Candidate and then President Trump’s disuniting of America is problematic for the well-being of our republic. Presidents are the only individuals elected by the entire, national electorate. They are the President of every American, rich and poor, black and white, Republican and Democrat, Christian and Muslim and Buddhist and atheist. They are the President of both Blue states and Red states. But President Trump has openly dismissed, ridiculed, and antagonized those he perceives as being on “the other side,” including all of the residents of Blue states and cities (many of whom voted for Trump).And, yes, Democrats are divisive too. But I am not writing this essay about Democrats. I’m not writing it to compare Trump with Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama or Joe Biden. Before Trump was nominated by my now-former party, I was a life-long Republican. I am writing as a conservative without a political home. I am criticizing the man who took over my Party and turned it into something I cannot support. While I have numerous concerns about and differences with Democratic Party political leaders and candidates, my argument in this essay is that Donald J. Trump has been bad for the Republican Party, bad for Blue states, bad for Red states, and bad for the now dis-United States of America in ways that transcend policies and political parties. What makes writing an essay like this particularly problematic is the fact that Trump’s supporters and detractors are equally passionate and deeply entrenched in their views. They believe almost precisely what I have written but about Democrats. That is, in large part, why I’ve spent over a year grappling with this essay. People’s opinions of Trump (and, secondarily, the Trump-led Republican Party) are so strongly held, I’ve wondered if anything I write will make a difference. There’s certainly no shortage of essays about the man. What good would one more possibly do? Additionally, I know good-hearted, well-intentioned, smart people—both family and close friends—who disagree with me about Trump, in various ways and to varying degrees. I know many who don’t like the way he talks, wish he would tweet less, find his personal morals odious, think his approach to the presidency is too combative, etc. But they are willing to tolerate, forgive, or even rationalize all of that because of his “results.” Those I hear most frequently touted are a strong economy, a re-emphasis on military spending, tightening of immigration policy, “getting tough with China,” and appointing conservative Supreme Court justices. While I will address each of these assertions in more detail in this and follow-on essays, let me just say this:
- While the economy initially did boom under Trump’s Administration, his impact (or that of any president for that matter) on the impact is overstated. The 2016-2019 boom was largely a continuation of the strong, gradual recovery that began under Obama. Economic trends have long arcs.42I link to a LOT of news articles, tweets, documents, videos, and other sources in this essay. I have tried to link to a variety of sources, but you’ll probably find (I haven’t counted) that my most linked-to news outlets are the Associated Press, Reuters, the Washington Post, The Hill, the Atlantic, FoxNews, Business Insider, Forbes, and the New York Times. I read very broadly and tend to cross-check stories I’m interested in across multiple sources. I mostly link to straight-up news stories (as opposed to opinion pieces). I lean toward the above outlets because of their commitment to and investment in original, investigative news reporting (and not just rehashing or analyzing reporting done by others). If you find any particular claim or statement in this essay dubious because you don’t trust the source I link to, I invite you to do some additional research on that specific topic. I’m not claiming that my sourcing and interpretation of the stories I link to is flawless. But I have made a sincere, good-intentioned effort to be objective, fair, and fact-based. I readily recognize I have probably fallen short of that mark. But please give me the benefit of the doubt and don’t get caught up on any one claim or its sourcing. This is a voluminous essay. Please consider it in its totality. No newly-elected President can single-handedly move the needle on the economy in the space of two years anymore than a new coach can single-handedly win the Super Bowl with a team and culture he inherited;
- While the economy grew at impressive rates, it wasn’t bigger or more impressive growth than has been seen under previous presidents, notwithstanding Trump’s frequent assertions to the contrary;
- Whatever one thinks of the President’s handling of the COVID-19 outbreak, it is inarguable that the economy has ground to a halt and unemployment has skyrocketed due to the crisis. Should a President not get as much “credit” for economic downturns as he does for upswings, over which he has limited control?;
- While the economy was booming, the President’s signature legislative accomplishment was a huge tax cut that drove the deficit and national debt to historic highs, with no end in sight. The supposedly fiscally conservative Republican Party and its leader Donald Trump railed on President Obama for his huge budget deficits and contributions to the debt. Given the chance to do something about it, they drastically cut revenue (taxes) without also cutting spending. Trump’s pre-COVID budget projections planned to add over $8 trillion to the national debt (a 40% increase over the ~$20 trillion debt he inherited). Now with a pandemic-depressed economy (which will further lower tax revenues) and huge emergency COVID-related spending bills, deficits and debt are skyrocketing43Crises are, in my opinion, the exact time we should engage in deficit spending. Not when the economy is rocking and rolling. even further;
- Trump’s supposed reinvigoration of military spending and raises for soldiers are exaggerated mistruths and outright lies. They do not become true because he repeats them hundreds of times (see below for extensive details);
- Trump’s efforts to tighten immigration policy have resulted in a grand total of sixteen miles of new border “wall” (CPB calls it the “Border Wall System“) and another ~300 miles of wall repaired or replaced. He has made virtually no progress on broader, systemic immigration conundrums such as visa quotas and allocations, guest worker programs, improvements to asylum seeking processes, combatting visa-overstayers, etc.;
- Trump’s much-ballyhooed “trade war” with China has yielded mixed results ( at best). U.S. farms and agriculture interests, in particular, are facing long-term losses from the trade war. The United States’ overall trade deficit is, if anything, worse than when Trump took office. The $872b and $854b trade deficits in 2018 and 2019 were higher than the peak deficit during Obama’s Administration ($827b in 2006);
- Trump has unarguably appointed Supreme Court justices who are more conservative than any Hillary Clinton would have appointed. And he’s on the verge of appointing a third. So there is that promise kept.
An Alternative Point of View
I’ve struggled to craft a message that is both sincere and persuasive without being self-righteous or condescending. Like many, I have occasionally allowed myself to get caught up in the rancor of Facebook kerfuffles over the outrage of the day, playing political whack-a-mole with family, friends and their friends and complete strangers. All, very likely, to no avail. Other than, perhaps, causing people to hunker down even further into their already deeply-held beliefs and opinions. That is why I’ve largely exited Facebook over the past month, instead putting my energy into long-form writing. (I know, I know. This is really long. I hope at least some will indulge me and read the entire tome.)
Instead of trying to convince anyone to judge Trump differently than they have already judged him, my intent is to provide a different lens through which to view him and his presidency. And to weigh it’s costs and benefits in the context of the longer-term health and viability of our republic. I ask you to evaluate the merits of his presidency—and the prospect of giving him another four years in office—through the perhaps alternative point of view I lay out in the pages that follow.
A Republic, If We Can Keep It
With the presidential election just less than two months away, the future of our nation hangs in the balance. From the time Donald Trump secured the nomination to the present day, I have grown increasingly, gravely concerned for the health and viability of our constitutional system of self-governance. Benjamin Franklin famously warned us that we have a republic, “if we can keep it.” I am writing this as an essay of warning because I believe Donald Trump’s divisiveness and immolation of the Republican Party have driven us closer to a collapse of constitutional norms and processes than perhaps at any other time in our nation’s history (save only the Civil War). This is a serious charge, one that I will lay out in detail.
My first and most important premise is that defending, preserving, and supporting the Constitution of the United States of America, which establishes the rules and processes by which our republic functions, are far more important than any public policy issue, no matter how consequential. Even if we were to secure a monumental, long-lasting victory related to our most cherished policy or issue, what good would such a victory do if it came at the expense of maintaining a legitimate, rules-based policy-making process that is trusted and supported by the electorate? The longevity of any policy victory won would be in question if it came by means of circumventing the constitutional rules of the game. After all, if our “guy” can circumvent the rules and get away with it, what’s to prevent the other “side” from doing the same thing?
One of the essential preconditions of government by the people is that the people agree upon and venerate the processes by which decisions are made. As a consequence, the people respect policy decisions that are made and election results even—and especially—when the outcomes are different than those they prefer. When we start questioning the validity of policy-making and electoral outcomes, the very foundation of our constitutional system is in jeopardy. Without the legitimacy, the trustability, and the broad public support of our constitutional processes, no matter their outcomes, we would not have a firm foundation for self-governance. When the very processes and frameworks of our republic are challenged, we are on the road to a completely different form of government, one less amenable to “liberty and justice for all.”
President Trump continues to sow division in an already divided America. Almost everything he does and says is cast in terms of “us-versus-them,” Republicans-versus-Democrats. And he goes out of his way to characterize the “us” (his side) in glowing terms while demonizing “them.” The “other side” isn’t just wrong, he says, they want to destroy America, they aren’t patriots (as if he gets to decide what that means), and they don’t love their country.
So the question I put to you is this. Why would Trump engage in this kind of extreme, divisive behavior?
The answer, I believe, comes from none other than George Washington.
Washington's Farewell Address
When evaluating potential threats to the health of our republic and its survivability, we need look no further than George Washington’s Farewell Address for a compelling enumeration of dangers that might jeopardize our constitutional system. At the end of his second term as President, Washington declared his intention to step aside, opting not to seek a third term. (This action and several others taken by Washington during his presidency set critical, historical precedents that established boundaries around the office of the Presidency and the scope of its powers.) In his farewell from public service, Washington outlined four threats he saw to the viability of the fledgling republic:
Washington offered his list of warnings as the “counsels of an old and affectionate friend” which he feared would not “make the strong and lasting impression” he hoped. Nonetheless, he ventured that they might “be productive of some partial benefit, some occasional good; that they may now and then recur” to the people of the republic he helped establish.
As I make the case against the reelection of Donald J. Trump, I will take Washington’s invitation to reflect on these four threats to our republic, hoping as he did that they might “be productive of some partial benefit.”
I will touch only lightly on Trump’s foreign entanglements and fiscal irresponsibility. Each of those subjects warrants its own essay. Here I will address Trump’s penchant for divisive “party spirit” and demagoguery. I believe Donald Trump to be the embodiment of Washington’s fears for our nation’s survival.
Trump has embraced and used the “fury of party spirit” like no other president in past 100 years to portray his Party as the right and only source of political truth.
Divisiveness as a Strategy
While every President has had, virtually by definition of the role, political adversaries, presidents have long held and largely embraced the role as the President of all Americans, even those who did not vote for him and those who do not support him. As the only nationally-elected role in the United States system, the President uniquely stands and speaks for every American, from every state, from every city, town, and neighborhood. Naturally, there will be some who like and support the President more than others. But an essential value of the offices has always been to stand as a voice and symbol of American unity.
George Washington, in his aforementioned Farewell Address, put significant emphasis on the importance of unity for the young. Speaking to the nation in 1796, he worried that divisions were already growing that would threaten its stability and viability. He declared that “the unity of government,” which constitutes us as “one people,”44From various historical treatments and analyses, it is clear that Washington privately understood—but chose not to publicly confront—the limitations in the use of such a term, as it did not include the indigenous peoples or slaves. is (or at least ought to be) “dear” to its inhabitants. Unfortunately, he declared it “easy to foresee” that many from “different causes and from different quarters” would take “pains” and employ “many artifices”45Clever or cunning schemes used to trick or deceive others. to “weaken in [our] minds the conviction” that unity is essential to liberty. Accordingly, he admonished Americans to build a “political fortress” against the “batteries of internal and external enemies” who would “covertly and insidiously” work to divide us. We should, therefore, consider national unity “as the palladium46A safeguard or source of protection. of [our] political safety and prosperity; watching for its preservation with jealous anxiety.”
Washington was so worried about such efforts that he challenged us to fight against “even a suspicion” that unity might be abandoned, that we should “indignantly [frown] upon the first dawning of every attempt to alienate any portion of our country from the rest, or to enfeeble the sacred ties which now link together the various parts.”
He presciently warned that “designing men may endeavor to excite a belief that there is a real difference of local interests and views. One of the expedients of party to acquire influence within particular districts is to misrepresent the opinions and aims of other districts.” While Washington, doubtless, did not fully anticipate the rural-urban, Red-State / Blue-State divide in contemporary America, I’m confident these are just the kinds of differences he had in mind. Trump’s political brand is fear, anger, and fighting for the purportedly aggrieved white, conservative Christians, particularly those from the suburbs and rural America.
Trump has sown divisions between conservatives and liberals, between Republicans and Democrats, between “real” Republicans and “Republicans-in-Name-Only” (so-called RINOs), between Republican and “Democrat” leaders (refusing even the courtesy of referring to the opposing party by its proper name), between rural and urban mayors (repeatedly criticizing “liberal” cities and their mayors), between Red States and Blue States, between “good news” outlets and “fake news,” between Christians and non-Christians, between alt-right and leftist groups, between pro-Trump protesters and BLM protesters, between immigrants and non-immigrants, and between numerous other real or perceived dividing lines in American politics and culture. He has criticized anyone and any group who does not support him, relentlessly and crassly, lowering the bar of presidential decency and decorum. While some see this behavior as “refreshing” or excuse him for “not being a politician” or even laud him as the “salty sailor” willing to call it like he sees it, it is inarguable that he has single-handedly lowered our expectations for the prestige, seriousness, and decency47It seems an entirely different universe in which conservative outlets lost their minds over President Obama wearing a tan suit or (gasp) wearing a bike helmet while riding a bike. we once expected from the President of the United States.
Even the fact that so many are willing to forgive his vulgar bullying and rejection of presidential norms further underscores how divided we have become as a nation. And virtually everything Trump says provokes strong, visceral reactions from his defenders and critics. While this is natural, it is also something Washington warned us about. He noted that it is virtually impossible for average citizens to shield themselves “against the jealousies and heartburnings which spring from” divisive partisanship. What worried him, though, was the blatant “misrepresentations” of one’s opponents that almost always accompany such divisiveness and the discord and disunity such mischaracterizations yield. Washington and his fellow founders optimistically enshrined the importance of and their aspiration for unity in the Great Seal of the United States, including the Latin phrase e pluribus unum—“one from many.” They hoped that the nation would be united around common purposes and philosophies of republican government, notwithstanding our many differences.
For Washington, the focus on unity in national politics was not simply a preference for polite, decorous civic discourse and amiable public policy debates. It was essential to the health of our constitutional system. He warned that “cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men” would use the divisive spirit of party not only to sow the seeds of dissension and inflame the passions of the people to support their party, but that they would leverage the strife thus created to justify abuses of power and repudiations of constitutional processes and structures. They would, Washington warned, use partisan antagonism as cover to “subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion.”
Donald Trump has done just that by both reshaping the Republican Party to be the Party of Trump. And he has aggressively, relentlessly sought to recast that Party as the sole repository of goodness, patriotism, and rightness in America. He viciously portrays anyone and anything outside or in any way opposed to critical of the Party of Trump as wrong, dumb, inept, and even treasonous.
When Divisiveness Becomes Groupthink
Again, virtually every president has been a partisan, in no small part because they have been the titular heads of their political parties. But Trump’s divisive hyperpartisanship goes far beyond normal political posturing. His latest divisive, inflammatory rhetoric and actions regarding coronavirus, Russian election interference, election fraud, and BLM protests are but the latest examples. His approach to the presidency bears an uncanny resemblance to a troubling, dangerous variety of us-versus-them stridency Irving Janis called “groupthink” (in a book so titled). Janis’s psychological research focused on hyper-loyal attachment to groups, their leaders, their goals, and their activities. When such an attachment becomes virtually immune to external criticism or questioning, Janis argued that “groupthink” has set in. Groupthink includes these characteristics:
The Republican Party under Donald Trump is a textbook example of groupthink. I am not saying that other parties or administrations have not had similar characteristics or tendencies. Janis explicitly described how President Kennedy’s administration, particularly early on, had many elements of groupthink. This caused dangerous, myopic decision making around the Bay of Pigs debacle. Janis notes, however, that JFK learned his lesson, restructured his team to openly encourage and confront alternative points of view, and made much better decisions in future policy situations and dilemmas, including the Cuban Missile Crisis. Sadly, Trump has done the opposite, jettisoning anyone who challenges him or disagrees with him.
Hannah Arendt, a political philosopher who narrowly escaped Nazi Germany, observed that Adolf Eichman, one of the chief architects of the Holocaust, developed a thoroughly unassailable philosophy of Jewish dehumanization. About him she observed: “No communication was possible with him, not because he lied but because he was surrounded by the most reliable of all safeguards against the words and the presence of others, and hence against reality as such.” He simply did not allow views contrary from his own to enter his consciousness.
I’m a decided not asserting that the Trump Administration is nazi-like. I am, however, saying that groupthink is the first step on the path to totalitarianism and fascism. By glorifying the “rightness” of the party in power, dismissing out-parties and not just wrong but evil, and by dehumanizing those disfavored or punished by the government (e.g., calling them “rapists,” “thugs,” and residents of “sh**hole countries”), the groundwork is laid for otherwise unthinkable abrogations of human rights. More on this below.
America in Trump's Image
Washington warned that, as well-constructed as our Constitution might be to prevent the rise of despotism, we should watch for “cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men” who would seek, through popularity, to “subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government.” Trump’s spirit of divisiveness is not a new thing. His life’s history, as detailed below, is replete with cunning, ambition, and an unprincipled pattern or dishonesty and a rejection of rules and norms that get in his way. When government falls into the hands of such a man, Washington warned that the “very engines” of government which have lifted him up to “unjust dominion” will be destroyed, and with it the structures of self-governance enshrined in our constitutional republic.
Some, I am sure, will disagree with my conclusion that Donald Trump isn’t merely objectionable but rather a danger to our very form of government. That is the argument I intend to make here, in lengthy detail. I have raised many of the issues I catalog below with Trump supporters. Any one of them, by itself might be rationalized or explained away. But taken in its entirety, I can arrive at no other conclusion but that he is unfit for office and does not deserve another term as President of the United States. In fact, I believe that another four years of him in the Oval Office would well do irreparable harm to our republic and our polity.
The Trump Brand
In this context, it is important to recognize that Donald Trump is one of the most successful personal-brand-builders in American history, rivaled only by Oprah, the Olsen Twins, and the Kardashians. While I do not know his heart or mind and cannot judge why he is so-motivated, I can observe and draw reasonable conclusions from his behavior. He has put his name on everything from hotels and casinos to neckties to steaks, a reality tv show, and even a “university.” He has even sold companies the right to use his name and likeness on businesses (some of them of dubious legality and morality) he is barely involved with. In all of this, his professional life has been focused not so much on any particular product or property or service, but rather the “brand of Trump” (although, in recent years, he has become most closely associated with his upscale golf clubs and resorts).
Indeed, in the decades before running for office, he worked tirelessly to cultivate a public image of a uniquely successful, wealthy businessman. And stretching the truth—or flat out lying—to craft that image was par for the course (to intentionally use the obvious metaphor). Trump loves to brag about the “tiny” million dollar loan he got from his father to get started in business (a loan he claims he repaid). Truth be told, his father gifted him $413 million, much of it through illegal tax schemes. On several documented occasions, he even posed as his own public relations rep (using the pseudonyms John Miller and John Barron) to brag about his wealth and relationships with women. He regularly asserts that he graduated at “the top of his class” from Wharton. That’s a dubious claim given that he was not included in a list of honored graduates at his commencement. Nor was he on the dean’s list his senior year, but 56 of the graduating class of 366 students were.
Some of his misrepresentations and duplicity border on the absurd and petty:
But many of his “creative” representations and portrayals of himself are not so innocent:
- The Trump family charity was eventually shut down by the State of New York for multiple such legal violations and Trump was ordered to pay a $2 million fine;
- Trump’s penchant for embellishing his real estate holdings and exaggerating his wealth is potentially fraudulent. In a 2011 financial statement, he claimed he had 55 home lots to sell when he had only 31. He claimed Trump Tower had 68 floors when it had only 58 (detailed in this video, screen-captured below). And he claimed a Virginia vineyard had 2000 acres instead of 1200. Any one of these might be a simple oversight or a typo. Together, they amount to an intent to fraudulently deceive investors, insurers, and financial backers. This is why the State of New York has sought Trump’s tax returns—to verify, one way or the other, the accuracy of his financial claims that could have misleadingly and illegally put his financial backers at risk.
In 2015, as Donald J. Trump was campaigning for the White House in earnest, Michael D’Antonio was granted “extensive and exclusive interviews with Trump and many of his family members, including all his adult children” for his work on Never Enough: Donald Trump and the Pursuit of Success. The book is generally considered an accurate, balanced15 biography, something unusual in works published about Donald Trump.
The interviews and research for the book provided a telling picture of Donald Trump’s upbringing and the life lessons he learned from his workaholic, mostly absent father: we live in an eat-or-be-eaten world, you succeed (become a “king”) by being a ruthless “killer” in business. As such, “life is mainly combat; the law of the jungle rules; pretty much all that matters is winning or losing and rules are made to be broken.”
This view of life pervades Trump’s history, beginning with his free-wheeling personal brand-building. But it extends much further, encompassing hyper-aggressive (one might say “law of the jungle”) approach to Trump’s legal, financial, and tax dealings.
The Law as Bludgeon: 3500 Lawsuits (and Counting)
In Donald Trump’s America, everything is a fight to be won or lost. And the one who fights the hardest, the meanest, and the most aggressively (and maybe even the dirtiest) wins. And Trump has used the law as a tool—a bludgeon—in the fights he picks. Over and over again. All told, before his election in 2016, Trump had been or was actively a party to at least 3500 lawsuits.
A former federal prosecutor (who wrote a book about Trump’s legal activities) concluded that Trump has “sued at the drop of a hat. He sued for sport; he sued to achieve control; and he sued to make a point. He sued as a means of destroying or silencing those who crossed him.” Trump famously learned his aggressive legal tactics from Roy Cohn (who rose to prominence as Senator McCarthy’s character assassin). Cohn’s infamous strategy: (1) never settle, never surrender, (2) counter-attack, counter-sue immediately, and (3) no matter how badly things go, claim victory and never admit defeat. This aggressive, scorched-earth legal strategy served Trump well in his first big case after meeting Cohn: an anti-discrimination suit brought against him by the Justice Department. Through counter-suits and other maneuvering, Trump secured a settlement in which he agreed to curb future discrimination but made “no admission of guilt.”
Consistent with Cohn’s ethos, many of Trump’s lawsuits have been filed with no clear hope of winning. They were often filed to send messages, to bully, intimidate, or to punish his adversaries by forcing them to pay steep legal bills. A sizable number of other suits have been filed to create and protect his desired public image. In 2007, he sued an author (for $5 billion!) whose book claimed Trump was only worth $150-250 million.48If true, this would mean he had lost about half of the money his father gave him. (The suit was thrown out after Trump admitted to thirty lies in a sworn deposition.) Trump (also unsuccessfully) sued a Pulitzer-Prize-winning Chicago Tribune architecture critic who criticized (per his job description) one of Trump’s real estate projects.
In these legal wranglings, a now-familiar pattern began to emerge. When someone criticized or questioned Trump’s decisions or business deals, he would deflect, lie, embellish, call names, and threaten legal action. He has picked fights with seemingly anyone over anything. No spat is below him. He got into a grand-standing legal battle with the city of Palm Beach over the legal height of flag poles. He tried to bully a widow out of her Atlantic City home so he could have a limousine parking lot next to his casino (Trump lost that one too). He waged a lengthy, frivolous lawsuit against the Scottish government to prevent the construction of an offshore windmill farm within eyesight of his Scottish golf course. He called the former Scottish minister names. He warned that building “monstrous turbines” along the coastline would send Scotland on its way to “become a third world wasteland.” He vowed to fight “to hell if I have to” to protect “perhaps the greatest golf course anywhere in the world.” After years of legal wrangling, the U.K. Supreme Court ultimately voted unanimously against Trump’s arguments and ordered the Trump Organization to reimburse the Scottish government $290,000 for its legal fees. Elsewhere, he successfully sued a former Miss USA contestant for $5 million for alleging that the pageant was rigged (although it is unclear if any of that money has actually been paid to Trump). Likely realizing he would fail on free speech grounds if he filed a libel suit, Trump sued the Culinary Workers and Bartenders unions for “false advertising” for claims they made in a 2015 pro-union flyer. (The case was thrown out because the union was not proposing a commercial transaction with its messaging.)
Affairs with Porn Stars and NDAs
Many of Trump’s lawsuits center on enforcing non-disclosure agreements signed both before and after the 2016 election. Trump has, for example, engaged in numerous illicit extramarital affairs, but has legally bound his paramours to keep quiet via non-disclosure agreements (NDAs). In his overzealousness to enforce these, he and his legal representatives sometimes broke the law. The most infamous of these involved Michael Cohen—Trump’s long-time personal attorney and fixer— the National Enquirer, and two porn stars who had affairs with Trump.
During Trump’s 2016 campaign, Cohen, illegally “caused $280,000 in payments to be made to silence two women who otherwise planned to speak publicly about their alleged affairs with a presidential candidate, thereby intending to influence the 2016 presidential election.” Cohen would later plead guilty to this and other crimes. He received a 3-year prison sentence for his “dirty deeds.” Pertinent details of the case go far beyond two consensual affairs. They implicate not only Cohen, but also several others, including Donald Trump (identified in court documents as Individual-1). Details of the the U.S. District Attorney’s investigation include:
- Michael Cohen, in close communication with Trump, had illegally coordinated the “hush money” disbursement with “one or more members” of Trump’s campaign about the “fact, nature, and timing of the payments”;
- Cohen further coordinated the Trump Campaign and David Pecker, CEO of the National Enquirer to “catch and kill” stories about Trump’s affairs. Through this scheme, the Enquirer, using money provided by Cohen, would buy the exclusive story rights from the two women and then keep them quiet through NDAs. (Pecker and his company long denied this coordination, but ultimately admitted their involvement to avoid prosecution);
- Multiple sources confirm that Trump was in the room when this illegal scheme was discussed and planned. Cohen released an audio recording of one of his discussions with Trump about creating a shell company to obscure the money trail for the payment to one of the women;
- The Trump organization “reimbursed” Cohen $420,000 for the $180,000 he disbursed to buy the silence of the two women. Monthly invoices were submitted to, reviewed, and paid by multiple Trump organization executives;
- Trump has essentially admitted to the substance of the case and his participation in the scheme, declaring the payments a “simple private transaction.” Trump asserted that, if laws were in fact broken, it was Cohen’s fault. Trump declared that he “never directed Michael Cohen to break the law,” claiming that he was simply following the “advice of counsel” (when he materially participated in the illegal scheme).
In a book about his time working for Trump, Cohen divulged that Trump coordinated closely with Pecker during the campaign to publish negative stories about his Republican opponents (including a story about Ted Cruz’s father being involved with JFK’s assassination).
Trump’s litigiousness has, if anything, only been amplified with the coffers of his campaign, the Republican National Committee (RNC), and the entire apparatus of the Department of Justice at his disposal. While actions taken by the government might reasonably be considered legitimate presidential activities, Donald Trump (the private citizen), the Trump Organization, and the Trump Campaign continue to file lawsuits (many of them to defend the aforementioned non-disclosure agreements). Some examples include:
- The Trump Campaign sued a former campaign worker for $1 million when she filed a sexual discrimination and harassment complaint about another campaign aide;
- The Trump Campaign has filed lawsuits against CNN, the Washington Post, and the New York Times for making “false and defamatory statements” in opinion pieces they published. These suits are broadly considered frivolous publicity stunts. The rules for “public figures” are much different than for average citizens when it comes to defamation. Trump would have to prove that something defamatory was reported, that it was categorically false, and that those reporting it acted with “actual malice,” that is they either knew it was false or acted with “reckless disregard” for the truth. (All three supposedly false claims have been, in fact, proven to be true, thereby failing to meet even the most basic threshold of defamation.) That is an exceptionally high, nearly-impossible-to-prove legal standard. These lawsuits do serve the purpose though, of hardening Trump’s anti-fake-news credentials. More worrisomely, they have the potential to intimidate journalists who want to write similar op-eds about Trump and Russia or other matters;
- The RNC has funded Trump’s legal efforts to block a law that would require him to release his tax returns. The RNC has paid $1.8 million to the law firm handling this (and other) cases for the Party;
- Trump’s political campaign entities have spent more than $58 million on legal and compliance cases since 2015. These include defending non-disclosure agreements;
- The President has also not been shy about mixing personal activities and official government legal matters, for example, dispatching Rudy Giuliani, his private, apparently unpaid attorney, to Ukraine to dig up dirt on Joe Biden. Giuliani49Giuliani’s longtime friend and business associate, Lev Parnas, asserts it would have been impossible for Giuliani to not know Russia was behind the illegal influence campaign. has also been implicated in a Russian money-laundering scheme to illegally contribute cash to U.S. political candidates. (Giuliani was paid $500,000 in 2018 from sources closely tied to an illegal Russian election influence scheme. Giuliani also leverages his world travels representing Trump—straddling a blurred line between private attorney and official government representative—to secure business for his private security firm);
- The Justice Department has taken an active role defending Trump against the release of his tax returns;
- The Justice Department attempted to block the publication of John Bolton’s book about his time working for Trump. The Department has since opened a criminal investigation against Bolton, alleging that he “unlawfully disclosed classified information”;
- Trump ordered Attorney General Jeff Sessions to investigate purported corruption in Hillary Clinton’s private email server, dealings with the Clinton Foundation and malfeasance around the sale of uranium to a company with Russian ties. After two and a half years, the investigation wrapped up with “no tangible results.” Those involved had no expectations of finding anything. The entire investigation was conducted to mollify Trump and his base. After dozens of rallies at which Trump led the change “lock her up!”, an in-depth investigation backed by the full force and resources of the Justice Department ended with a whimper. But Trump now asserts that the State Department is hiding Clinton’s emails to protect her.
U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr = Trump's New Ray Cohn
After all of Trump’s legal wranglings, he apparently remains unsatisfied with the results. He wants someone who will fight ruthlessly—and win—for him. He has frequently bemoaned his plight, asking “Where’s my Ray Cohn?” From 2006 to 2018, Cohen filled that role. But after his fall from grace, Trump was feeling lost without a pitbull to fight for him. He was bitterly disappointed that his first Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, recused himself from the impeachment proceedings and failed to aggressively defend Trump on other matters (e.g., “Crooked Hillarys [sic] crimes”).
In his new Attorney General, Bill Barr, Trump appears to have found his new Ray Cohn, his “win-at-all-costs” attorney. Never mind that Barr is officially the United States Attorney General, not Trump’s private attorney. But Trump and Barr express little if any concern for such an inconvenient distinction:
- Barr released a premature, inaccurate summary of the Mueller Report to provide a PR advantage for the President in how the report was perceived and interpreted;
- Barr has made sentencing recommendations and non-prosecution decisions based on what would be advantageous to to the President’s political allies (rather than based on matters of the law);
- Under pressure from Trump to discredit Special Counsel Robert Meuller’s report on the Russia investigation, Barr has appointed U.S. Attorney John Durham to “investigate the investigators.” Trump has repeatedly stated that President Obama, Joe Biden, the Department of Justice, the FBI, specific FBI agents, and others broke the law when they investigated ties between Russia, Donald Trump, and his campaign. A DoJ Inspector General report released in December of last year found not political or criminal wrongdoing in the launch of the investigation. The Republican-led Senate Intelligence Committee arrived at the same conclusion. Clearly unhappy with that, the President and AG Barr appear to be, contrary to Department of Justice policy, pressuring Durham to release an “interim report,” a highly irregular (if not unprecedented) move, particularly less than 60 days before the election. Nora Dannehy, one of DoJ’s top aides, resigned this week rather than be party to this chicanery;
- Just this month, a Department of Homeland Security intelligence analyst whistleblower said he was pressured to downplay intelligence suggesting Russia might be interfering with the 2020 presidential election. Instead, he was instructed to emphasize threats from China and Iran;
- Barr is, without facts or evidence, warning anyone who will listen that mail-in-ballots are dangerous and could jeopardize the legitimacy of the November election outcome. In telling CNN’s Wolf Blitzer that mail-in voting is “playing with fire,” he grossly misrepresented the facts of a case to sow fear about mail-ballot voter fraud;
- Trump and Barr have fired several Inspectors General and a U.S. Attorney who were involved in investigations of Trump and members of his inner circle;
- And now the United States Department of Justice has the temerity to assert that it should defend Donald Trump (the private citizen) in a defamation case. The rationale? Attorney General Bill Barr asserts that Trump was acting in his role as President when he slandered a woman who has accused him of rape. Trump said he couldn’t have raped her because “she’s not my type.”
A Trail of Unpaid Bills
One of the more underhanded tactics Trump learned from Cohn was a strategy of “questioning” and otherwise avoiding invoices. Cohn was notorious for not paying his bills and his taxes. Cohn believed that taxes went to “welfare recipients, political hacks, bloated bureaucrats, and countries whose people hate our guts.” USA Today catalogued 60 lawsuits and hundreds of liens, judgements, and other government filings related to companies and individuals alleging Trump and his businesses failed to pay their bills. Reuters and the Wall Street Journal have also independently catalogued Trump’s pattern of after-the-fact “renegotiations,” under-payment, and delayed payments. Those going unpaid include dishwashers, plumbers, painters, waiters, bartenders, real estate brokers, and even law firms. Numerous workers and companies who built Trump’s Taj Mahal casino are still wondering where their money is. (Trump once bragged that he was the “King of Debt,” owing $70 million to 253 Taj Mahal contractors, many of whom went unpaid.)
And this is a pattern that has persisted with Trump’s campaign organization, both before and after his election. Some low-lights include:
- While there is no explicit legal requirement to do so, campaigns almost uniformly reimburse local police departments for extra security at campaign events. But not the Trump Campaign. They’re refusing to pay $1.8 million in invoices from local governments for providing security at “Make American Great Again” rallies and events;
- The Trump Campaign owes the city of Washington, DC $9 million for city resources expended on Trump’s inauguration, his Fourth of July campaign rally, and other events;
- The Campaign refuses to recognize the legitimacy of a $530,000 bill from the city of Minneapolis to support a Trump rally at the Target Center. Trump officials call the bill “extortion.”
Even more troublingly, Trump materially participated in his father’s well-documented tax fraud, passing along $1 billion to his children almost tax free (Trump’s parents paid just $52 million in taxes on that $1 billion transfer, not the $550 million required by tax law at the time). And Trump has fought doggedly—all the way to the Supreme Court—to keep his tax returns private, counter to assurances he made repeatedly during the campaign that he would “absolutely” release them after the election. And, as noted above, he has enlisted the assistance of the Justice Department in his legal defense.
"I don't care."
One last legal vignette is particularly poignant. Until his election, Trump doggedly defended his eponymous, troubled “University.”50The State of New York notified Trump in 2005 that he was violating the law by calling his real estate program a “university” when he was not legally chartered to operate and act as an accredited, academic, degree-granting institution. After the election, he chose to settle the case. But he still maintains he would have won the case if it had gone to trial. Prior to settling, Trump waged his well-practiced battle plan, calling prosecutors names, calling the whole thing a witch hunt, labeling all those who testified against him liars, and blaming what bad acts occurred on underlings who were, it turned out, bad people. Whom he didn’t know. And then he accused the judge overseeing the case of being biased against him because the judge is of Mexican heritage. At a rally, Trump castigated the judge, saying he “happens to be, we believe, Mexican, which is great.” The judge, it turns out, is an American citizen. So he’s an American. (Note: American citizens are Americans.) (This is a deeply troubling anti-immigrant, racist sub-theme in Trump’s attacks on his perceived enemies who happen to not be white. I’ll dig in on this more later.)
But here’s the unintentionally insightful part. Asked by a reporter why he felt it necessary to antagonize a federal judge, Trump responded: “Why antagonize? Because I don’t care.”
Trump's Us-versus-Them Presidency
Even before his formal presidential bid, Donald Trump’s brand of politics was decidedly “us-versus-them,” or even more pointedly, “Trump-versus-everyone-else.” In Washington’s words, Trump has employed the “tools and dupes” of popularity to “usurp the applause and confidence of the people, to surrender their interests.”
The beginnings of this application of business-focused avarice to the public sphere can be traced in Trump’s discovery and use of Twitter.
For better or worse, Donald Trump’s political ascendancy and unique presidential communication strategy will be inexorably linked to Twitter. He has used the platform to change the rules of the game, communicating directly and frequently with the electorate, not relying on traditional media outlets to carry his message for him.
Many of Trump’s early politically-focused tweets were aimed at President Obama, ironically criticizing him for behavior he would later engage in himself.
Trump created his Twitter account in April 2009. For the first couple of years, he tweeted sporadically and mostly about his TV appearances. But by 2011, he started to find his political voice, sharpening a message that would carry him into the presidency. And his volume of tweets exploded. Trump tweets about 20 times a day, five or six hundred times a month. One of his earliest political tweets criticized President Obama for “taking” $500 billion from Medicare for “Obamacare.” Soon thereafter, he began a long string of tweets criticizing President Obama for his frequent vacations and golf outings. About the same time, he ratcheted up his anti-China rhetoric.
But Trump didn’t really make his political mark on Twitter until he started fraudulently attacking Barack Obama’s citizenship. Consistent with the groupthink mentality of making oneself look wiser and more righteous by taking on and attempting to take down a “bad guy,” Trump found his perfect foil in a Black man with Kenyan ancestry named Barack Hussein Obama.
There has never been a scintilla of evidence that Obama is anything but a naturally born American citizen. But that didn’t stop Trump from amplifying every overtly or thinly-veiled racist conspiracy theory about Obama’s place of birth. Taking another page from the groupthink playbook, Trump portrayed himself as being the trusted authority, smarter, more in-the-know, and more credible than other sources. The man who now decries anonymous sources touted his own unnamed “extremely credible source” who “called my office” to say that Barack Obama’s birth certificate is a fraud.
Trump built an image of himself on Twitter as the anti-Obama. Between 2011 and 2016, he tweeted 27 times about Obama’s “excessive” golfing. Like many of Trump’s tweets, these haven’t aged well—Trump has golfed 278 times. Obama had golfed about 100 times to that point in his presidency. I don’t know what the “right number of times” is for a president to golf. Frankly, both presidents golf a heck of a lot more than I thought possible. Regardless, the point here isn’t that Trump golfs too much. It’s that he’s a hypocrite. Even now, in the face of incontrovertible evidence that he golfs far more than Obama ever did, he still claims (tweet on right) that Obama played more than he has! While this might seem a small, in consequential thing, it is part of the broader pattern of ignoring the truth to tell the story he wants people to believe about him. There is no lie too small or inconsequential. He’ll tell it over and over and over if it’s consistent with (a) building his personal brand and/or (b) demonizing his adversaries.
Trump’s rise to political prominence is inexorably linked to his strident criticisms of Obama and his hyping of widely-disproven Obama conspiracy theories. (Even Trump finally admitted51Unfortunately, he has taken up these lies again, for no apparent reason. that, “President Barack Obama was born in the United States. Period.”) Even though he never ran against Obama, he has gone out of his way, at virtually every turn, to continually criticize Obama and his presidency. In addition to continually blaming Obama for things that are “broken” in our country (an age-old presidential tradition), he has conducted a relentless assault on everything that Obama created, particularly “Obamacare” (the Affordable Care Act). Even far into his presidency (late 2019), Trump was so fixated on Obama that he brought him up, by name, ten times in one cabinet meeting. Unprompted. Just this year, Trump claimed that Obama can’t possibly be considered a “great president” because “much of what he’s done we’ve undone,” (as if that were a valid measure of the “greatness” of either man’s presidency). Obama, as the kids say, lives rent free in Trump’s head.
Trump has taken this to never-before-seen depths (again, at least in the modern presidential era), accusing President Obama of treason for signing off on an investigation that the Republicans in the Senate and own Justice Department have deemed justified and not politically motivated (notwithstanding errors that might have been made).
Some of the more noteworthy (and even bizarre) examples of Trump’s obsession with Obama and fashioning himself the “anti-Obama” include:
- Trump was so preoccupied with Obama and being better than him that he hired an Obama impersonator (dubbed “Faux-Bama”) he could ridicule and “fire” (Cohen provided the photo below as evidence of the claim);
- While Trump bragging about his own “affair” with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, trump has repeatedly peddled a farcical tale about Obama trying to call Kim Jong Un and not being able to get through (Trump’s calls, the President assures us, are answered);
- While I will address Russia in a separate essay (because this one is already ginormous and that’s a sprawling topic all by itself), it is worth noting that Trump’s public disdain skyrocketed with the insinuation that Obama signed off on or (as Trump likes to claim) even instigated the so-called Russia Investigation. Trump is also fond of claiming that Obama go outsmarted by Putin;
- Trump has repeatedly questioned the objectivity and legitimacy of Obama-appointed-judges. These criticisms were so frequent and pointed that Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts made an exceedingly rare public statement defending the Judiciary, its impartiality, and its legitimacy as an independent, coequal branch of government;
- As I outline in detail below, Trump has lied that Obama decimated the military, that he (not Obama) signed the Veterans Choice Act, and that Obama “gave” Iran billions of dollars. He has even falsely claimed (again, on multiple occasions) that Obama “no ventilators”52There were, in fact, 16,600 on hand. and leaving the country ill-prepared for COVID-19.53In truth, there was a detailed pandemic “playbook,” but Trump’s team dismantled some of what Obama’s team had in place and gave the previous Administration’s preparations and guidance little credence, largely ignoring it.
Called of God?
One of the oldest us-versus-them, my-side-is-better-than-yours ploys throughout political history has been to claim divine support. Trump courted and was enthusiastically embraced by the evangelical Right. The mental and moral gymnastics performed to endorse a man with so little in common with conservative Christian ideals has been breathtaking to behold.
Trump now unapologetically portrays himself as the only one who can save America. He has even said God told him as much:
- Trump quoted Wayne Allyn Root’s (a conservative commentator and conspiracy theorist) declaration that “the Jewish people in Israel love him life he’s the King of Israel. They love him like he is the second coming of God.” Trump also declared that Jewish Americans are wrong to oppose him: “I think Jewish people that vote for a Democrat—I think it shows either a total lack of knowledge or great disloyalty”;
- Trump hired his personal pastor Paula White, a Florida-based televangelist, as an advisor on the administration’s Faith and Opportunity Initiative. She has asserted: “To say no to President Trump would be saying no to God.“ She also falsely claimed (lied) that California law54The proposed legislation (which was ultimately withdrawn by its sponsor) was aimed at banning conversion therapy. A handful of observers jumped to the intentionally distorted, fact-free conclusion that the ban would include sales of the Bible. has declared the Bible to be “hate speech” and it’s sale will be banned;
- In impromptu comments on the White House lawn, Trump opined on his trade war with China: “This isn’t my trade war, this is a trade war that should have taken place a long time ago. Somebody had to do it.” Then, looking to heaven, he added, “I am the Chosen One”;
- At a rally in Mankato, Minnesota in August, the President referred to the economic downturn precipitated by the coronavirus outbreak: “You know what that is? That’s right, that’s God testing me. Said you know, you did it once. And I said did I do a great job, God? I’m the only one that could do it. He said that you shouldn’t say. Now we’re going to have you do it again. I said, OK. I agree. You got me. But I did it once. And now I’m doing it again.”
- At a rally in Cleveland in August, Trump said Biden is “following the radical left agenda, take away your guns, destroy the 2nd Amendment, no religion, no anything, hurt the Bible, hurt God. He’s against God. He’s against guns”;
- Trump included Lou Holtz as a Republican Convention speaker. Holtz, a Catholic, declared Biden a “Catholic in name only.” The President of Notre Dame University, where Holtz once coached, said in response: “We Catholics should remind ourselves that while we may judge the objective moral quality of another’s actions, we must never question the sincerity of another’s faith”;
- As noted in detail below, Trump has also been aggressively prejudicial toward Muslims, implying that his Christianity is superior to their faith and beliefs.
As Trump’s penchant being “right” and “winning” has made him show reckless disregard and indifference for the truth. As his history of often frivolous legal battles, PR disputes, and contesting of contracts suggests, he’s not particularly bothered by exaggerating, embellishing, or lying about his own accomplishments while diminishing, misrepresenting, and lying about his adversaries’ beliefs, actions, and accomplishments.
His presidency began with an obvious, self-aggrandizing lie: the claim that the crowd at his inaugural was bigger than Obama’s crown. Never content with the scope of his own achievements, Trump is obsessed with everything he does, being bigger, better, or “more than” others. Trump was irked by (factual) assertions that Obama’s 2009 Inaugural crowd was substantially larger than Trump’s.
The assertion that his inaugural crowd on the National Mall was bigger than Obama’s took on a life of its own. The President lied about it. His Press Secretary, Sean Spicer, lied about it, criticizing the media for its dishonesty. Kellyanne Conway, White House counselor, defended the lies infamously as “alternative facts.” A government photographer cropped official inauguration photos to make them crowd appear larger. His chief of staff even claimed the entire narrative about the small crowd size was meant to “de-legitimize” Trump’s presidency. The cropping, in and of itself, isn’t terribly problematic. As a photographer, I do this all the time. But the deceptive narrative around the cropped photos, then intent to change the facts with a more favorable depiction of the crowd (directly at the President’s request), and the amount of energy spent on it by the new Administration seemed out of proportion to the importance of the issue. And it was a sign of things to come from the Trump Presidency.
That, afterall, is why this whole episode matters. Let’s again refer to Hannah Arendt. In The Origins of Totalitarianism, she wrote of the dangerous mixture of gullibility and cynicism that arise from leaders who constantly lie, exaggerate, “downplay,” or otherwise distort the truth. Constant, often blatant lying desensitizes people to the truth. And when a leader is caught in a lie (or, on rare occasions admits one, as Trump did about the coronavirus outbreak this week), carefully cultivated cynicism provides a convenient refuge for the duplicitous politician. Arendt warned that truth-optional political rhetoric would produce a citizenry that would, at once “believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and nothing was true.”
Savvy manipulators of truth and falsehood, she argued:
How often have we heard Trump’s defenders say, “He didn’t really mean that. He was just making a point. Or trolling the libs”? Or some other such cynical ethical contrivance?
Trump and the Republican Party have also been particularly susceptible to conspiracy theories ranging from “birtherism” (claiming Obama isn’t a U.S. citizen) to voter fraud to anti-wind paranoia55Trump has claimed the noise from windmills causes cancer. to Pizzagate to the “deep state” to QAnon. And the use of alternative facts persists. When asked about the President’s assertion that, contrary to fact, coronavirus death rates in the United States are lower than elsewhere in the world, the White House Press Secretary essentially said: “I’m giving you the numbers that we believe are indicative of where we stand.”
When truth is relative and changeable, nothing is true.
Trump has played fast and loose with the truth throughout his presidency. Sure, every president, and every politician for that matter, stretches the truth. But Trump has shown a remarkable lack of concern for it. He also has a tendency to tell the same lies over and over, embellishing and exaggerating them along the way. Some notable examples:
- When Trump latches onto a favorite lie, he runs with it, over and over and over again. Case in point? He has lied about his role in passing the Veterans Choice Act one hundred and fifty times. He has claimed he was finally the one who got it done after 50 years (or was it 44 years?) of failed attempts by previous presidents. He repeated his false claims about the legislation as recently as August 9th of this year. He said:
The only problem with this story? It’s a complete fabrication. Veterans choice was a bipartisan initiative that passed and signed into law in 2014 by President Obama. The bill’s Senate sponsor was John McCain, hardly one of the President’s favorite people. Trump did sign the VA Mission Act into law in 2018, which expanded veterans’ choice, providing access to a private doctor if their wait is longer than 20 days or if their drive time would be more than 30 minutes. But that is not the legislation Trump so frequently touts and takes credit for. When a reporter recently called him out his inaccurate claim, he abruptly ended the press conference and walked out (see video here).
- Trump has repeatedly and dubiously claimed that he “always” supports the pre-existing conditions clause of Obama’s Affordable Care Act (the ACA). But he wants to do so without giving Obama credit. So he has said he’ll issue an Executive Order requiring health insurance companies to cover them. Even though the ACA already does that. And the Trump Administration continues to wage legal battles to strike down the ACA (after failing to do so through the legislative process). If the Administration succeeds, protections for preexisting conditions will be wiped out as well;
- The Trump Administration continues to argue that the ACA’s “individual mandate” (the requirement that everyone care at least basic health insurance) is a socialist, anti-choice mandate. The idea, however, was born out of conservative think-tank policy research at the Heritage Foundation. Trump and Republicans didn’t call it “socialism” until Democrats included it in the ACA;
- Trump has repeatedly lied about “giving” the military its first raise in 10 years. (Let’s set aside the fact that the President can’t single-handedly increase military spending.) This is categorically false. It is not possible that Trump is just mistaken or made a “slip of the tongue.” He’s repeated this lie multiple times. In a speech to soldiers in Iraq in 2018, he said, “ You haven’t gotten [a raise] in more than ten years. More than ten years. And we got you a big one. I got you a big one. … plenty of people … came up and said, you know, we can make it smaller. … I said no. Make it ten percent. Make it more than ten percent. Because it’s been a long time.” Military personnel have received annual pay increases every year for at least 30 years running. And the increase in 2018 was nowhere near 10%—it was 2.4%;
- President Trump has repeatedly claimed that the military was under-funded and in shambles before his election. He has falsely claimed, on multiple occasions, that military cash was so low that they ran out of ammunition. In an ever-evolving story, he quotes “a top general” as apologizing that they’re out of ammo, so could he please delay going to war. This is categorically false. In his speech at the Republican Convention, Trump again lied about Obama and Biden’s military budgets, falsely claiming that Biden “slashed defense spending.” In reality, military spending was $816 billion more during the Obama Administration than it was during the Bush presidency (both served for eight years). Military spending has increased during Trump’s presidency, but reality doesn’t align with the story he likes to tell. Congressional Republicans, in a rare show of opposition to Trump, challenged the Administration’s proposed military spending cuts in the 2020 budget;
- Trump falsely claimed that the Indian Prime Minister asked him to help mediate the conflict between Pakistan and India in Kashmir. The lie was immediately and unequivocally refuted by the Indian government;
- Trump has repeatedly misconstrued and lied about Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran. He frequently retells the lie that Obama “gave” Iran $150 billion. Instead, Obama’s deal (agreed to in partnership with numerous allies) lifted sanctions on Iran, giving it access to its own money (~$150 billion) that had been frozen in western bank accounts. (And Trump is still casting about trying to figure out something better);
- One of the President’s new favorite lies is that Joe Biden wants to “defund the police.” He’s recently made the claim even more extreme, asserting that Biden wants to “eliminate our police.” He’s even made a highly inflammatory ad intended to scare old people. But his claim about Biden is untrue;
- Trump cannot let go of the fact that he lost the popular vote. This is, in my opinion, one of the reasons he’s so adamant about the prevalence of voter fraud. If millions of people voted “illegally,” that would explain why Hillary Clinton got more popular votes than he did. It’s why he persistently lies about the magnitude of his electoral victory56When confronted with the fact that multiple Republicans and Democrats have won more electoral votes than him since Reagan, contrary to his oft-repeated brag, he shifted the blame: “I was given that information. I don’t know. I was just given it. We had a very, very big margin.” and about losing the popular vote;
- Again, while I will address Russia in a separate essay, Trump refuses to admit—lies about—Russia’s interference in the 2016 election and continued efforts to influence the 2020 election in his favor. This is, I believe, because he cannot possibly admit that he didn’t win on his own, fair and square;
- Trump frequently brags that his daughter Ivanka has “created over 15 million jobs” (or “gotten jobs for” a similar number of people. This is, at best, a misconstrual and exaggeration of reality. Ivanga has done a fantastic job getting companies to commit to providing training opportunities, at many as 6.5 million. But training opportunities are not new jobs. And 6.5 million is < 15 million. This is a lie akin to the sort Trump is used to telling to embellish the height or acreage of his properties. It is readily falsifiable and self-aggrandizing;
- In his ongoing vendetta against law enforcement officials who were simply doing their jobs, Trump continues to slander and lie about Andrew McCabe. This tweet (below) is particularly impressive as it contains four lies in one sentence. First, McCabe didn’t receive any of the money donated to his wife’s unsuccessful Senate campaign in 2015. It is not legal for family members to receive or use campaign funds and there is no evidence that Andrew McCabe ever did any thing of the sort. Second, the contributions were completely legal. Third, the contributions were not made by Hillary Clinton. The Justice Department inspector general concluded that, “there is no evidence that Hillary Clinton provided political support or financial support for Dr. McCabe’s 2015 senate campaign.” Finally, McCabe was not “head of the FBI” during his wife’s campaign or during the time of the initial investigation of Hillary Clinton’s investigation. He didn’t have a supervisory role over the Clinton investigation until February of 2016 when he became Deputy Director of the FBI—after the donations were made and after his wife had lost the election. McCabe served as Acting Director of the FBI for three months in 2017.
The lies I’ve catalogued here are the tip of the iceberg. Trump has distorted the truth or outright lied more than 20,000 times since swearing an oath to defend the Constitution of the United States of America. These lies, particularly in their totality, are not simply innocent or inconsequently self-promotional. They paint a false picture of the President, his family, and aides as more effective than they actually are. In an election year, he has given many the false impression that he has achieved far more and is responsible for far more than he actually is. And the volume of his lies make it overwhelming and exhausting to keep up with.
The Single, Trustable Source of Truth? Trump
At the same time that he tells these and other lies (over and over again), Trump portrays himself as the smartest, most trustable go-to sources of truth about virtually everything. When someone challenges him, he simply asserts that he knows more about the subject than anyone else.
- “I know more about ISIS than the generals do.”
- “I know more about courts than any human being on Earth.”
- “Nobody knows more about trade than me.”
- “I know more about renewables than any human being on Earth.”
- “I understand money better than anybody.”
- “I think I know about [the economy] better than” the Federal Reserve.
- “Technology — nobody knows more about technology than me.”
- Explaining why he doesn’t need daily intelligence briefings: “I’m, like, a smart person. I don’t have to be told the same thing in the same words every single day for the next eight years.”
He’s also publicly or stated multiple times that he’s smarter than the Federal Reserve Chair. He most recently called the Fed a “stubborn child” that ““doesn’t know what it is doing.” While not responding directly to the President’s criticism that the Fed didn’t lower interest rates, Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell reiterated the importance of the Fed’s independence:
This fracas between the President and the Chairman of the Fed is yet another example of the President’s penchant for insisting he knows better than the experts who are in positions to gather and analyze data and make recommendations and, as in this case, independent decisions. Trump famously relies on his “instincts,” trusting them more than the experience, expertise, and data presented by those who should be his trusted advisors.
This isn’t just a matter of differences of opinion. The United States of America has complex, high-stakes dealings with nations, actors, and issues across the globe on a daily basis. The collective intelligence community provides the President with intelligence briefings and analyses to inform and guide presidential decision-making. Numerous intelligence agency personnel have reported that Trump regularly displays “willful ignorance” in response to these reports. They have struggled to get and keep the President’s attention, resorting to visual aids, dumbing briefings down to one or two sentences, and repeating his name and title to keep him focused. All to no avail. Beyond simply being dismissive, Trump is angered when presented with information that runs contrary to his opinions, the way he wants to see the world, and—worst of all—when his public pronouncements are contradicted:
- Intelligence analysts have been warned not to present Trump with information that contradicts positions he has taken in public;
- According to former Deputy Director of Intelligence Susan Gordon (whom Trump fired), the President frequently responded to intelligence briefings with “I don’t think that’s true” and “I’m not sure I believe that” (as if his opinions somehow carried as much weight as the careful, detailed intelligence gathering and analysis of dozens of professionals tasked with making him smarter about the world);
- When the entire intelligence community asserted that Russia had deliberately interfered in the 2016 election to aid Donald Trump, Trump called them “sleazbag [sic] political operatives”;
- In response to intelligence reports about Iran the President didn’t like, he called them “passive and naive” and tweeted that they should “go back to school”;
- Professionals working in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), the entity with the closest, regular contact with the President, have been regularly questioned on their conclusions, forced to justify or defend their analyses, and compelled to reassure Trump that they are loyal to him;
- After vindictively revoking his security clearance, Trump called former CIA Director John Brennan a “loudmouth, partisan, political hack who cannot be trusted with the secrets of our country.”
Ironically, the President was once critical of previous presidents for ignoring or countermanding their expert advisors. Trump is essentially pressuring his intelligence advisors to provide him with information that supports his preconceived notions. No wonder he was skeptical and dismissive of early reports about the COVID-19 threat (more on this later).
Put this in the context of groupthink. When a leader sets himself up as the single source of truth and berates and punishes anyone who is not loyal to him, that leader’s group is deeply grounded in groupthink. Alternative points of view are rejected out of hand. People who believe or assert or vote differently are belittled and ostracized. There is never a benefit of the doubt extended that the opposition has just as much claim on moral judgments as the leader and his party. This is dangerous territory.
Demonizing the "Other"
For Trump, it’s not enough to say he disagrees with Democrats or to enumerate his policy differences with them. He will not concede that they love this country as much as he does. He will not admit that their intentions are good even when he disagrees with them. He refuses even to call them by their proper name, calling them the “Democrat Party,” denying them even that courtesy. He castigates, excoriates, and demonizes:
- Trump called Democrats “un-American” because they didn’t clap for him during his State of the Union Address. When someone in the crowd called out “treasonous,” Trump said, “Can we call that ‘treason’? Yeah, why not? … They certainly didn’t seem to love our country very much”;
- Trump spread the widely disproven lie that Biden and the Democratic National Committee removed “God” from the Pledge of Allegiance;
- Trump retweeted a “Cowboys for Trump” video that declares, “the only good Democrat is a dead Democrat”;
- Trump only invited the two Republican Jewish Members of Congress (excluding the 28 Democrats in Congress who are Jewish) to the White House Hanukkah Party (a traditionally bipartisan event). He also excluded virtually every Jewish community leader who has been critical of his policies;
- He routinely excludes Democrats from White House bill-signing events, also a traditionally bipartisan affair, particularly for bills that require significant bipartisan collaboration and cooperation. He even excluded the lead author of last year’s 9/11 funding bill (who happened to be a Democrat from New York);
- Trump skipped the bipartisan St. Patrick’s Day luncheon on Capitol Hill this year because, in the words of a White House spokesman, “the speaker has chosen to tear this nation apart with her actions and her rhetoric”;
- While I will reserve most of my comments about Trump’s impeachment for a separate essay, it must be stated here that Trump has repeatedly criticized and ridiculed the entire impeachment process and his trial in the Senate as a “partisan witch hunt.” He has even called it “treason.” As much as he might disagree with the premises for his impeachment, members of the House of Representatives were acting decidedly within the bounds of their legitimate, constitutional authority throughout the process. To call their actions treason is to challenge the validity of the Constitution itself. It is yet another example of Trump asserting that he, and he alone, is the arbiter of what is just, right, and constitutional.
- Trump’s us-versus-them mentality pervades everything he does. In a frequent, blatant disregard for the separation of official government communications and those of the President’s political campaign, Trump and his aides regularly make political statements in their official governmental capacities and using official White House channels. In response to the Mueller Report’s conclusions, the official @WhiteHouse Twitter account posted a quote from the President declaring that “The crime was committed on the OTHER SIDE.”
President Trump, as titular head of the Republican Party, has readily taken credit for the party’s resurgence. In his research for the book American Carnage, Trump told author Tim Alberta conducted numerous on-the-record interviews with Trump and others. Describing the state of the Republican Party with Trump at its head, the newly-elected President observed:
That line sums up the new Republican Party, the Party of Donald Trump. In his view, there are no real Republicans who do not support him fully and completely. Trump is particularly disdainful toward Republicans who did not support his candidacy and continue to oppose him after his election, the so-called “Never Trumpers.”58I am more than comfortable being included in this category. I formally disavowed the Republican Party the moment it nominated Trump. That wasn’t the only reason—it was the proverbial straw on the swaying, dipping camel’s back. The Party has grown increasingly strident and us-versus-them over the past 30 years. Trump didn’t cause that to happen. He merely took advantage of it and extended it to its natural conclusion. Trump has called “Never Trumper Republicans” worse (in “certain ways”) than Democrats, declaring them “human scum.”
Even before Trump’s ascension, there was a growing groupthink-like tendency in the Republican Party toward ideological purity, with those not toeing the line deemed “Republicans in name only” or RINOs. This troubling trend implied that a subset of Republicans (it was never clear which ones) had the authority and right to decide what it meant to be a “real” Republican and to castigate those who did not measure up. I saw troubling signs of this in the early 2000s at Utah State Republican Conventions when Orrin Hatch (and the elder statesmen nominating him) were lustily booed for not be conservative enough.
When the now infamous 2005 Access Hollywood tape emerged, numerous Republicans (most of them temporarily, it turned out) left Trump’s side. If you’re still reading, I want you to read Trump’s words again, unflinchingly. In hot mic conversation with Billy Bush, the future President of the United States bemoaned his failed attempt to seduce Nancy O’Dell, the Access Hollywood co-host:
Later, referring to Arianne Zucker, whom they were waiting to meet, Trump said:
Mortified, future Vice President Mike Pence and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan backed out of a campaign appearance with Trump. Numerous Republicans went on record withdrawing their support for Trump’s presidential bid. Senior party leaders reportedly began a move to replace Trump on the ballot with Mike Pence. But Trump went on the offensive. He held a press conference with four women who have accused Bill Clinton of sexual assault and harassment.59A particularly brash move given the 26 women who have accused Trump of sexual misconduct. He ratcheted up his attacks on Hillary Clinton. In a stunning turnaround, Ben Carson (his future HUD Secretary), downplayed Trump’s remarks, comparing them to rap lyrics. Trump apologized for not being a “perfect man” and asserted he had never actually assaulted anyone. Trump called his lewd remarks “locker room talk.”
Republicans’ shared fears of a Hillary Clinton appeared to change their minds, if not hearts. The RNC announced it would stand by Trump. And many Evangelical leaders announced that they would support him due to other, more important, “shared values.” Sensing the tide had turned, Trump consolidated support and command of the Republican Party. He called Speaker Ryan “disloyal” for not supporting him. He called “Disloyal R’s” worse than “Crooked Hillary.” Declaring that “they don’t know how to win,” Trump declared, “I will teach them.”
Trump, of course, did just that. After his election, most Republicans in Congress, even if a bit reluctantly, got in line behind their new Party leader. Some have become his most ardent supporters. Lindsay Graham, who excoriated Trump during the campaign, has become one of his fiercest champions. But those who continue to oppose him, even on random votes here and there, have drawn his wrath. Most notably, Sen. John McCain, even in death, has been the recipient of relentless scorn and ridicule from Trump (as detailed above). And what was McCain’s sin? Among other things, casting the deciding vote against Trump’s signature legislative initiative, the undoing of the Affordable Care Act. Scuttling what could have been a powerful alliance with a senior, savvy Republican Senator, Trump allowed personal animus to carry the day. Trump would later accuse McCain of leaking60 the so-called “Steele Dossier” that was at the heart of the Russia investigation. He saw McCain not as a potential ally, but as someone less than completely loyal and, therefore, “disgraceful,” a RINO and worse.
Now the Republican Party is thoroughly Trump’s Party. Members must be loyal to him above all else. Anyone who is not earns his swift condemnation. The culmination of Trump’s grip on the Party came in 2020 when, instead of debating a crafting a new platform, the Party leadership, by fiat, declared that the Platform Committee, should it have convened, would have “undoubtedly unanimously agreed to reassert the Party’s strong support for President Donald Trump and his Administration.” Therefore, instead of discussing, debating, or adopting a 2020 platform, the RNC simply declared that the Party would “continue to enthusiastically support the President’s America-first agenda.”
Never before has an American political party defined its entire platform as simply supporting one man and his agenda.
“A Race-Baiting, Xenophobic, Religious Bigot”
As the leader of the Republican Party, Trump has drawn stark lines between the “us” of the GOP and the “them” of everyone else. While Trump and the RNC heralded Trump’s “America-first” mindset, his literal-flag-hugging, uncritical, Make-and-or-Keep-America-Great brand of patriotism has been more about dividing the country than uniting it. As noted above, he has implied and sometimes explicitly stated that Republicans (the loyal ones anyway) are the real patriots who love America. The Democrats and Democratic leaders, in Trump’s view, aren’t patriotic and even hate America and want to tear it down.
Another warning from Washington’s address was particularly prescient with regard to Trump’s presidency and “America first” rhetoric. Washington explicitly warned us to “distrust the patriotism of those who in any quarter may endeavor to weaken” the bands of unity in our nation. Washington even foresaw that excessive divisiveness would yield “ill-founded jealousies and false alarms … animosity of one part against another … [and] occasionally riot and insurrection.”
Trump, in my judgment, has been just such a man, willing to “weaken the bands of unity” in our nation to burnish his own political brand. While running for president, Trump proposed a complete ban on Muslim immigration. He was, at least at the time, met with unanimous opposition from his presidential primary opponents and Republican leaders in Congress. Sen. Graham, still running against him at the time, said he was “disgusted” by Trump’s proposal. Graham candidly observed:
Graham said the “dirty little secret” of American political history is that there’s’ alway an underlying appetite for bigotry and the politics of exclusion. But a presidential candidate should not go there. They should “bring us together.” Graham concluded:
Black Americans, Colin Kaepernick, and #BLM
From the moment Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the National Anthem before an NFL game, Trump took it upon himself to be the sole arbiter of what qualifies as patriotism and what kinds of protests are acceptable.
Never mind that Kaepernick conceived of the idea of kneeling in conversation with a former Navy Seal who thought it would be a measured, balanced form of protest. Never mind that Kaepernick’s initial protest was in immediate response to revelations of systemic racism and prejudice in the San Francisco police department (Kaepernick was a member of the San Francisco 49ers at the time). And never mind that numerous veterans61Josh, the retired Marine pictured above, is a good friend and one of my former students. This quote is from a longer post he shared on Facebook. Here’s the quote from the image in text format: “I stand for the flag because I stand for its ideals; the same ideals for which Colin laments when he kneels. I respect those who kneel as much as I appreciate those who stand because I know, in nearly every case, we all seek to honor and recognize the ideals that we hope the flag represents even if the practices of the institutions under which the flag flies don’t always measure up.” have not only defended Kaepernick’s right to protest as he did, but also expressed support for him doing so and the message he was attempting to send.
Trump decided—and loudly, repeatedly trumpeted his judgement—that Kaepernick and any other player who similarly protested is disloyal to America, unpatriotic, and a “son of b****” who should be fired by their team’s owners.
In all of this, I believe Trump and others have placed far too much emphasis on the pageantry and outward, symbolic expressions of patriotism over the hard, often uncomfortable work of making our country a better place. And that includes dealing with our legacy and current culture of prejudice and racism. But President Trump makes no such allowances. On the contrary, he has been dismissive of the concerns of Black Americans about police violence and systemic racism. In one of his conversations with Bob Woodward, Trump was asked: “Do you have any sense that that privilege has isolated and put you in a cave to a certain extent as it put me and I think lots of white privileged people in a cave and that we have to work our way out of it to understand the anger and the pain particularly Black people feel in this country? “
Trump’s response: “No. You really drank the Kool-Aid, didn’t you? Just listen to you. Wow. No, I don’t feel that at all.”
The “Kool-Aid” he’s referring to is, at least in part, a shift in history, social science, and civics education to deal more directly, comprehensively, and honestly with our country’s past, the good, the bad, and the ugly. It has taken some a shockingly long time to embrace objective reality when it comes to what we teach kids in school. The State of Texas curriculum was finally updated in 2018 to assert that slavery was the primary cause of the Civil War. This scholarly, truth-based approach to education has rankled some who prefer a more sanitized, “patriotic” approach. Trump this month established a national commission to promote “patriotic education,” one that, among other things, doesn’t commit “child abuse” by teaching students about the realities and consequences of slavery and racism in America.
Trump has long been unsympathetic toward Black defendants, Black victims of police violence, and now Black Lives Matter protesters. He’s been particularly hostile toward Black politicians:
- Long before he ran for President, Trump waged a mob-justice campaign against five Black and Hispanic young men. All five were wrongfully convicted and later exonerated when the actual perpetrator of the horrific crimes confessed. Trump has refused to apologize for his role in the rush to justice that sent innocent men to prison;
- Trump called painting “Black Lives Matter” on Fifth Avenue in New York City a “symbol of hate”;
- He has equated the phrase “Black Lives Matter” with the Confederate flag;
- Trump falsely attributed a quote about “burning down the system” to a Black Live Matter “leader” (the poster is a gadfly who has hijacked the name of the organization for his own benefit;
- Trump called Elijah Cummings, a sitting Member of Congress and giant of the Civil Rights Movement, a “racist” while also calling Cummings’ Baltimore congressional district “a disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess,” one of the “worst run62Mick Mulvaney, President Trump’s Chief of Staff previously represented South Carolina’s 5th District. Mulvaney said that if he had “poverty in his district like they have in Baltimore” and was spending all of his time in Washington investigating the President, he would be fired. 14% of Mulvaney’s former constituents live below the poverty line, compared with 14.8% in Cumming’s old district. Mulvaney claimed that Trump’s criticism of Cummings and Baltimore had nothing to do with race. and most dangerous” in the country and that “no human being would want to live there.” He further implied that Cummings (or others) are stealing funding sent to help his district: “Where is all the money going? How much is stolen?” This from a President who urged then-President Obama in 2015 to “go to Baltimore and bring both sides together. With proper leadership it can be done!” Trump boasted that he would “fix it fast,” unlike our “great African American President” who hasn’t “had a positive impact on the thugs” who are “destroying Baltimore”;
- Cummings, who has since passed away, says in a posthumous biography that he endured “pure pain” through repeated Twitter attacks from the man he initially wanted to trust.
- Trump also criticized John Lewis, another Civil Rights Movement scion, for not attending his inauguration. He also downplayed his accomplishments on behalf of Black Americans. Trump was the only living current or former President who did not participate in Lewis’s funeral.63Jimmy Carter, now 95 and not traveling due to health concerns, sent a letter to be read at the memorial.
Muslims, Muslim Americans, and “Sh**hole Countries”
Trump has saved his most vitriolic abuse for Democratic women of color, particularly those who happen to be Muslim. In a caustic series of tweets, Trump excoriated Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (NY-14), Rep. Ilhan Omar (MN-5), Rep. Rashida Tlaib (MI-13), and Rep. Ayanna Pressley (MA-7) for being “loud” and “vicious” progressives. He said they should “go back” to the “crime infested” countries they “originally came from” and fix the problems there before complaining about things in the United States.
There are several problems with Trump’s xenophobic rant. First, all four of these women are citizens of the United States of America. Not that it matters, but three of the four are natural born citizens. (Rep. Omar immigrated from Somalia with her family when she was 15. She became a citizen when she was 17. Again, not that it matters regarding the legitimacy of her membership in the United States Congress, but she has been a citizen of this country longer than the First Lady.) To imply that they are “from” another country, presumably because they are brown-skinned) and to say they should “go back” is blatantly racist and xenophobic.64The House of Representatives passed a resolution condemning Trump’s attacks. It passed 240-187 (four Republicans cast “aye” votes).
Moreover, these four women ran for office in 2018 and were duly, legally elected by their constituents (with an average of 85% of the vote) to represent a combined total of ~2.5 million constituents. They have just as much constitutional right and legitimacy to their citizenship and their offices as does Donald Trump. Because he disagrees with them and, perhaps, because they are women who do not look like him, he calls them names, questions their citizenship, and tells them to “go back.” Trump ridiculed Rep. Omar then stood silently while a raucous crowd chanted, “Send her back!”
In a stunning departure from his passionate rebuke of Trump during the campaign, Senator Graham now applies a loyalty-to-Trump test for immigrants: “If you’re a Somali refugee wearing a MAGA hat, he doesn’t want to send you back. You’ll probably have dinner at the White House” (yes, he actually said that).
Other examples of his anti-Muslim, anti-Black “race-baiting” include:
- Trump has long implied that Obama is a Muslim (not that that’s bad, mind you). In a radio interview in 2011, he said that if Obama does have a U.S. birth certificate, “where it says ‘religion,’ it might have ‘Muslim’ (nevermind that birth certificates generally do not state a child’s religion). He’s also accused Obama of failing to defend Christians and their religious liberties. Trump tweeted in 2015 that “Christians need support in our country (and around the world), their religious liberty is at stake! Obama has been horrible, I will be great”;
- In a 2018 Oval Office meeting with congressional leaders about immigration, the topic of visas for immigrants from underrepresented African countries and Haiti was discussed. The President asked, “Why do we want all these people from ‘sh**hole countries’ coming here?”;
- After Hurricane Maria in 2018, Trump wanted to explore selling Puerto Rico or swapping it for Greenland. In the conversation, he called Puerto Rico “dirty” and the people “poor”;
- At a campaign event, Trump failed to correct a questioner’s assertion that Obama is a Muslim and not an American citizen. The same questioner asked: “We have training camps growing where [Muslims] want to kill us. That’s my question. When can we get rid of them?” Trump replied: “We are going to be looking at a lot of different things. A lot of people are saying that and a lot of people are saying that bad things are happening out there. We’re going to be looking at that and plenty of other things”;
- Trump pledged to kick all Syrian refugees out of the country saying, “They could be ISIS, I don’t know. This could be one of the great tactical ploys of all time”;
- Trump said (on at least two occasions) he would “certainly look at” the possibility of closing Mosques in the United States. He also would not rule out the possibility of creating a national database65I am very cautious about making comparisons between Trump’s policies and those of Nazi Germany. But a national database of people based solely on their religious background should be immediately repugnant to anyone who hears it. That is the beginning of anti-religious tyranny. of all Muslims in the United States;
- Trump has repeatedly asserted that Muslims do not love—and actually hate—America;
- One of his favorite “tough-on-terrorists” stories is an urban legend about General Pershing dipping bullets in pigs blood to send a message to “Islamo-terrorists.” The problem, though, is that there is no evidence whatsoever that Pershing actually did such a thing;
- The weeks and months after 9/11 were, perhaps, the most unified time in recent American history. The tragedy brought us together as a nation. But Donald Trump, true to form, saw an opportunity to sow division, spreading a thoroughly debunked story about “Arabs.” Of the 9/11 attacks in New York, Trump said:
When confronted by a reporter and told that police officers who investigated the rumor said that it didn’t happen, Trump said he saw it on TV. He said it happened in New Jersey where “you have large Arab populations.” Despite exhaustive searches, there is no footage to be found like that Trump describes seeing. But he was insistent in his fabrication, even though, as he said, it “might not be politically correct” to tell such as story about an area with “a heaavy Arab population.”
- Trump grotesquely distorted a comment by Muslim Member of Congress Ilhan Omar (MN-5) and implied that she trivialized the 9/11 attacks. Shortly after the tragic mosque attack in New Zealand, Rep. Omar gave a speech at a Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) banquet. In her remarks about Islam, religious equality, and civil rights in American, she said:
While perhaps an inartful turn of phrase, this is a clearly benign comment relative to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. But a few conservatives shamelessly seized on four words from her speech: “Some people did something.” Repeated out of context, they appeared to be a trivialization of 9/11.
President Trump tweeted a video with those four words repeated over footage of the World Trade Center towers and Pentagon burning. Trump also falsely, distortedly quotes Omar as saying, “When I think of al Qaeda, I can hold my chest out.” This is a gross distortion of what she actually said.
- Trump repeatedly stated his unconstitutional intent to implement a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” He said Muslims are “sick people,” we don’t know if we can trust them, and “this is a war”;
- Trump berated Rep. Rashida Tlaib, one of two Muslim women in Congress. In a speech full of references to illegal voting, Trump said Tlaib is “vicious .. She’s like a crazed lunatic. Who elected her?”66Her constituents did, giving her 84.2% of their votes in 2018.
The Not-So-Pro-Military Commander-in-Chief
While Trump likes to tout himself as the most pro-military Commander-in-Chief, well, ever, his words and actions paint a striking different picture. At least as far back as his avoidance of service in Vietnam, Trump has demonstrated his antipathy toward and misunderstanding of military service. On the Howard Stern show, Trump once compared the dangers of having frequent sex and avoiding STDs in the 90s to the dangers of serving in Vietnam. “It’s amazing,” he said, “I can’t even believe it. I’ve been so lucky in terms of that whole world, it is a dangerous world out there. It’s like Vietnam, sort of. It is my personal Vietnam. I feel like a great and very brave soldier.” Stern told Trump that he was braver than “any Vietnam vet because [he’s] out their screwing a lot of women.” Trump’s reply: “Getting the Congressional Medal of Honor, in actuality.” It should not be surprising, then, that he often expresses dismay about why people would serve, why they would put their lives on the line for their country.
Losers and Suckers
In 2015, then candidate Trump called Senator John McCain a “loser” and questioned his war hero status because he had been captured. Trump doubled-down on this assessment in repeated follow-up interviews and speeches. He even retweeted (screen capture below) a story that lauded him for calling McCain a loser.
In early September, a stunning story broke in The Atlantic, the product of Jeffrey Goldberg, one of the most respected investigative journalists in the business. Citing multiple, high-level, anonymous sources,67Anonymous sourcing has long been a critical aspect of investigative journalism. Trump’s White House itself frequently provides anonymous comments, asking that they be attributed as “senior administration officials” (or something similar). Goldberg reported that Trump had complained about having to attend a second ceremony at a second cemetery on a blustery day. Because he was worried his hair would get wet. He obscenely called the World War I veterans being honored “losers” and “suckers.” The same story reported that Trump, upon seeing the flags lowered to half-mast after McCain’s death, asked: “What the f*** are we doing that for? Guy was a f***ing loser.”
While the President and others have denied the story, all or parts of it have been confirmed (and even expanded upon) by the Associated Press, the Washington Post, the New York Times, and Fox News. There were also credible reports at the time (and more recently) confirming Trump’s antipathy for McCain, only agreeing to accord McCain full military honors in the face of bipartisan pressure.
One “current senior administration official” (identified as such by White House request) observed: “The president means no disrespect to our troops; it’s just that the way he speaks, he can sound like an a**hole sometimes … That’s how he is [when the cameras are off]… It’s his style.” This sentiment is much like the frequent Facebook defense of Trump: “We elected a President, not a Sunday school teacher.”
In addition to these recent revelations, Trump has criticized military leaders and ridiculed and dismissed veterans and their parents:
- While Trump is fond of (falsely) bragging about “rebuilding” the military and wearing military jackets and ballcaps, he has largely avoided actually visiting soldiers abroad. For nearly two years, he was just too busy. His first visit to troops on the front lines was a trip to Iraq in December 2018 (coincidentally or not, shortly after a raft of editorials about Trump’s notable failure to do so). He again visited the troops in Afghanistan in November 2019. He also met with troops in the DMZ during his visit to North and South Korea in 2019;
- Trump called top military officials “losers” and “a bunch of dopes and babies.” He has also accused military leadership of advocating war “so that all of those wonderful companies that make the bombs and make the planes and make everything else stay happy”;
- Trump has been particularly vitriolic toward retired military leaders who have dared show support for Hillary Clinton or other Democrats. Of retired Admiral William McRaven, who was behind the operation that killed Osama Bin Laden, Trump said: “He’s a Hillary Clinton backer and an Obama backer. And frankly, wouldn’t it have been nice if we got Osama bin Laden a lot sooner than that?” As if the man’s political preferences completely undid any service he had provided for his country;
- Trump has repeatedly disparaged senior military officers, on one occasion declaring, “My f***ing generals are a bunch of pussies” who “care more about their alliances than they do about trade deals”;
- President Trump dismissively told one soldier’s widow that her husband “knew what he signed up for.” Trump then disputed the widow’s claim (backed by her mother-in-law, who was present for the conversation), blaming the story on a fabrication by a “Democrat Congresswoman.” The soldier’s wife was incensed that Trump would further politicize the death of her husband;
- In the days after this controversy, the President asserted that, unlike previous presidents, he had called “virtually” all of the families of fallen service members during his presidency. Both of these statements were false. As it became apparent that numerous families had not even received letters, the White House “rush delivered” a backlog of letters, many of them months after their family members had been killed in action;
- Trump has only traveled to Dover Air Force Base, the traditional return point for fallen soldiers, to pay his respects four times during his presidency. The last time he did so was in 2017, on occasion during which the father of a Navy Seal berated Trump for approving a disastrous raid in Yemen (which the father believed was ill-advised). A White House aide revealed that Trump was “so rattled” by the criticism that he didn’t return to Dover for nearly two years. There have been 96 such “dignified transfers” during Trump’s time in office, formally returning the remains of 127 Americans killed overseas.
Trump has consistently overstated his participation in these sacred events. At an August 2020 press briefing, the President declared: “I greet men and women coming home, and coming home after they’ve been hit. I’ve also greeted many, many at Dover — greeted many bodies coming back in.” Ivanka Trump, the President’s daughter and one of his most trusted advisors, doubled down on this misleading assertion at the Republican National Convention: “I’ve stood by my father’s side at Dover Air Force Base as he’s received our fallen heroes, and each time it has steeled his resolve to finally stop ― finally stop, the endless foreign wars.” In truth, she’s accompanied her father two out of the four times he’s been in attendance at the ceremony.
But Trump’s divisiveness, his vulgarity, his name-calling, and his self-aggrandizement are not just the behaviors of a “salty sailor” (as some of his supporters fashion him). They drive deep wedges into an already fractured body politic. They disunite our republic.
So it shouldn’t be surprising that 489 retired Generals, Admirals, senior Noncommissioned Officers (NCOs), Ambassadors, and senior national security officials have endorsed Joe Biden. They want someone in the Oval Office who respects the military and will listen to their advice.
Divisiveness and Policy Making
Not unexpectedly, the President’s unrelenting us-versus-them worldview directly impacts the way he thinks about and approaches policy making.
The Politicization of a Pandemic
The past two weeks have brought revelations that the President was explicitly warned in early February—and clearly understood—that COVID-19 was ~5 times as lethal as the ordinary flu. And he knew it was transmitted through the air. However, in mid-March, he admitted that he explicitly chose to “play it down” (repeatedly) to avoid causing a “panic.”68Trump’s desire to prevent panic might ring more true if he hadn’t deliberately stoked panic about an immigrant “caravan” full of terrorists, gang members, rapists, and murderers. He called coronavirus the Democrats’ “new hoax.” Given the range of options available to him, Trump chose to inject his unique brand of hyperpartisanship69His public skepticism (“cheerleading”) about the virus’s seriousness has had its impact on the public. In a July Pew Research survey, 85% of Democrats agreed that “the coronavirus outbreak is a major threat to the health of the U.S. population as a whole.” Only 46% of Republicans agreed with that judgment. and truth-avoidance into the nation’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak. As noted above, he has repeatedly lied that the Obama Administration left behind no ventilators and left the nation ill-prepared for a pandemic.
And Trump’s refusal to take any sort of prompt, affirmative, decisive action regarding masks, stay-at-home orders, PPE, or testing inarguably worsened and lengthened the impact of the pandemic in the United States. What might have been? Just this month, a nonpartisan government watchdog organization obtained an internal draft document from the USPS that outlined a to distribute 650 million protective masks to every household in America. The plan was to move forward in April. The plan was scrapped, however, due to “concern from some in the White House Domestic Policy Council and the office of the vice president that households receiving masks might create concern or panic.” It is impossible to tell what difference such a decisive move might have made in combatting the pandemic. But it is clear that the Administration followed the President’s lead in “playing it down.”
Asked this week about whether he misled the nation about the severity of the COVID-19 risk, the President responded: “If you said in order to reduce panic, perhaps that’s so.” Trump repeatedly downplayed the seriousness of the threat for months after being warned about how deadly it is.70On February 7th, Trump told Bob Woodward that COVID-19 is “more deadly, this is 5% versus 1%.” On March 4th, he told Hannity that coronavirus mortality rates were closer to the ordinary flu: “I’d say the number is way under 1%.” The editor of Science asserts that the President “flat-out lied, repeatedly, about science to the American people. These lies demoralized the scientific community and cost countless lives in the United States.”
Two weeks ago, the President mocked Biden for enforcing social distancing guidelines at his campaign events (watch video here).
It was also revealed this month that the political appointees (with little to no public health expertise) have interfered with the CDC’s weekly reports, demanding to review them before they’re released, and admonishing CDC officials for releasing information that was counter to the President’s optimistic message for the country. Trump’s appointees and their staff have accused CDC officials of trying to “hurt the President.” Shortly after the Director of the CDC testified before Congress about the importance of wearing masks and expressed caution about the President’s aggressive timeline for a vaccine, Trump contradicted him, saying he “made a mistake” and that he probably “misunderstood the question.” In Trump’s world, he is right because he wants to be. The scientists and the science be damned.
And as largely Democratic governors implemented restrictive orders to slow the spread of COVID-19, called on these leaders to lighten up and “liberate” their states (see below). This certainly had an impact on several states reopening sooner and more aggressively than many other countries around the world. And remember that thing about us-versus-them politics, e.g., separating us by Red and Blue states, can be dangerous? In a recent speech astonishingly declared that the pandemic death toll is “very low … if you take the blue states out.”71In reality, the death rates in some Red states exceed the national average (Mississippi’s mortality rate is 93 per 100,000, compared to 74 nationally). Taken together, the per capita death toll in Red states would rank very poorly on a global basis. Just this past week, Trump continued to “play it down,” asserting that COVID-19 effects “virtually nobody” (other than the “elderly” and those with “other problems.”
A Tale of Two Protests
While there have been significant differences between the coronavirus and BLM protests in terms of violence and property damage, Trump hasn’t suggested any need to meet with and understand more protesters and to “make deals with them.” He even tweeted that several states needed to be “liberated.”
Lumping the vast majority of peaceful protesters together with much smaller numbers who are breaking the law, Trump has simply wanted BLM protesters to go away.
When armed protestors stormed state capitals (image source: Reuters/Seth Herald) shouted in the faces of police officers, hung governors in effigy, took over legislative galleries (prompting state legislators to wear bulletproof vests to work), there wasn’t a peep from the President about “law and order. Instead, he called the protestors “very good people” (echoing his judgment of white supremacist protestors in Charlottesville). 72While recognizing that the nature and duration of the coronavirus-related protests and the BLM protests are objectively different, Trump’s characterization of the two is striking. Had armed BLM protestors stormed a capital building, one can only imagine the kind of vitriol he would have unleashed. Trump was particularly critical of Democratic governors and mayors. He goaded the Democratic Governor of Michigan, saying, “she should give a little, and put out the fire” by relaxing some coronavirus restrictions. He told governors facing coronavirus protesters that they should, “See them, talk to them, make a deal.”
In a recent speech, Trump’s Attorney General William Barr stunningly asserted that: “Putting a national lockdown, stay-at-home orders, is like house arrest. Other than slavery, which was a different kind of restraint, this is the greatest intrusion on civil liberties in American history.”
In contrast, Trump and Barr’s commentary about and reactions to BLM and police-brutality protests has been decidedly less conciliatory, very mind that the vast majority (<90%) of these protests have been peaceful.73A recent report by an international organization that monitors political unrest around the globe found that 93% of BLM protests have been peaceful. Instead of encouraging governors and mayors to “see them, talk to them, make a deal,” Trump’s advice has been to “get tough” and to “dominate the streets.” Trump, working through an illegally-serving74An interesting reality for an administration so big on “law and order.” DHS Secretary, has deployed federal forces that have escalated violence and assaulted peaceful protestors. When a self-declared antifa supporter shot a Trump supporter in Portland, Trump volunteered to send in the National Guard and taunted the Portland Police in a tweet: “Why aren’t the Portland Police ARRESTING the cold blooded killer of Aaron “Jay” Danielson. Do your job, and do it fast. Everybody knows who this thug is. No wonder Portland is going to hell!” Trump posted this almost immediately after before75Trump’s tweet is timestamped 9:40 p.m. ET. Authorities indicated that they attempted to apprehend Michael Reinoehl at about 7:30 p.m. PT. a federal fugitive task force killed the suspect while attempting to take him into custody. Of the suspect’s killing, Trump declared: “This guy was a violent criminal and the U.S. Marshals killed him. And I will tell you something: That’s the way it has to be. There has to be retribution when you have crime like this.” AG Barr said, in a statement, that “the streets of our cities are safer with this violent agitator removed.” And he used the story as a “law and order” applause line at his rallies. Without charges being filed, without an investigation, without a trial, the President and Attorney General of the United States are declaring justice served.
At about the same time, a teenaged, pro-Trump, self-identified militia member shot three protesters in Wisconsin, killing two of them. Far from the “law and order” bravado he expressed about the Portland shooting, Trump jumped to this apparently not-so-cold-blooded-killer’s defense. When asked about whether he supported any sort of protest-related violence or vigilantism, the President asserted that, in this case the shooter “was trying to get away … I guess.. and he fell and then they very violently attacked him… I guess he was in very big trouble. He probably would’ve been killed.” We may never know the particular circumstances around either shooting. Both are tragic. All the more reason it is inappropriate for the President to take sides so explicitly. But it is very much aligned with Trump’s us-versus-them worldview.
Earlier this summer, when two wealthy white homeowners brandished guns at protesters who were peacefully walking by their house, Trump turned them into folk heroes, giving them a speaking spot at the Republican National Convention.
No wonder most Americans believe that Trump’s rhetoric about BLM protests have made things worse:
And now, even after all of this, Trump continues to pretend COVID-19 is not a serious health threat, violating state and local guidelines and restrictions with impunity.
[A note here about federalism. Republicans have generally been the party that at least pays more lip service to states’ rights and the importance of local governance. Trump emphasized this early on in his approach to the coronavirus outbreak, asserting that it was the governors’ responsibilities to manage testing in their states. But in other contexts he insisted that he has absolute authority over the states, maintaining that he could “order” the states to “reopen.” And when it comes to complying with state and local guidelines and even executive orders, he appears to care little for state autonomy and prerogative.]
Undermining Trust in Our Elections
Not only has Trump refused to acknowledge foreign attacks on the sanctity of our elections, he has persistently, with no factual foundation, challenged the validity of our own election processes and outcomes. Just this week, Trump continued to aggressively, baselessly accuse “the other side” of cheating to win the election: “When you see them cheating on the other side. I don’t say if. When. When you see them cheating with those ballots, all of those unsolicited ballots … report ’em to the authorities. The authorities are waiting and watching.”
Broad trust in elections and acceptance of the results is a cornerstone of government by the people. When mistrust grows in electoral process and outcomes, the very fabric of popular sovereignty is undermined. There should absolutely be healthy suspicion and transparency around election funding and campaign practices. But Trump’s fact-free assault on the fidelity of elections in America is self-serving and dangerous.
The only person who benefits from Trump’s often ludicrous, persistent broadsides against U.S. elections is … Donald Trump. By sowing doubt about election data and results, he can claim he won by more than he did. And he can build a preemptive defense in the event he loses in November. And that is exactly what he is doing:
- He has repeatedly claimed, with absolutely zero evidence, that there were “millions of people voted illegally” in the 2016 presidential election. He is fixated on the fact that he lost the popular vote and challenges the validity of that loss any chance he gets, maintaining that he actually won If you take away all of those “illegal” votes. (Voter fraud on that scale would literally require thousands of local election officials to be complicit or to at least look the other way. This claim defies any modicum of logic.);
- Trump frequently claims that U.S. elections are a “rigged deal” based on his false assertion that undocumented immigrants can vote. And not only do they vote, he declares—without citing a single documented instance—that “illegal” voters “vote many times, not just twice, not just three times … They vote — it’s like a circle. They come back; they put a new hat on. They come back; they put a new shirt. And in many cases, they don’t even do that. You know what’s going on.” There is no evidence that this has ever happened;
- Trump not only claims there were between 3 and 5 million illegal votes cast in the 2016 election, but he also improbably maintains that none of those votes were for him. “Those were HIllary votes. And if you look at it they all voted for Hillary. They all voted for Hillary. They didn’t vote for me. I don’t believe I got one”;
- Shortly after his election, Trump established a commission to investigate voter fraud. The commission ultimately collapsed as commission members found no evidence of widespread, consequential voter fraud. Many members of the commission also believed they were there as props meant only to lend credibility to a predetermined conclusion that there was rampant voter fraud in the United States (the absence of corroborating facts and data notwithstanding);
- As states grapple to make voting this Fall—in the midst of an ongoing pandemic—safe and inclusive, the President and his campaign have waged a war on mail-in-voting. Again with zero evidence, the President asserted that any expansion of mail-in voting would result in widespread fraud. He also claimed at the Republican National Convention that (mostly) Democrat governors in Democrat states are going to “mail out 80 million ballots.” He speculated that they might just choose not to send ballots to Republican neighborhoods;
- In June, Trump also tweeted (yeah, I know, it’s repetitive, but with no evidence whatsoever): “RIGGED 2020 ELECTION: MILLIONS OF MAIL-IN BALLOTS WILL BE PRINTED BY FOREIGN COUNTRIES, AND OTHERS. IT WILL BE THE SCANDAL OF OUR TIMES!”76Trump’s data-free misinformation campaign about mail-in voting fraud has been so prolific that it drew a response from the FBI. “High-ranking officials” stated that there is “no evidence of any coordinated fraud schemes related to voting by mail this year.”
- The Trump campaign sued the State of Pennsylvania to stop its plan to offer drop boxes for the collection of mail-in ballots this November (on the grounds that the boxes are susceptible to fraud). The Judge ordered the Trump campaign to provide any evidence that mail-in voting has been susceptible to fraud. The campaign failed to do so.
- At a rally in August, Trump said, “The only way we’re going to lose this election is if the election is rigged. Remember that. It’s the only way we’re going to lose this election. So we have to be very careful”;
- Trump has threatened to send law enforcement to “observe” polling places, a tried-and-true intimidation tactic employed by autocrats around the world.
Trump’s strategy seems clear. By undermining the trust of his base in the electoral processes of our nation, he is laying the groundwork to challenge the election if he loses. He has repeatedly refused to say he’ll accept the results of the 2020 election outcome. In July, Chris Wallace asked him if he’d abide by the results if he lost. Trump replied, “I have to see.”
Even more disturbingly, he frequently “jokes” that he can and should serve beyond the constitutionally limited two terms. More than once he has tweeted a video that portrays him serving far into the future. One of his favorite rally talking points of late is that he “deserves” a third term because of his impeachment. And he apparently wants more. After President Xi of China and his party eliminated term limits, paving the way for Xi to stay in office as President for life, DJT observed: “He’s now president for life, president for life. And he’s great … And look, he was able to do that. I think it’s great. Maybe we’ll have to give that a shot someday.”
Trump’s supporters will say he’s just joking and trolling the libs. But these are not funny, harmless jokes for a president to make. They sow the seeds of autocracy and the demise of free elections. Trump has even argued that one of the reasons to quickly replace Justice Ginsburg on the Supreme Court is in case there are legal challenges to the outcome of the November presidential election results.
The Consolidation of Executive Power
I joined the nation in hoping that Trump’s election to the presidency would temper his tendencies toward self-aggrandizement and divisiveness. Sadly, his elevation to the highest office in the land became the culminating crucible of his vain aspirations and tendency to rule rather than lead. The divisiveness we saw in the campaign was, if anything, amplified after he was sworn in. He immediately went to battle with those who opposed him in the election, making it clear that he would tolerate no dissent. He jousted with our nation’s allies over pretended offenses. And he never really tried to work with Congress, even when he had friendly majorities in both houses (I’ll write more on this topic later). Instead, the President’s impulse has been to lead unilaterally, signing Executive Order after Executive Order. It is Washington anticipated in a letter to Lafayette. The greatest threat to the American republic was that “some aspiring demagogue who will not consult the interest of his country [but rather] his own ambitious views.”
Washington was again prescient in his Farewell Address.
As I have argued throughout this essay, Trump’s entire life has been focused on building his brand and being richer and more powerful than anyone else. In the presidency, he has found the penultimate opportunity to assert and consolidate authority. Trump has seamlessly converted his aggressive business dealings, legal maneuvers, and personal brand-building efforts into his political life. He appears to see all of reality as a battle between Donald Trump and the world, ready to fight literally everyone and anything who stands in his way. He does not respect or honor tradition, policy, process, norms, structures, or precedents. He appears to be willing to do anything he can get away with.
A Return to Constitutional Balance
For far too long, there has been a tendency for Presidents to concentrate power in the Executive Branch. And Congress has been too divided and weak to counter the trend. But Trump has taken this trend to new, troubling lengths. In a COVID-19 press briefing, Trump said: “When somebody is the President of the United States, the authority is total and that’s the way it’s got to be. … It’s total. It’s total.” Trump is fond of saying he has the “absolute right” to do an expansive range of things that he has questionable or no authority to do. The list includes the “absolute right” to:
- “Do what I want to do” with the Justice Department (regarding opening investigations);
- Repurpose money allocated for other purposes to build a border wall;
- Offer pardons to Homeland Security for breaking the law to stop immigrants;
- Give Russia an ally’s highly classified intelligence;
- “PARDON” himself;
- Change Roger Stone’s sentence (if he wanted to);
- Fire Robert Meuller (if he had so chosen);
- Invalidate birthright citizenship via an executive order;
- Order U.S. businesses out of China;
- Ask other countries to dig up dirt on his political opponents;
- Fire inspector generals (apparently without legitimate cause and even when there is a clear conflict of interest);
- Suspend the payroll tax.
Washington reminded us, as he was leaving office as the nation’s first president, that the Executive Branch needed to be continually constrained by “reciprocal checks in the exercise of political power.” If the people ever chose to change the balance of power, so be it. But, he warned:
Let there be no change by usurpation; for though this, in one instance, may be the instrument of good, it is the customary weapon by which free governments are destroyed. The precedent must always greatly overbalance in permanent evil any partial or transient benefit, which the use can at any time yield.
No matter how much Trump supporters might like or approve of the particular things Trump has done via Executive Order, but sheer force of Executive Branch power, we must all beware the “permanent evil” that comes from giving the presidency too much power.
A President FOR the United States
This election is not about issues. It is about the health and viability of our very form of government. As Benjamin Franklin famously observed, we have a republic, “if we can keep it.” More than two centuries later, Donald Trump has threatened our ability to do so because he has chosen to divide rather than lead, to exercise power rather than build consensus.
It is time to elect a President FOR the United States of America, someone who will put the nation ahead of their own ambition and desire to be the richest, most revered, and most powerful. Someone not obsessed with comparing himself to Lincoln and other presidents, but rather someone focused on bringing the nation together to address our most pressing problems.
Donald Trump was never going to be that man. He has proven it during his one—and I sincerely hope only—term in office.
We must not give him four more years. The survival of our republic depends on it.