Why is there a need for oversight of U.S. presidential sovereignty?
President Trump & Sheikh Nasser Sabah Al-Ahmed Al-Jabr Al Sabah – Picture by US Department of State.
As President Trump was preparing to leave office, his hands were occupied signing pardons but likewise honors for foreign leaders that received meager attention in the U.S. media.
Heads of state of Morocco, Bahrain and even Qatar’s foreign minister received orders and medals, in a last-minute display of presidential stately might that required no congressional assent. Most remarkable is that Donald Trump bestowed a military accolade -in peace time- to leaders who aligned to his policies such as Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison, India’s Narendra Modi, or the Nipponese Abe Shinzo in December 2020, or to Arab leaders who were at the heart of his policies advancing Israel’s diplomatic weight in the Middle East. While neighbours closer to home in Canada, or Mexico were utterly ignored, the bedridden, late Emir of Kuwait, Sabah IV, was made ‘Chief Commander’ in the Legion of Merit (LOM) in September 2020; a première since 1991 for a head of state, and merely the third Arab awardee to ever be granted a LOM.
While the bestowal barely raised any eyebrows, it ought to be highlighted that this is one of the rare U.S. government accolades that act much like an order of chivalry, including degrees of rank, and a ribbon order, that is, by tradition, reserved to non-United Staters.
Being a military award, its bestowal is placed solely upon the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces’ discretion.
Albeit the LOM was established by virtue of an act of Congress, it further only requires the presidential authorization for its bestowal. Much as regal accolades granted at a sovereign’s pleasure, the U.S. President is able to display powers of unrestricted ‘sovereignty and favor’ analogous to the ones of monarchies.
HM Queen Elizabeth II is still capable to grace Commonwealth citizens with three orders of chivalry without ministerial countersigning. Even the constitutionally debilitate King of Sweden HM Carl XVI Gustaf, can distribute medals to his countrymen, and foreigners alike, and so it came as no surprise that the most dynastic acting president in U.S. history, took advantage of a discretionary power that allows him to court patronage vis-à-vis foreign leaders without congressional surveillance. A few days before he left the White House, he still inked LOMs certificates for the King of Morocco, HM Mohammed VI and subsequently for the King of Bahrain, Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa.
Whereas the revival of LOMs in times of peace, and for non-military merits may seem innocuous, in fact, President Trump acted in the spirit of a presidency originally created to mimic European monarchies. After all, a coarse ‘Mr President’ was meant to be ‘His Highness’’, or ‘His Mightiness the President’.
Albeit acting within the framework of his presidential prerogatives, it is conspicuous that President Trump adjudicated accolades to people politically faithful to his policies, and who on the grounds of their regal offices are here to stay long term, may be useful business partners, and eventual donors for Trumpism in the future. Notably the far more meritorious yet penniless Abdullah II of Jordan was side-lined throughout by the Trump administration. Hence it would be only appropriate to restrict such displays of presidential sovereignty through honours without a congressional approval. Needless to say, such scrutiny ought to apply to the presidential pardons, an absolute privilege that dwells into the independence of the judiciary.
Businessman and dynast Donald Trump is célèbre for heeding for lasting partnerships, and who is to say the latter would not be the case with the Arab states? Sharifan king Mohammed VI is Africa’s richest monarch; Abu Dhabi alone controls four of the largest sovereign wealth funds, and Saudi Arabia two of them. Who knows if a Trump – any, for that matter- may in the future hang a LOM on the neck of a ‘KMbS’?
About the author:
Henri Estramant is Senior Editor and diplomatic adviser for Diplomat Magazine with particular expertise in the German and Austrian federal states, the European Union, the Gulf Arab states and China.
 Public Law 671, 77th Congress, Chapter 508, 2d Session