The Trump presidency made a deep descent in December. The departures of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly, the appointment of senior persons of lesser experience, the abandonment of allies who fight beside us, and the president’s thoughtless claim that America has long been a “sucker” in world affairs all defined his presidency down.
It is well known that Donald Trump was not my choice for the Republican presidential nomination. After he became the nominee, I hoped his campaign would refrain from resentment and name-calling. It did not. When he won the election, I hoped he would rise to the occasion. His early appointments of Rex Tillerson, Jeff Sessions, Nikki Haley, Gary Cohn, H.R. McMaster, Kelly and Mattis were encouraging. But, on balance, his conduct over the past two years, particularly his actions last month, is evidence that the president has not risen to the mantle of the office.
.. In a 2016 Pew Research Center poll, 84 percent of people in Germany, Britain, France, Canada and Sweden believed the American president would “do the right thing in world affairs.” One year later, that number had fallen to 16 percent.
.. This comes at a very unfortunate time. Several allies in Europe are experiencing political upheaval. Several former Soviet satellite states are rethinking their commitment to democracy. Some Asian nations, such as the Philippines, lean increasingly toward China, which advances to rival our economy and our military. The alternative to U.S. world leadership offered by China and Russia is autocratic, corrupt and brutal.
.. The world needs American leadership, and it is in America’s interest to provide it. A world led by authoritarian regimes is a world — and an America — with less prosperity, less freedom, less peace.
To reassume our leadership in world politics, we must repair failings in our politics at home. That project begins, of course, with the highest office once again acting to inspire and unite us. It includes political parties promoting policies that strengthen us rather than promote tribalism by exploiting fear and resentment. Our leaders must defend our vital institutions despite their inevitable failings: a free press, the rule of law, strong churches, and responsible corporations and unions.
.. Furthermore, I will act as I would with any president, in or out of my party: I will support policies that I believe are in the best interest of the country and my state, and oppose those that are not. I do not intend to comment on every tweet or fault. But I will speak out against significant statements or actions that are divisive, racist, sexist, anti-immigrant, dishonest or destructive to democratic institutions.
The Trump administration insisted it didn’t have a policy of separating children from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border. It said that it was merely following the law. And it said “Congress alone can fix” the mess.]
It just admitted that all that was nonsense — and that it badly overplayed its hand.
Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, who on Sunday and Monday insisted that this wasn’t an actual policy and that the administration’s hands are tied, will now have to untie them as the White House will reverse the supposedly nonexistent policy.
.. It’s at once an admission that the politics of the issue had gotten out of hand and that the administration’s arguments were completely dishonest. Virtually everything it said about the policy is tossed aside with this executive action. It’s the political equivalent of waving the white flag and the legal equivalent of confessing to making false statements. Rather than letting Congress rebuke it, the White House is rebuking itself and trying to save some face.
.. But that’s the opposite of the approach the administration had said was demanded by the situation for the past several days.
Here’s a sampling:
- “Congress and the courts created this problem, and Congress alone can fix it. Until then, we will enforce every law we have on the books to defend the sovereignty and security of the United States.” — Nielsen
- “It’s not a policy. Our policy at DHS is to do what we’re sworn to do, which is to enforce the law.” — Nielsen
- “The only [other] option is to not enforce the law at all.” — Nielsen
- “I don’t want children taken away from parents. And when you prosecute the parents for coming in illegally, which should happen, you have to take the children away. Now we don’t have to prosecute them, but then we’re not prosecuting them for coming in illegally.” — Trump
- “You can’t do it through an executive order.” — Trump
And not only did the administration say it was bound by man’s law to do what it was doing; it said it was also bound by God’s law.
.. And it makes clear that, from Day One, this was a political gambit to force an immigration bill through. It didn’t work.
In denigrating anyone who called the President out for his slurs, Senators Cotton and Perdue (pictured here in August) show their willingness to humiliate themselves on his behalf.
.. According to the Post, “Three White House officials said Perdue and Cotton told the White House that they heard ‘shithouse’ rather than ‘shithole,’ allowing them to deny the President’s comments on television over the weekend.” Is that how people sleep at night in Trump’s Washington?
And they are poisonous.
.. It should be clear that the house/hole distinction, should it even have existed, would not count as “allowing” Cotton and Perdue to deny the President’s remarks on any terms. But the ones on which they did so are particularly egregious, because they offered themselves as witnesses to other senators’ supposed dishonor.
.. Senator Dick Durbin, Democrat of Illinois, had confirmed the reported phrase “shithole countries” publicly; Senator Lindsey Graham, of South Carolina, had backed up the press accounts more obliquely but unmistakably. Senator Tim Scott, his Republican colleague, who is African-American, told reporters that Graham had confirmed the essentials of the report to him; Graham didn’t dispute that. Graham had also publicly said that there was a racial aspect to the remarks, which he said he’d called the President on, saying, by his account, “America is an idea, not a race.”
.. Cotton, appearing on Sunday news programs, specifically disparaged Durbin’s credibility. “I didn’t hear it, and I was sitting no further away from Donald Trump than Dick Durbin was,”
.. Cotton told John Dickerson on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” “And I know, and I know what Dick Durbin has said about the President’s repeated statements is incorrect.” He also said that Durbin had a history of dishonesty.
.. When Dickerson asked Cotton about the thrust of the remarks, as opposed to the President’s word choice, Cotton said, “I did not hear derogatory comments about individuals or persons.” Perhaps there was another rationalization in there: he was being derogatory about whole populations, not individuals!
.. in the next sentence, Dickerson made the terms of Cotton’s lies clear when he asked, “So the sentiment is totally phony that is attributed to him?”—meaning to the President. Cotton answered, “Yes.”
.. At the same time, Perdue was busy on ABC’s “This Week,” telling George Stephanopoulos, in even more categorical terms, that Durbin was guilty of a “gross misrepresentation” of Trump’s remarks, saying that such “language” was simply not used.
.. When Stephanopoulos noted that there were multiple sources who said otherwise—indeed, the President himself reportedly called friends to brag about what he had said
.. Congressmen Kevin McCarthy, Republican of California, who is the House Majority Leader and has not commented (but, as the Washington Post noted, stood quietly next to the President when he denied the reports on Sunday; Trump also called himself the “least racist person”
.. members of his Administration at first thought that the controversy could be settled in the shady realm of “do not recall,”
.. They were caught by surprise when he started tweeting about how the accounts of his language were outright false.
.. But perhaps he also listened to what the other Republicans were saying, and had an insight that they would, indeed, back him up. It was a bully’s triple play:
- first, he got to slur whole nations.
- Then he got his guys to gang up on anyone who called him out for it, which produced the final prize:
- the acknowledgement that the Republican lawmakers were his guys, subordinate and willing to humiliate themselves on his behalf.
.. What is notable is that, at first, Cotton and Perdue had tried, in a joint statement, to hedge by saying that they did “not recall the President saying these comments specifically.” But, as his lies escalated, so did theirs, to the point where they were backing up the idea that the media was involved in a fake-news conspiracy.
.. But it is, apparently, hard to lie halfway for Trump; he won’t let you.
Tax cuts. Deregulation. More for the military; less for the United Nations. The Islamic State crushed in its heartland. Assad hit with cruise missiles. Troops to Afghanistan. Arms for Ukraine. A tougher approach to North Korea. Jerusalem recognized as Israel’s capital. The Iran deal decertified. Title IX kangaroo courts on campus condemned. Yes to Keystone. No to Paris. Wall Street roaring and consumer confidence high.
And, of course, Neil Gorsuch on the Supreme Court. What, for a conservative, is there to dislike about this policy record as the Trump administration rounds out its first year in office?
.. “The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society,” said the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan.
.. And want to preserve your own republican institutions? Then pay attention to the character of your leaders, the culture of governance and the political health of the public. It matters a lot more than lowering the top marginal income tax rate by a couple of percentage points.
.. Or maybe you regret the failure to repeal Obamacare. But that had something to do with the grotesque insults Trump lobbed at John McCain, the man whose “nay” vote sank repeal... Look at every other administration embarrassment (Scaramucci) or failure (the wall, and Mexico paying for it) or disgrace (the Charlottesville equivocation). Responsibility invariably lies with the president’s intemperance and dishonesty. That puts Republican control of Congress in play. It also risks permanently alienating a millennial generation for which the G.O.P. will forever be the party of the child-molesting sore loser and the president who endorsed him... Now look at the culture of governance. Trump demands testimonials from his cabinet, servility from Republican politicians and worship from conservative media. To serve in this White House isn’t to be elevated to public service. It’s to be debased into toadyism, which probably explains the record-setting staff turnover of 34 percent.. In place of presidential addresses, stump speeches or town halls, we have Trump’s demagogic mass rallies. In place of the usual jousting between the administration and the press, we have a president who fantasizes on Twitter about physically assaulting CNN. In place of a president who defends the honor and integrity of his own officers and agencies, we have one who humiliates his attorney general, denigrates the F.B.I. and compares our intelligence agencies to the Gestapo.
Trump is normalizing all this; he is, to borrow another Moynihan phrase, “defining deviancy down.” A president who supposedly wants to put a wall between the U.S. and Latin America has imported a style of politics reminiscent of the cults of Juan Perón and Hugo Chávez.
.. Trump is empowering a conservative political culture that celebrates everything that patriotic Americans should fear: the cult of strength, open disdain for truthfulness, violent contempt for the Fourth Estate, hostility toward high culture and other types of “elitism,” a penchant for conspiracy theories and, most dangerously, white-identity politics.
The president’s tweets and public remarks will only get wilder as the Russia investigation narrows.In less than two hours, he managed to criticize his own FBI; peddle a new conspiracy theory; attack James B. Comey, Hillary Clinton and ABC; and draw more attention to the Russia probe that has already implicated several of his aides... As someone who spent hundreds of hours observing Trump so I could write “The Art of the Deal,” I find his increasingly extreme behavior entirely consistent and predictable... For five decades now, Trump’s pattern has been that the more aggrieved and vulnerable he feels, the more intensely he doubles down on the behaviors that have always worked for him in the past.Sunday’s tweetstorm won’t be the last time the president indulges in self-pity, deceit and deflection. In all likelihood, it will get worse... Trump’s first move in the face of criticism has always been to assume the role of victim. “Unfair” has long been one of his favorite words. He always perceives himself as the victim, so he feels justified in lashing back at his perceived accusers.
.. Here’s how he explained the tactic in “The Art of the Deal”:
“When people treat me badly or unfairly or try to take advantage of me, my attitude, all my life, has been to fight back very hard.”
“Sometimes, part of making a deal is denigrating your competition.”
In the weeks ahead, Trump will also probably double down on lying, even as he falsely accuses others of being dishonest. Consider his remarkable recent suggestion to aides that his remarks on the “Access Hollywood” tape about assaulting women might not be real — even though he has already publicly acknowledged that they were his, and apologized for them. Trump regularly rewrites his narrative, using what Kellyanne Conway has called “alternative facts,” to fit whatever he wants to believe and convey in any given moment. This is classic “gaslighting” — a blend of lying, denial, insistence and intimidation designed to fuel uncertainty and doubt in others about what’s actually true.
In the time I spent with Trump, I concluded that lying became second nature to him long ago, both because he lacked any conscience about being deceptive and because he discovered that he could get away with it. “Truthful hyperbole” is the sanitized term I gave lying in “The Art of the Deal,” with Trump’s blessing. I have never met someone, before or since, who was untruthful so effortlessly.
In Trump’s mind, he is only doing what’s required to win. Here’s the way he describes himself in “The Art of the Deal”: “Despite what people think, I’m not looking to be the bad guy when it isn’t absolutely necessary.”
.. The more threatened Trump feels by troublesome facts, the more preposterous the lies he will tell.
.. To get the outcome he wants, he’s willing to be scorned, parodied and even reviled in ways most of us are not. “I’m the first to admit,” he said in “The Art of the Deal,” “that I am very competitive and that I’ll do nearly anything within legal bounds to win.” He is willing to flatter, cajole and seduce, or bully, threaten and humiliate, depending on which approach he thinks will work best.
.. I watched him switch between these modes countless times during the 18 months I spent around him.
.. If he was getting what he wanted from someone on a call, he’d invariably sign off with, “You’re the greatest, you’re the best.” If he wasn’t getting his way, he was equally comfortable hurling insults and making threats.
.. The more frequent and aggressive Trump’s tweets become, the more threatened and vulnerable he is probably feeling. But he also knows that this approach can work.
.. The other predictable pattern for Trump is his approach to loyalty. He expects it unconditionally — more so when his behaviors prompt backlash — but he provides it only as long as he gets unquestioning adulation in return.
.. One of the most revealing relationships in Trump’s life was with Roy Cohn, best known as the chief counsel to Sen. Joseph McCarthy
.. For more than a decade, Cohn fought hard on Trump’s behalf and was fiercely loyal to him. They often spoke multiple times in a day. But when Cohn became ill with AIDS in 1984, Trump dropped him immediately.
.. I can’t remember a single occasion during the time I spent around Trump when he seemed genuinely interested in the welfare of another human being, including any of his three then-young children. And at that time, he was under vastly less stress than he is now. If either Jared Kushner or Donald Trump Jr. become Mueller’s next target, I can’t help wondering what Trump will perceive as his self-interest.
Did the superstar lawyer cross ethical lines in his representation of Harvey Weinstein?
“Lawyers are not permitted to engage in dishonesty or deceit,” Kathleen Clark, a Washington University law professor who specializes in legal ethics, told me. “Black Cube seems to make its living by engaging in dishonesty and deceit, at least in part.”
.. he hired several other lawyers to represent him,” he wrote. Those lawyers then sought out Black Cube and other investigators and wrote up a contract for their services. Boies, by his own telling, then returned to sign a contract drafted by other lawyers between a client he wasn’t representing and private investigators he didn’t choose or oversee in a matter he says he had declined to take part.
.. He and his firm have a long relationship with Weinstein. In 2015, the Hollywood producer hired Boies to represent him in contract negotiations with the Weinstein Company
.. During those negotiations, the company’s board of directors learned of confidential settlements between Weinstein and three or four accusers. Boies told the Times he had given some legal advice to Weinstein for one of those settlements but did not specify which.
.. The New Yorker speculated that Boies’s involvement with the Black Cube letter may have been an effort to keep secret the investigators’ activities through attorney-client privilege. But that privilege would only exist between Weinstein and Boies, not between Boies and a third party, Clark said. “There’s another privilege that’s less powerful called work-product privilege, which can apply if information is developed in anticipation of litigation,” she explained. The first paragraph of the contract between Boies Schiller and Black Cube asserts that the work was for “litigation-support services,”
.. Stephen Gillers, a New York University law professor who focuses on legal ethics, said it’s not unusual for law firms to hire private investigators, especially for corporations and wealthy clients. But he noted that firms are obligated to ensure those investigators abide by the same ethical boundaries as the lawyers themselves. “Most prominently, a lawyer cannot contact an opposing client whom he knows is represented by counsel,” Gillers pointed out. “You can’t go talk to an opponent. You have to go through his lawyer.”.. The New York State Bar Association’s rules of professional conduct instruct lawyers and law firms to “[not] engage in any conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation.” Those rules also forbid lawyers from taking adverse action against a current client by negotiating against them or representing an opponent in litigation. But state disciplinary bodies, which are often underfunded, typically only enforce these rules against the worst offenders in the legal community, Gillers said... law firms usually try to avoid conflict-of-interest situations because of the potential financial impact... The fear of lawsuits also acts as a deterrent. “Firms worry about civil liability, malpractice liability, breach-of-fiduciary-duty liability, they worry about disqualification from a matter,” Gillers said. “And they worry about adverse publicity.”
Among people who work in politics, Republicans as well as Democrats, it is conventional wisdom that President Trump is staggeringly ill-informed, erratic, reckless and dishonest. (He also might be compromised by a hostile foreign power.)
.. But it’s also conventional wisdom that with few exceptions, Republicans in Congress are not going to stand up to him.
.. America’s nuclear arsenal is in the hands of a senescent Twitter troll, but those with political power have refused to treat this fact as a national emergency
.. “The Congress holds the ultimate power for war,” Jerry Taylor, president of the Niskanen Center, a libertarian think tank, told me. “Though they have more or less delegated that power away to the executive branch, they can take it back.”
.. They could start with a pair of bills introduced by Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey and California Representative Ted Lieu, both Democrats, prohibiting the president from launching a nuclear first strike without a congressional declaration of war.
.. He made it clear that Trump’s tweeted provocations of North Korea are impulsive rather than strategic. “A lot of people think that there is some kind of ‘good cop, bad cop’ act underway, but that’s just not true,”