” to assure that no branch gets too powerful. For instance, the legislative branch is supposed to make the laws, but the president gets to choose whether to sign or veto bills. Congress can in turn override a presidential veto. The judicial branch, meanwhile, can declare a law or executive order to be unconstitutional, but members of the federal bench are appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate. Federal judges can also be impeached by the legislative branch, as can the president.

State and local governments also check the power of the president and the federal government in general through the American system of federalism, which reserves some government powers and functions for state and municipal governments.

With that trip back to high school over, let’s take a look at some of the ways Trump is flouting the limits placed on his powers just a few weeks into his time in the Oval Office — and why he’s not exactly alone among recent presidents:

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) (L) meets with Supreme Court nominee Judge Neil Gorsuch (R).
Source: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Executive orders

Trump enacted 17 executive orders, including one that controversially cut off access to the United States for people from seven majority-Muslim countries for 120 days and placed an indefinite ban on refugees from war-torn Syria. Progressive groups were angered by the order and argued it was unconstitutional, not necessarily because it was an executive order but because it violated equal protection and religious freedom.

Former President Barack Obama also issued edicts on immigration via executive order. Some argued that this was executive overreach on the part of the Obama administration.

Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush also made executive orders regarding immigration.

Military operations

Technically, the only branch of government that has the power to declare war is the legislative branch. Yet since the end of World War II, the executive branch has waged war mostly unchecked. Trump has gotten off to a start that appears no different, authorizing a strike in Yemen. 

The United States dropped more than 26,000 bombs in 2016. The left frequently criticized Obama for his policies on dropping bombs overseas

Going back even further, George W. Bush launched the Iraq War without a formal declaration of war, though he did have some official legislative support. This was not, though, an official declaration of war.

President Donald Trump gestures before signing an executive action on rebuilding the armed forces.
Source: Mandel Ngan/Getty Images

Threatening federal interference in Chicago

Here's one that is unique to Trump. Though the Obama administration did investigate some local police departments, Trump took it one step further, threatening on Twitter to send in federal agents to deal with violence in Chicago.

Ignoring court decisions

This is probably the most troublesome of Trump's actions to circumvent the separation of powers. Despite a court ruling placing a stay on Trump's immigration ban, the Department of Homeland Security says it is still enforcing the rule. This clearly flouts the judicial branches check on the executive.

How likely are you to make Mic your go-to news source?

Ben Geier

Ben Geier is an experienced writer whose work has appeared in Fortune, The Columbus Dispatch, Time Magazine and various other outlets. He's covered every level of government as well as myriad business issues. Ben is based in Brooklyn and is a graduate of Northwestern University.

MORE FROM

Report: Rex Tillerson may drop Iraq, Myanmar from child soldiers list

Tillerson overruled his own staff, who said neither country has actually stopped using child soldiers.

Donald Trump is now blaming Obama for Russian election interference

Trump tweeted Obama "choked" on Russia, adding he thinks Obama was trying to protect Hillary Clinton.

Former Obama defense official: Russia hacks are "political equivalent of 9/11"

"I don't see much evidence of a response," Vickers added.

Groups spending millions to defeat Senate health care bill: "We win or lose over the next week"

"We've been hearing Republicans talk about repeal for seven years. It comes down to these next seven days."

CNN sent a sketch artist to Sean Spicer's off-camera press briefing

The sketch artist normally covers scenes from the Supreme Court.

The Trump administration just pulled funding from a group that fights white extremism

Right wing violence is heating up, and the Justice Department is looking the other way.

Report: Rex Tillerson may drop Iraq, Myanmar from child soldiers list

Tillerson overruled his own staff, who said neither country has actually stopped using child soldiers.

Donald Trump is now blaming Obama for Russian election interference

Trump tweeted Obama "choked" on Russia, adding he thinks Obama was trying to protect Hillary Clinton.

Former Obama defense official: Russia hacks are "political equivalent of 9/11"

"I don't see much evidence of a response," Vickers added.

Groups spending millions to defeat Senate health care bill: "We win or lose over the next week"

"We've been hearing Republicans talk about repeal for seven years. It comes down to these next seven days."

CNN sent a sketch artist to Sean Spicer's off-camera press briefing

The sketch artist normally covers scenes from the Supreme Court.

The Trump administration just pulled funding from a group that fights white extremism

Right wing violence is heating up, and the Justice Department is looking the other way.