Fact Checking the President

  • Post category:Opinion

Is He “Chief of Law Enforcement?”

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On February 18th, Business Insider ran a story that had the headline: “Trump Declares Himself the ‘Chief Law-Enforcement Officer of the United States’ and admits he makes Attorney General Barr’s Job Harder.” This prompted an outcry by armchair lawyers and those folks that “just about” made it into law school, that the President was a tyrant. Plus several other thread-worn insults from the liberal and never-Trump crowd. Is the statement a lie?

The article by Business Insider follows their normal format of no sources for the article. This leaves the reader to search the internet to see if the article is true. While Business Insider is generally a source for “first line” news, I think this Quora User (which is about the same level as Business Insider) says it best,

Answered Mar 14, 2017
“Yes and no. Founded as Silicon Valley Insider, it was renamed and relaunched as Business Insider circa 2009, by Henry Blodget. As others have noted, Mr. Blodget’s life has been controversial (a good article about his rise and fall and rise again is here: Henry Blodget’s comeback complete after $343m sale of Business Insider). But Business Insider has continued to thrive, with millions of visitors to its website. Its core audience of ‘bankers, traders and tech geeks,’ wrote Ian Burrell, a reporter for England’s The Independent, ‘…is overwhelmingly young and male.’

Donna Halper, Professor of Media, former journalist, current free-lancer.

We should take the opinion of a “Professor of Media” (actually an Associate Professor) from a virulently liberal Liberal Arts College with a grain of salt. Especially because she feels the source is less reliable because the readers are male. Business Insider seems to be a “flash” news source, as they use weighted headlines to get views. That being said we also cannot assume that their headline is false.

What Does the Constitution Say?

The US Constitution, Article 2 states,
“He shall have power, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, to make treaties, provided two thirds of the Senators present concur; and he shall nominate, and by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, shall appoint ambassadors, other public ministers and consuls, judges of the Supreme Court, and all other officers of the United States, whose appointments are not herein otherwise provided for, and which shall be established by law: but the Congress may by law vest the appointment of such inferior officers, as they think proper, in the President alone, in the courts of law, or in the heads of departments.”
Article 2, Section 2 Para 2. (emphasis added).

In this direct quote, there are three sections highlighted (we added the emphasis not the framers). The reason that these three sections are highlighted is because they directly speak to the position itself. Please recall, that all of these sections are beholden to Section 1 Paragraph 1.  This states “The executive power shall be vested in a President of the United States of America.”

Why Call Him “Chief Executive?”

As the executive power of the United States is vested in the President, we can say that he is the Chief Executive. One of the main reasons that this statement by the President is so easy to attack is because “Chief Executive” is not mentioned in the Constitution. In all likelihood, the term Chief would not have been used in this respect by the founders, as it was seen as a term for indigenous people (mostly linked to the Tribal Groups in Ireland). The term, when used in collaboration with Chief Executive, was not in the American lexicon until approximately 1955.

A company titled one of its members Chief Executive Officer. The term then entered the semi-official lexicon when the Oxford English Dictionary added it in 1972. Chron breaks this down in a well developed explanation of the differences between Owner, President and CEO of a corporation. An Owner has complete control of the company under the law, which is something completely alien to the Presidency of the United States.

The people of the United States are the “Owners” of the country, and sometimes we need to restate this as a matter of fact. Our job is to remind our representatives of this periodically. A President is the public face of the entity. However, it not a duty-filled position, but rather a ceremonial position. A Chief Executive is different, as they are the “ultimate person in charge” of the items under them.

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The reason why the definition of a Chief Executive is so important when looking at the title of “chief law enforcement officer,” is because the position of Chief Executive places the Department of Justice under the President of the United States. Since under logical readings of the term, which has only be around for 75 years, the “chief” would be the top person in rank. Then we would see that the Department of Justice is under the President. This makes him or her the Chief of Law Enforcement.

Officers of the United States

Where the statement gets more cloudy, is whether the President is an “officer of the United States.” This is one of the few areas of the Constitution that is not written in proper English. Remember that Jefferson was a Grammarian. The statement “all other officers,” can have two meanings.

First, the one which is being used by his detractors, is that the President has the power to appoint. All “consuls, judges of the Supreme Court, and all other officers of the United States,” which would imply that the consuls and judges are officers of the United States. While the consuls do fit the definition of officers, the judges do not – especially in a system with separation of powers. This then turns the question to the meaning of “All other officers.”

The reading that the President’s team is using is a reading where the President is an officer as the “Chief Executive Officer” (or in a pinch, his position as Commander and Chief of the military). Both readings tend to be wrong. The first reading is problematic because of the judges. The second reading is problematic. The title of “executive officer” would not have been used in politics or business for approximately 150 years after the Constitution.

As to what the meaning of the phrase is, that is something for scholars to debate as they cry into their beer at the state of American Education. The linkage to the definition of Chief Executive Officer is simply the linkage of modern language to modern colloquialisms. Chief Executive Officer is a 1950s colloquialism that became part of the common discourse. 75 years ago, your teacher would have rapped your knuckles with a ruler for using this colloquialism in regular writing. This means that the argument over whether Trump’s statement that he is the “top law enforcement officer” is totally and without a doubt an argument over semantics. Semantics generated by a media effort to make everything the President of the United States says a lie or misstatement.

Overall Analysis

Is the statement true? Yes. Perhaps the best way to explain it is not to get bogged down in the semantics and lexicon, but provide a simple children’s civics example:

  • The Legislature Makes the Laws
  • The President Enforces the Laws
  • The Judiciary Administers the Laws

Most of you should remember this from Schoolhouse Rock. As the President oversees the Dept. of Justice (DoJ), he is the Chief. Since they are the law enforcement arm of the government, he is the Chief of Law Enforcement. The answer to ‘Is he an officer?’ depends on how you mean officer.

Is he an officer of the court? No, there is separation of powers. Is he a police officer? No, he is the President of the United States. Is he a military officer? You can argue this with military historians. They are always debating whether he is a civilian officer, or the President is an external chief of the military.

The simplest answer is Yes, he is an officer because an officer, in the root definition of the word is a person who holds and office. He holds the office of President of the United States. Thus, the President of the United States is the Chief of law enforcement because he is the highest ranking person in the chain of command. He is an officer in this regard because his office gives him this privilege.

Thus, he is the chief law enforcement officer of the United States, Huzzah. This does not give him any magic powers, he cannot change the laws lawfully created by Congress. Actually, like any other CEO, he directs the resources of a department in a matter in which he chooses. Unless he is criminally prohibited by 18 USC § 208, the President can decide.

If Congress does not like it they can change this section of the code. So the moral of the story, is that yes the President told the truth. So the armchair lawyers and people who “almost got into law school” can go back to arguing whether Rodger Stone’s jury was legitimate (spoiler alert: It was not). Of course many of them will continue to believe otherwise.

Christopher W Smithmyer
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