By Robert Reich
Last week, Utah Senator Orrin Hatch stood on the White House lawn, opining that Donald Trump’s presidency could be “the greatest presidency that we’ve seen, not only in generations, but maybe ever.”
I beg to differ.
America has had its share of crooks (Warren G. Harding, Richard Nixon), bigots (Andrew Jackson, James Buchanan), and incompetents (Andrew Johnson, George W. Bush). But never before Donald Trump have we had a president who combined all these nefarious qualities.
America’s great good fortune was to begin with the opposite – a superb moral leader. By June of 1775, when Congress appointed George Washington to command the nation’s army, he had already “become a moral rallying post,” as his biographer, Douglas Southall Freeman, described him, “the embodiment of the purpose, the patience, and the determination necessary for the triumph of the revolutionary cause.”
Washington won the war and then led the fledgling nation “by directness, by deference, and by manifest dedication to duty.”
Some two hundred forty years later, in the presidential campaign of 2016, candidate Trump was accused of failing to pay his income taxes. His response was “that makes me smart” – thereby signaling to millions of Americans that paying taxes in full is not an obligation of citizenship.
Trump also boasted about giving money to politicians so they would do whatever he wanted. “When they call, I give. And you know what, when I need something from them two years later, three years later, I call them. They are there for me.” In other words, it’s perfectly okay for business leaders to pay off politicians, regardless of the effect on our democracy.
Trump sent another message by refusing to reveal his tax returns during the campaign or even after he took office, or to put his businesses into a blind trust to avoid conflicts of interest, and by his overt willingness to make money off his presidency by having foreign diplomats stay at his Washington hotel, and promoting his various golf clubs.
These were not just ethical lapses. They directly undermined the common good by reducing the public’s trust in the office of the president. As the New York Times editorial board put it in June 2017, “for Mr. Trump and his circle, what matters is not what’s right but what you can get away with. In his White House, if you’re avoiding the appearance of impropriety, you’re not pushing the boundaries hard enough.”
A president’s most fundamental legal and moral responsibility is to uphold and protect our system of government. Trump has degraded that system.
When as a presidential nominee Trump said that a particular federal judge shouldn’t be hearing a case against him because the judge’s parents were Mexican, Trump did more than insult a member of the judiciary. He attacked the impartiality of America’s legal system.
When Trump threatened to “loosen” federal libel laws so he could sue news organizations that were critical of him and, later, to revoke the licenses of networks critical of him, he wasn’t just bullying the media. He was threatening the freedom and integrity of the press.
When, as president, he equated Neo-Nazis and Ku Klux Klan members with counter-demonstrators in Charlottesville, Virginia, by blaming “both sides” for the violence, he wasn’t being neutral. He was condoning white supremacists, thereby undermining the Constitution’s guarantee of equal rights.
When he pardoned Joe Arpaio, the former sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona, for a criminal contempt conviction, he wasn’t just signaling it’s okay for the police to engage in violations of civil rights. He was also subverting the rule of law by impairing the judiciary’s power to force public officials to abide by court decisions.
When he criticized NFL players for kneeling during the national anthem, he wasn’t just asking that they demonstrate their patriotism. He was disrespecting their – and, indirectly, everyone’s – freedom of speech.
When he berated the intelligence agencies and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, he wasn’t just questioning their competence. He was suggesting they were engaged in a giant conspiracy to remove him from office – potentially inviting his most ardent supporters to engage in a new civil war.
America has had its share of good and bad presidents, but Donald Trump falls far below anything this nation has ever before experienced. In less than a year, he has degraded the core institutions and values of our democracy.
We have never before had a president whose character was so contrary to the ideals of the republic. That Senator Orrin Hatch and other Republicans don’t seem to recognize this is itself frightening.