White House

Trump Is Absent During Big Shift on Marijuana

The Justice Department has every right to enforce the nation's laws. But the president is usually much more engaged.

Gone to pot.

Photographer: Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images

Attorney General Jeff Sessions' decision to crack down on sale of marijuana is an excellent opportunity to dwell on the mind numbing complexity of policymaking in the U.S. system of separated institutions sharing powers.

Across the nation, decisions over law enforcement are the Justice Department's to make. But in reality, those may be influenced by the president; members of Congress; any independent views of presidential nominees who lead the department; and the civil servants within the department who actually carry out policy.

Already, Republican Senator Cory Gardner of Colorado, a legalization state, is threatening to hold up Justice nominations -- and urging Donald Trump and Sessions to keep their word that they wouldn't try to overturn state policy in this era. Other members of Congress, including a few Republicans, also weighed in against enforcement.

There's also the direct and indirect influence of interest groups, political parties, and state and local governments. Direct influence would be when they lobby the department themselves. Indirect? When they mobilize members of Congress to make the case for them. 

All of this is why I caution against describing executive branch actions as Trump accomplishments (or Barack Obama or George W. Bush accomplishments in previous administrations) without establishing some sort of direct link from presidential desire to agency results.

It's true that Trump selected Sessions, so in some sense he bears responsibility (or credit) for what Sessions does. But there's no evidence at all that Trump has strong beliefs about federalism with regard to marijuana. He picked Sessions because the former Alabama senator was the most prominent elected Republican to support the reality TV star early in his presidential run, and because Sessions strongly supports harsh policies on immigration, which certainly was central to Trump's campaign.

Trump appears otherwise irrelevant to the situation -- another piece of evidence that he is the weakest, least influential president in modern times.

A normal president would be much more engaged in any significant policy decision emerging from executive branch departments and agencies. The strongest presidents don't always win policy fights, but they usually preside over a process that ensures they learn of any major proposals in advance and have an opportunity to attempt to block or modify them, or at the very least have some influence over how they are presented publicly.

We'll see if there's further reporting, but that doesn't seem to have happened here, and Trump himself isn't doing much to defend the shift as the backlash spreads. "The president believes in enforcing federal law. That would be his top priority, regardless of what the topic is, whether it’s marijuana or whether it’s immigration," the White House press secretary said Thursday afternoon. So it looks like a pure Sessions decision, at least for now. 

If Trump wasn't involved and either opposes or is simply indifferent to the substantive policy questions here, it's also true that his lack of engagement may damage him. Remember, the Senate is narrowly divided: There are only 51 Republicans, and two of whose may wind up with spotty attendance this year because of health issues.

Trump is already feuding with at least Bob Corker and Jeff Flake, and has at times feuded with John McCain and others; Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski are also unreliable votes at times for policy reasons. Adding yet another source of disagreement with yet another Republican certainly can't help the president. 

It's also true in general that marijuana policy at this point is a wedge issue against Republicans. While most Democratic politicians haven't been enthusiastic or made legalization a priority, they are more or less united on less harsh punishments, while Republican politicians are divided. National Democrats have been cautious, in part because even with public opinion surveys showing increasing support for weed, there doesn't appear to be much intense support for expanding legalization.

But it's one thing to tell users in states where tough penalties exist that nothing is going to change; it's quite another to disrupt already-established markets like Colorado. Donald Trump has already alienated a lot of voter groups. Adding another doesn't seem like a very smart play in an election year. And he doesn't want leading Republicans deciding that White House chaos isn't just creating a lot of embarrassing headlines, but allowing rogue cabinet secretaries damage the party's electoral prospects.

In other words, it's perfectly normal for presidents to compete with other legitimate players in the policymaking process within the executive branch. But this particular president has unusually little influence, and that can be very costly to him and his party. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Mike Nizza at mnizza3@bloomberg.net

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.