Post 12: President Trump’s War Power Vacuum

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President Donald Trump in the Oval Office. (Pete Souza, The White House).

We placed a shocking amount of military power in the president’s keeping, but where else, we may ask, could it possibly been placed?”

  • Clinton Rossiter, Historian

A ‘power vacuum’ occurs when someone has lost control of something and no one has replaced them.[1] Similarly, a political vacuum creates a leadership vacancy that is filled by another group or leader. While this phenomenon may sometimes replace mediocre governments with enterprising ones, political power vacuums can leave space for incompetence as well.

Recent history provides several examples of political power vacuums that have produced dire results. For example, the reduction of US military presence in Iraq has exposed the local government’s inability to maintain order. [2] Also, the Syrian civil war has caused the government to lose control over large areas of the country. As a result, extremist groups, such as the Islamic State, have assumed power in territories where the government ceases to exercise control.

The concern over the control of power, especially presidential authority, is a familiar notion in American political discourse. In fact, executive power was fervently debated before and during the 1787 Constitutional Convention. When drafting Article II [3] of the Constitution, the framers relied on political philosopher John Locke’s idea of the ‘federative power’.[4] Locke held that the federative and executive powers were to be placed under the authority of one person. [5] Both required use of force, so to posit such powers in separate hands would invite “disorder and ruin.” [6]

Alexander Hamilton also advocated for ambitious executive power. In Federalist 70, Hamilton wrote that “energy” in the executive was a critical characteristic “in the definition of good government.” [7] In fact, Hamilton noted that an ‘energetic’ executive combined “unity, duration, an adequate provision for its support and competent powers”. [8] Thus, Hamilton sided with Locke and argued for a singular executive, one who expediently used the powers of the office to enforce laws and conduct war.

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In February President Trump appointed Lt. Gen. HR McMaster to National Security Adviser after firing General Michael T. Flynn. (Kevin Lamarque, Reuters).

The presidential form that emerged from the Convention is unrivaled in the history of democratic governance. In other constitutional democracies, the presidency is often bifurcated, placing executive and diplomatic duties in two different offices. However, the American presidency combines the head of government and state in one person.  Thus, as chief executive, diplomat and Commander in Chief of the military, the president of the United States has a tremendous amount of power and responsibility. 

However, the current administration, led by President Trump, has shown an unwillingness to embrace the authority entrusted to him by the Constitution. More specifically, the president demonstrates a propensity shirk the war power responsibilities delegated to him by Article II.

As a result, a war power vacuum has emerged in the White House that is antithetical to the underlying philosophy of the American presidency. For example, in January President Trump ordered a commando raid on Al-Qaeda in Yemen. [9] The raid went badly, and President Trump blamed the mission’s failure on the military. [10] In April, the US dropped its largest non-nuclear bomb on Islamic State fighters in Afghanistan, though President Trump refused to confirm that he had ordered the bombing. [11] Lastly, during the same month President Trump announced that the USS Carl Vinson had been sent to deter North Korean aggression in the Sea of Japan. [12] However, it was later discovered that the carrier was 3000 miles away and sailing in the opposite direction. [13]

The examples above, and others unlisted, tend to show President Trump’s propensity to assign responsibility of his war power to others in his administration, thus requiring United States officials who are not vested with presidential powers to fill the leadership void.

More than likely, the two-people charged with filling this war power vacuum are National Security Advisor (NSA) H.R. McMaster and Secretary of Defense James Mattis. Both are highly experienced generals and widely respected in the civilian sector. For example, NSA McMaster, a West Point graduate with a doctorate degree in military history, earned a silver star in Operation Desert Storm and is a highly respected counter-insurgency operator. [14]

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President Trump’s choice of General James Mattis for Secretary of Defense was well-received by Republicans and Democrats alike. (Thomas Brown).

On the other hand, Secretary Mattis is known as a hard charging retired general with a pragmatic sense of foreign policy. For instance, General Mattis told Congress that the Obama administration’s “policy of disengagement in the Middle East” had contributed to the rise of extremism in the region. [15] However, General Mattis thinks that tearing up the Iran nuclear deal would hurt the United States, and he favors working closely with allies to strictly enforce its terms. [16]

So, if a war power vacuum exists in the Oval Office, the two men charged to fill it are likely to be NSA McMaster and Secretary Mattis. Both have impeccable credentials and sharp minds that have shown measured responses when confronted with a variety of issues. Thus, should a vacuum be created by President Trump, Americans likely have two reputable men to execute Article II duties and guide foreign policy as well.

However, it is clear that such a relinquishment of presidential war power is contrary to the demands of the Constitution. The framers decided that the executive should be an energetic and decisive person, one who bears responsibility for his national security decisions. Should President Trump continue to pass off his war power responsibilities to others, the objective of the American presidency will remain unfulfilled. Even more so, the safety of the world’s oldest democracy will be in peril unless vigor and accountability are returned to the Oval Office.

[1] Cambridge Dictionary. (2017). Power Vacuum. Retrieved from

[2] Hubbard, B., Worth, R., Gordon, M. (2014). Power Vacuum in the Middle East Lifts Militants. The New York Times. Retrieved from

[3] Article II, section 1 of the United States Constitution vests the executive power in the president, while Article II section 2 provides that the president is the Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy.

[4] Robinson, D. (1987). “To the Best of My Ability” The Presidency and the Constitution. New York. WW Horton & Company. (The federative power is the president’s power to conduct foreign relations and war).

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] Rakove, J. (1996). Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution. New York. Alfred A. Knopf Inc.

[8] Id.

[9] Schmitt, E. Sanger, D. (2017). Raid in Yemen: Risky from the Start and Costly in the End. The New York Times. Retrieved from,

[10] Carter, P. (2017). How Trump Made America Less Safe in 100 Days. Slate. Retrieved from

[11] Wall Street Journal Video. (2017). Trump Responds to Questions about MOAB. The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved from

[12] Landler, M., Schmitt, E. (2017) Aircraft Carrier Wasn’t Sailing to Deter North Korea, as U.S. Suggested. The New York Times. Retrieved from

[13] Id.

[14] Baker, P., Gordon, M. (2017). Trump Chooses H.R. McMaster as National Security Advisor. The New York Times. Retrieved from

[15] Gordon, M. Schmitt, E. (2016). James Mattis, Outspoken Retired Marine, is Trump’s Choice as Defense Secretary. The New York Times. Retrieved from

[16] Id.

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