Faithless Execution: Presidential Dereliction and Duplicity

My new book, Faithless Execution, is principally about presidential lawlessness. In addressing that topic, I make the point that it is not lawless for a president to refuse to execute a law as to which he has a good faith constitutional objection.

The Framers, after all, were not just worried about executive overreach; they were at least equally concerned about what Hamilton referred to as “The propensity of the legislative department to intrude upon the rights, and to absorb the powers, of the other departments.” This is relevant to the ongoing controversy about whether, in carrying out his unconscionable swap of five senior Taliban and Haqqani network terrorists, the president acted lawlessly.

A congressional statute—the National Defense Authorization Act—presumes to impose a requirement of 30-days’ notice to lawmakers before the president may transfer enemy combatant detainees out of Guantanamo Bay. There is no question that President Obama willfully ignored this statute—the administration admits as much. But was he obliged to comply with it?

As I’ve been contending, there is a very colorable argument—I would say, a convincing argument—that the statute is unconstitutional. The commander-in-chief in wartime has near-plenary power over the disposition of enemy combatants, and supremacy in the conduct of foreign affairs. Congress may properly use its power of the purse to deny the president funds to transfer prisoners—particularly to transfer them into the United States. But it may not act as super-executive by micromanaging how the president carries out his prerogatives. We may find the president’s decisions in this regard to be reprehensible—I certainly do. But that does not make them unconstitutional … what is unconstitutional is a statute that purports to trim the president’s constitutional powers.

Is that the end of the matter? Not by a long shot. As I’ve also contended, the president’s failure to comply with a dubious statute is a mere footnote to his truly egregious offense: replenishing enemy forces at a time when the enemy is still conducting offensive terrorist operations against our armed forces. It would be difficult to fathom a more outrageous dereliction of duty by the commander-in-chief.