The midterms are coming. In less than three months!
Even though Donald J. Trump’s name is not on the ballot, make no mistake. Trump is the primary focus of the election. For those who believe that it’s long past time to put the brakes on Trump’s abuses of power and assaults on the rule of law, this may be the last best chance to do so. If the Democrats can take control of at least one house of Congress, it will dramatically alter the country’s trajectory going forward. Democrats will have committee chairs and subpoena power. If they don’t succeed, all bets are off.
With that in mind, I posed a hypothetical question. Suppose I happened upon a genuine political unicorn. That is, a person neither progressive nor conservative and who is truly agnostic on the subject of President Trump. And suppose this person, in all their honesty and perhaps naiveté, asked me: “Why should I oppose Trump? What has he actually done that’s so terrible?” What would my answer be?
What follows is my answer. It covers the seven most outrageous transgressions Trump has committed since taking office. It is not an exaggeration to say that, taken together, these things threaten to destroy the very core of our democracy. Trump is the embodiment of a “worst case scenario.” [For those who already stand opposed to Trump, you will likely find much here that is familiar. Read on anyway. It’s worth being reminded just how much there is to oppose.]
At the least, Trump is intellectually lazy. At worst, he is ignorant to the point of incompetence — especially with respect to the workings of government. Don’t take my word for it. Rex Tillerson, Trump’s former Secretary of State, called him a “moron.” H.R. McMaster, Trump’s former National Security Adviser, called him an “idiot.” John Kelly, Trump’s current Chief of Staff, reportedly called Trump an “idiot.” There are reasons for this.
Trump doesn’t read his own security briefings, preferring to get his updates from Fox News. He will reverse his policy positions — such as supporting a “clean DACA” bill one day and rejecting it the next — apparently because he didn’t comprehend the implications of his initial position. Trump’s description of how the “visa lottery” program works is so stupidly wrong as to be both sad and funny (to see why, start at the 3:00 minute mark of this Daily Show video).
A corollary here is his mind-numbingly poor use of language. His repeated use of a small collection of adjectives — beautiful, fine, unfair — often masks the fact that he has no idea what he is talking about (e.g., “this is a beautiful bill with lots of good stuff in it”).
He may have had the political smarts to win the election — but that’s quite different from what’s required to be a smart President. The country needs — and deserves — better.
6. Criminal intent
Trump has been in office only about 18 months. Yet he (and his associates) already stand accused of a record-breaking assortment of crimes:
• Violations of the Foreign Emoluments Clause of the Constitution — which prohibits accepting “presents” from foreign governments. The revenue paid by foreign dignitaries to stay at Trump properties (from which Trump still benefits) is most often cited as an example of this violation (it may also be an attempt at money laundering).
• Campaign finance violations associated with the “hush money” payments to Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal and others — to prevent their stories from coming out during the closing weeks of the campaign.
• The lawsuit against the Donald J. Trump Foundation for “sweeping violations of campaign finance laws, self-dealing and illegal coordination with the presidential campaign.”
• More generally, we don’t know what financial wrong-doings might be revealed if we could see Trump’s tax returns — something Trump has refused to provide even for the period since he became President — breaking with all prior precedent and even though he repeatedly promised, during the campaign, that he would do so.
And finally, the two biggest ones, the potential crimes that are the focus of the Mueller investigation:
• Obstruction of justice — most notably the events surrounding the firing of James Comey for the “Russia thing” — as well as just about everything Trump says/posts about Mueller (a recent example is Trump’s tweet calling for Sessions to end the probe).
These alone should be sufficient to remove Trump from office. The problem is that Trump has not yet been convicted of (or, in some cases, formally charged with) any of these crimes. Of course, Mueller has not yet finished his work. And we’re still awaiting the final fallout from the cases of Michael Flynn, Paul Manafort, Michael Cohen and others. We can no longer expect the GOP-controlled Congress to do anything. So, despite the preponderance of evidence and the overwhelming likelihood that Trump has repeatedly broken the law, this remains a “work in progress.”
5. Autocracy rules
Trump has a special fondness for autocrats. At the top of the list is Vladimir Putin — the President of Russia, our most notable adversary and the architect of the attack on our 2016 election. Yet Trump had only praise for Putin — and criticism of our own government — at the disastrous Helsinki Summit press conference. This was preceded by a similarly negatively-viewed meeting with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un where again Trump was effusive with praise for one of the most ruthless and repressive dictators in the world.
Lauding dictators while dissing our allies results in the sowing of mistrust among our democratic friends and comfort to our enemies. This is not a useful approach to foreign policy. Yet that’s exactly what Trump is doing. Why?
In the special case of his relationship with Putin, it raises the frightening possibility that, due to Trump being blackmailed or some other nefarious motivation, Trump is acting in concert with Russia to undermine the interests of the United States!
More generally, it likely reflects Trump’s own desire for autocratic powers. From his attacks on judges who rule against his actions — to banning members of the press with whom he disagrees — to his general belief that personal loyalty to Trump is of greater importance than allegiance to the country — he repeatedly reveals his desire to be above the law.
In this regard, the next (and final) four items on this list share a common theme: They are what a political leader would do if he were intent on becoming a dictator. They are also what you would do if you were guilty of serious crimes and wanted to discredit the source of any forthcoming evidence against you. Take your pick as to which one is worse.
4. Lies and more lies
It’s awkward to list this as a separate item — because it pervades every category. Still, it deserves special mention because it is so prevalent.
All politicians shade the truth at times. No question. But Trump outright lies. And no President has ever done so with such alarming frequency (more than 3,200 lies since taking office) or with such audacious disregard for how easy it is to prove the statement false. The most outlandish recent example of this is Trump’s claim that Russia wants to help Democrats win elections — just a week “after Russian President Vladimir Putin said he was glad Trump won the 2016 presidential election.” Or when he severely criticized British Prime Minister Teresa May in an interview he gave to The Sun (for which they have a recording) and yet claimed on the next day that he never criticized May.
We saw this type of fabrication as far back as the day of his inauguration — when Trump insisted that the size of the crowd was “the largest ever,” certainly larger than for Obama’s inauguration — despite photographic evidence to the contrary. This led to Kellyanne Conway giving birth to the term “alternative facts.” Similarly, in a speech he gave to Congress in 2017, Trump entirely made up statistics regarding terrorism.
Trump promotes right-wing conspiracy theories that have no basis in fact. This probably began with his bogus “birther” claim that Obama was not born in the United States. And it has continued up to just a few weeks ago — when he voiced a troika of campaign-related false claims at the Helsinki Summit press conference.
Trump is the undisputed master of the “big lie” — repeatedly stating an obvious lie over and over? Why does he do it? Because, by the force of repetition, it can create doubt among the public. It’s an assault on truth itself — and it appears to work. The ultimate expression of this is when Trump said: “What you see and what you read is not what’s happening.” This is 1984 come to life.
And please, don’t be fooled by Trump apologists’ attempts to dismiss his lies as somehow trivial, “Trump being Trump” or whatever — as if it shouldn’t matter in the face of all the supposed “good things” Trump is doing. It matters a great deal. When you trivialize and normalize constant lying, you lose the ability to trust anything that a person says.
3. Justice attacked
I am confident that if you awoke from a 2 year coma today, you would never believe what I am about to write: The President of the United States, a member of the “law and order” Republican Party, has decreed that one of the greatest threats facing this country today lies within his own executive branch — namely, the Department of Justice and intelligence community. Yes, I am referring to the FBI, the CIA, the NSA and all the rest.
From the moment Trump failed in his effort to enlist Comey as an ally in obstruction of justice — Trump has remained relentless in his disparagement of the Department of Justice. He’s upset with Attorney General Sessions (for recusing himself instead of being “loyal” to Trump), he’s upset with Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein (for the appointment of Mueller as a Special Counsel), and he wants Mueller fired. He gloats about the firing of FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe (just hours before his retirement), calling it a “a great day for Democracy.”
He smears the credibility of the FBI at almost every opportunity — typically stating falsehoods to do so. His allegation that the FBI had a spy in the Trump campaign (referred to as “spygate”) was thoroughly disproven. The same goes of Trump’s deliberate mischaracterization of the FBI’s FISA warrant application against Carter Page. For the coup de grâce, Trump ended the internationally watched Helsinki news conference with an unwarranted attack on the FBI: “If anybody watched Peter Strzok testify over the last couple of days, it was a disgrace to the FBI, it was a disgrace to our country.”
On an almost daily basis and without any evidence to support his claims, Trump slams the entire Mueller investigation as a “witch hunt,” a “hoax,” “conflicted and biased” — and filled with Trump-hating Democrats (despite the fact that all of the top people are Republicans, many of whom were appointed by Trump).
He attempts to discredit the entire Justice Department at the expense of undermining the nation’s faith in its critical institutions — all for his own personal legal protection. He is the ultimate narcissist — the only thing that matters is his own survival and success.
2. Fake news
At a news conference Trump held just weeks prior to his inauguration in 2017, he “refused to take a question from CNN’s Jim Acosta after trashing the network and calling it ‘fake news.’” He is still sticking by this mantra. As recently as this past July, at a press event in the UK, he replied to an Acosta question by saying: “CNN is fake news. I don’t take questions from CNN.”
In between, he has relentlessly and without any evidence continued his attack on all mainstream media — which includes just about every news source in the country except Fox News and right wing blogs such as Breitbart. In the past few weeks, he has actually stepped up his attack, probably as he feels increased heat from all the investigations swirling around him. At a rally in Pennsylvania this month, he derided the reporters present as “fake, fake disgusting news” — in a manner so provocative that some observers feared it was an incitement to violence. Ominously, he now refers to the press as a whole as “the enemy of the people.”
The goal here is the same as for his attacks on the Justice Department. Trump’s definition of “fake news” is any report that is critical of or uncomplimentary to or problematic for Trump himself. The stories can be entirely true (they usually are) and Trump will still label them as “fake.” It’s another aspect of the “big lie.” As Trump himself admitted: “I do it to discredit you all and demean you all, so when you write negative stories about me no one will believe you.” Sadly, at least among his supporters, it seems to be working. According to polls, the public’s confidence in the FBI, the Mueller probe and the press has significantly eroded since Trump began his verbal pummels against them.
A free press is critical to the functioning of our country. That’s why our Founding Fathers explicitly protected it in the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.” Trump is attempting to tear down this protection. It’s “unprecedented” (not in a good way!) and it’s dangerous.
1. Scapegoating of immigrants and ethnic groups
It was hard to select the worst of the worst. I gave the nod to Trump’s ethnic scapegoating — if only because of the personal trauma it causes. This is not just a concern about potential serious consequences down the road. There are real personal tragedies happening right now.
Although Trump had shown evidence of racism long before his candidacy, the starting point for his “presidential years” was the day he came down the escalator at Trump Tower — to announce his candidacy and declare that Mexico is sending us “people that have lots of problems. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.”
Trump next declared that we should have a “total and complete shutdown” of the entry of Muslims to the United States “until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.” After his inauguration, he quickly attempted to enact this Muslim ban. It was repeatedly blocked in the courts as “unconstitutional” — until a watered down version passed muster in the Supreme Court.
In another controversial move, Trump announced that he was phasing out the DACA program (the act that protects certain immigrants, brought into the country by their parents at a very young age, from being deported). He similarly wants to dismantle the “chain migration” and “visa lottery” programs — with little justification (as noted in the Trevor Noah video linked above). He reveals the racism behind these policies when, for example, he asserts that he doesn’t want “people from ‘shit-hole countries‘ coming here” (referring to African countries and Haiti).
Trump has famously pushed for a “wall” along our Southern border (one that Mexico was supposed to pay for, but never will). Despite a prognosis that a wall would “waste billions of dollars,” and despite his own party being in control of Congress, Trump is threatening to “shut down the government” if he doesn’t get funding for the wall.
His woeful handling of the response to Hurricane Maria’s devastation of Puerto Rico has been described as “an enduring stain on Trump’s presidency.”
At the top of the heap, we have Trump’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy resulting in the separation of children from their parents at the Mexican border — even families legally seeking asylum. The public backlash against this (including from members of his own party) was so severe that he had to reverse course within a matter of days (something Trump abhors doing!). Courts have also ruled it illegal. However, the matter remains unresolved, with hundreds of families not yet reunited. At the same time, Trump has threatened to deport people immediately after they cross the border without allowing for any “due process” — also considered illegal.
Finally, I couldn’t close this section without noting Trump’s infamous defense of white nationalists at Charlottesville. This is where he stated that there are “some very fine people on both sides” — with one side being alt-right neo-Nazis who marched in the street with torches, while chanting phrases such as “Jews will not replace us.” His comments deservedly received harsh criticism at the time — and the incident remains one of the most loathsome single moments in the Trump presidency.
The common thread that runs through all of the items cited here, besides the inherent racism, is Trump’s pandering to the most repugnant elements of his base in order to gain a political advantage. I know scapegoating of immigrants and racial minorities appeals to many of his supporters; it undoubtedly helped him to win the election. It may even allow him to win the next one (a nightmarish thought!). But like so much of what Trump does, it serves to divide rather than unite. I can only hope the majority of the country can see Trump’s immigration stance for the political ploy that it is.
The above list is hardly comprehensive. If this article wasn’t already longer than I had originally intended, I would go into details on many other matters. Here’s just a sampling:
• Cabinet appointees with the apparent goal of destroying the agencies that they represent. The worst example here is Scott Pruitt — the climate-change-denying former head of the EPA. Before he resigned in disgrace, he had already managed to inflict lasting damage to the environment and leave the “EPA in ruins.” Betsy DeVos (Education) and Ben Carson (Housing and Urban Development) take the silver and the bronze.
• Trump’s abusive use of pardons (most especially of Joe Arpaio, a man convicted of contempt of court for defying an order to halt racial profiling).
• His coarse and typically factually incorrect insults — from the “failing New York Times” to calling Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas.” Consistent with his racism, he saves his most virulent insults for people of color — such as his frequent characterization of Maxine Waters as a “low IQ individual” and his recent labelling of Don Lemon and LeBron James as “dumb.”
• Especially if you’re a progressive, you assuredly lament a collection of right-wing actions: conservative Supreme Court nominees (which now, with Kavanaugh, threaten to overturn Roe v. Wade), the attempt to overturn Obamacare, the termination of Internet neutrality and the decimation of consumer protections against the abuses of large corporations.
Putting it together
Some people on the political right talk about a “Trump Derangement Syndrome” — loosely defined as liberals who have such unbridled hatred for Trump that they twist anything Trump says or does into something negative. I hope that you now can see that the reverse is much closer to the truth. That is, people like myself “hate” Trump precisely because so much of what he has said and done is so reprehensible.
As for my unicorn friend, I’ve done my best. You started out by inquiring: “Why should I oppose Trump? What has he actually done that’s so terrible?” Now you know. And now you know why this forthcoming midterm election is so critical.
Update: For a follow-up to this column, focusing on rebuttal arguments and my responses to them, click here.
Update: Minor edits made on 8/24/2018.