It is well worth finding out what Trump — and other candidates, for that matter — think of the unitary-executive theory. During the 2008 election, reporter Charlie Savage surveyed the presidential candidates to ask specific questions about the scope and limits of executive power. Obama said, “The president does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation.” Of course, getting candidates on the record is not enough; as noted above, President Obama has not adhered to the limits on power he acknowledged when answering Savage’s questions as a candidate.
So, given the precedents, it is a useful starting point to ask Trump and other candidates whether they acknowledge constitutional limits on presidential power. Some of Trump’s public statements suggest he believes that constitutional limits would not bind him. For instance, during a debate, Trump said that President Obama lacked the “courage” to use military force against the Assad regime in Syria in 2013. In reality, President Obama would have needed congressional authority to act in Syria (though Obama never presented a war plan to Congress or asked for this authority). Trump seemed to dismiss this constitutional question.
Trump has also said that he would order the military to carry out waterboarding, declaring that they would follow his orders, whether lawful or not. Trump seemed to later backtrack when he said he would “stay within the laws” in responding to ISIS — but his new position does not immediately make sense.
Trump said he’d like to change the law to allow waterboarding. But if we believe, as I do, that waterboarding is torture, and we know that torture, by definition, is illegal — both under U.S. law and international law — then Trump’s new pro-waterboarding law (if he managed to get it through Congress) would overturn long-established precedent. Would that be in the best interests of the United States?