The twisted logic of Trump defenders would make a fine Joseph Heller novel.

There are many things you could call the professional Trump apologist: loyal, creative, unrelenting. Logically consistent? Not so much.

“Congress is too partisan to investigate the president!”

“The special counsel is too partisan to investigate the president!”

See also:

“Only Congress can investigate the president!”

“Congress can’t investigate the president unless there’s a legislative purpose!”

Of course these arguments are purely subjective, intended to service a partisan agenda, not a coherent constitutional vision. But to the extent there’s a common thread running through this mottled quilt, it’s a maximalist conception of presidential power and discretion, understood generally as the “unitary executive.”

The unitary executive is one of those constitutional topics that generates far more heat than light. Once a favored bogeyman of George W. Bush administration critics, a reference to the “unitary theory” was often another way of saying “I disapprove of the president’s decision.”

For a flavor of the confusion about what people meant by it, watch this amusing exchange between then-chairman of the House Judiciary Committee John Conyers and John Addington, chief of staff to Vice President Cheney.


As Addington explains, the unitary executive is a simple concept. There is one president of the United States in whom “Executive power shall be vested.” This makes intuitive sense. As citizens we should want our president to be accountable for the executive branch. A unitary executive is what makes elections matter. It’s a president we’re choosing, not a bureaucracy, let alone a “deep state.”

But if you take this too far, you run into problems. What would we think about a president who made all of the decisions? It’s one thing to decide whether to sign or veto a bill, or to send an aircraft carrier to a global hotspot. It’s another to approve an FCC broadcasting license, or to enforce environmental regulations against a supporter’s oil refinery, or to prosecute a congressman for corruption.

So it’s probably best to think of the unitary executive as a presumptive starting point. Taking care that the laws are faithfully executed sometimes means delegating decisions to non-political underlings, lest the public begin to worry that laws are being twisted to serve purely partisan ends or to benefit a president’s financial interests.