In the third year of President Donald J. Trump’s war on the truth, Trump is winning. When the truth loses, so does democracy and the First Amendment.
Consider the past several weeks:
- During seven hours of congressional hearings in July, a by-the-book special counsel verified episodes showing “substantial” evidence of obstruction of justice by Trump and added the president “generally” was untruthful in sworn written answers. Yet all of Washington concluded the day-long testimony was a big win for the Obstructor-In-Chief. Facts be damned. Who cares if the president of the United States consorted with the Russians and sought to cover it up?
- Early in July the president ranted that four progressive Democratic representatives should “go back” to their countries, even though three of the four were born in the United States and the fourth is a U.S. citizen. Unsurprisingly, all four are women and people of color, the president’s favorite Twitter targets. At a political rally, Trump supporters chanted “Send her back,” in an eerie echo of the past.
- In June the president denied the latest of two dozen allegations of sexual misconduct. He said advice columnist E. Jean Carroll was “totally lying” when she said Trump assaulted her in a department store dressing room in the 1990s. “She’s not my type,” he added coyly. Any other CEO credibly accused of sexually assaulting multiple women – or who bragged about grabbing their private parts – would be out of a job; but this CEO gets to sit in the White House writing hush money checks to porn stars he kept hidden from voters.
- At the end of the Supreme Court term, Trump threatened to ignore the Supreme Court’s decision blocking his attempt to put a citizenship question on the census form. Chief Justice John Roberts said the court was not required to show the “naivete” that would be required to accept Trump’s rationale for adding the question – that it was needed to enforce the Voting Rights Act. After losing, Trump said he would go ahead with the question anyway and his attorney general replaced the Justice Department professionals handling the case. Meanwhile Trump’s xenophobic attacks on immigrants – the heart of Trump’s political case since he rode down the escalator at Trump Tower – continue unabated with families separated at the border and immigrant roundups around the country.
Yet, by and large, the American people have sat by complacently, as if witnessing just another summer thunderstorm.
Journalists tie themselves in knots over whether to use the words lying or racism or sexism or obstruction. And the president’s standing among the American voter goes up, not down. In December 2017 Trump’s disapproval rating was 20 points higher than his approval rating. Now the differential is half that.
Are we witnessing the normalization of deviancy?
Journalists and voters might spend less time trying to put labels on this president’s actions and instead look at the actions themselves and ask whether this is the kind of behavior they are willing to accept in the man who is America’s face to the world.
Should a president accept the help of America’s leading foreign adversary, with his son eager for Russian dirt on Hillary Clinton, with the campaign manager exchanging polling data with Russian operatives and with the Trump himself loudly calling on the Russians to hack Clinton’s email?
Should a president pursue a lucrative hotel deal with Vladimir Putin’s aides during the run-up to the election, while denying it to the American people? And when his personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, is called before Congress and asked about the discrepancy, should the White House get away with encouraging Cohen to lie? Trump’s lawyer Jay Sekulow told Cohen before his false testimony to Congress that he “was protected, which he would not be if he ‘went rogue.’” Sekulow reminded Cohen, “‘the president loves you’ and told him if he stayed on message the president would have his back.”
Should the president get away with ordering former White House Counsel Don McGahn to have Mueller fired as special counsel? And should he get away with calling the New York Times disclosure of the firing order “fake news, folks,” while at the same time ordering McGahn to create a fake record to refute the truthful story?
Should the president get by calling the Russia investigation a “hoax” when Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III testified Russian interference is a serious, on-going threat? Should the president get a pass when he is AWOL in efforts to avert future meddling in elections by foreign powers? Trump’s aides are reportedly too afraid to bring up the subject, a real life case of the Emperor has no clothes. Instead they stand by as he playfully admonishes Putin about not interfering in 2020.
Should the president be able to get away with lying about what Mueller’s report found? The president says Russian involvement was a hoax; Mueller said continuing Russian interference is one of the greatest national security challenges he has seen in his long career. Trump said Mueller “exonerated” him of obstruction; Mueller said he didn’t. Trump said the inquiry was a partisan “Witchhunt;” Mueller said it wasn’t.
Should the president get away with lying about lying? Right after the Mueller testimony the president claimed the special counsel hadn’t said things he clearly had said in his testimony. Mueller said Trump hadn’t answered many questions and “generally” was untruthful. (Don’t miss Mueller’s ‘Mona Lisa smile” after he answers the question.)
When PBS’s Yamiche Alcindor asked Trump about Mueller’s comment, Trump pointed his finger at her and angrily said, “He didn’t say that at all….You are untruthful.” When another reporter pointed out Mueller had said a president can be indicted after leaving office, Trump called two reporters “fake news.”
Should the president get by with telling four congresswomen to go “to back” to their home countries, when most Americans recognize that language is straight from the racial playbook? Are we to ignore that most of the victims of the president’s tweets are blacks and women and that this is the president who thought there were some good white supremacists in Charlottesville? And do we fall for Trump’s schoolyard bully tactic blaming the victim of his racist taunts for being racist. He called the “Squad” “very racist” and “not very smart” and 10 days later accused Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md. of “playing the race card” in defending himself against a two-day Trump Twitter assault against “rat-infested” Baltimore.
The Baltimore Sun called out Trump’s strategy writing in an extraordinary editorial, “Mr. Trump sees attacking African American members of Congress as good politics, as it both warms the cockles of the white supremacists who love him and causes so many of the thoughtful people who don’t to scream.” The Sun added, “we would tell the most dishonest man to ever occupy the Oval Office, the mocker of war heroes, the gleeful grabber of women’s private parts, the serial bankrupter of businesses, the useful idiot of Vladimir Putin and the guy who insisted there are ‘good people’ among murderous neo-Nazis that he’s still not fooling most Americans into believing he’s even slightly competent in his current post. Or that he possesses a scintilla of integrity.”
Do facts and truth no longer matter to the American people? As Bush II speechwriter Michael Gerson put it, “It is the blinding snowstorm of his lies, which undermine the very idea of political truth.” h
Do established norms and American values no longer matter? Can a president get away with publicly hectoring the people he doesn’t like even if they were war heroes, basketball stars or the most outstanding women’s soccer player in the world? Can a president turn his back on values that America has supported for decades – human rights, international alliances and democratic aspirations and instead cozy up to dictators, strongmen and crowned princes whose hatchet men murder and dismember a Washington Post journalist? And then send more American weapons to the crowned prince to kill Yemeni civilians.
Will the American people surrender to a politics of hate directed against immigrants, women, people of color, intellectuals and people who believe in the science?
There is plenty of evidence of high crimes and misdemeanors to impeach Trump.
But neither impeachment nor the legal system will rescue America from Trump. The American voter will have to do that at the ballot box.
In this enterprise, the press has a high duty to help Americans consumed with their day-to-day lives to sort out truth from daily deceits that flow from the Twitter feed of the most powerful man on the planet.
William Freivogel is the publisher of Gateway Journalism Review.