As Trump vehemently disputes reports that he has disparaged veterans, some silences speak loudly.
Donald Trump generates a lot of noise. He talks. He tweets. He is echoed and amplified by a vast claque, on TV and online, made up of Americans and foreigners, humans and bots.
Never has he shouted louder than in the days since my colleague Jeffrey Goldberg reported the president’s disparaging comments about those who have fallen, been maimed, or taken prisoner in war.
Trump’s protestations have been seconded by
- his wife. The first lady’s endorsement of Trump’s pro-military credentials has been repeated by Trump
- Cabinet secretaries, as well as by
- Fox News talking heads, and by a
- recipient of a Trump pardon.
Amid the clamor, it’s easy to overlook those who are not yelling, those who are keeping silent. Where are the
- senior officers of the United States armed forces, serving and retired—the men and women who worked most closely on military affairs with President Trump? Has any one of them stepped forward to say, “That’s not the man I know”?
- How many wounded warriors have stepped forward to attest to Trump’s care and concern for them?
- How many Gold Star families have stepped forward on Trump’s behalf? How many service families?
The silence is resounding. And when such voices do speak, they typically describe a president utterly lacking in empathy to grieving families, wholly uncomprehending of sacrifice and suffering.In September 2017, four U.S. soldiers fell in action in the African country of Niger. One of them was Sergeant La David Johnson. Trump placed a call to his widow, Myeshia Johnson. A family friend, Frederica Wilson, the representative for Florida’s Twenty-Fourth Congressional District, reported Trump’s attempt at consolation: “He knew what he signed up for, but I guess it still hurt.” Trump responded by launching Twitter and TV denials. Myeshia Johnson spoke about that call on ABC’s Good Morning America, confirming Wilson’s account, and adding more: “I heard him stumbling on trying to remember my husband’s name. And that what’s hurting me the most. Because if my husband was out here fighting for our country, and he risked his life for our country, why can’t you remember his name?” Talking to Trump about her fallen husband, Myeshia Johnson said, “made me upset and cry even more.”
In June 2017, Sergeant Dillon Baldridge and two other soldiers were killed in Afghanistan. Trump called the Baldridge family. On the call, Baldridge’s father, Chris, complained about the slowness of military survivor benefits. To which Trump replied, “I’m going to write you a check out of my personal account for $25,000.” The promised check, of course, never arrived. Three months later, the elder Baldridge told his story to The Washington Post. “I could not believe he was saying that, and I wish I had it recorded because the man did say this. He said, ‘No other president has ever done something like this,’ but he said, ‘I’m going to do it.’”
Only then, after Baldridge went public, was Trump shamed into making good on his weird, inappropriate, and insincere promise of personal assistance.
Trump has rarely met families who received remains of their loved ones at Dover Air Force Base. Media reports count just four visits, because—in the words of an aide—he had been “rattled” by an angry outburst from the father of William “Ryan” Owens, killed in action in Yemen in February 2017. The elder Owens had refused to shake Trump’s hand.
Trump soon recovered his composure. At his first speech to a joint session of Congress in February 2017, Trump told Ryan Owens’s widow, Carryn, that Owens would have been happy because the applause at the mention of his name “broke a record.” Later that month, Trump gave an interview to Fox News and shoved blame for the failed raid that cost Owens’s life onto “the generals.” “They lost Ryan,” he said.
Trump has repeatedly slighted concerns over the well-being of U.S. troops. Here he is in Davos, answering questions about U.S. soldiers who had suffered injuries in an Iranian missile attack.
Weijia Jang: Mr. President, a question on Iran: Initially, you said repeatedly to Americans that after Iran retaliated for the Soleimani strike, no Americans were injured. We now know at least 11 U.S. servicemen were airlifted from Iraq. Can you explain the discrepancy?
Donald Trump: No, I heard that they had headaches, and a couple of other things. But I would say, and I can report it is not very serious—not very serious.
Jang: So you don’t consider a potential traumatic brain injury serious?
Trump: They told me about it numerous days later. You’d have to ask [the] Department of Defense. No, I don’t consider them very serious injuries, relative to other injuries that I’ve seen.
I’ve seen what Iran has done with their roadside bombs to our troops. I’ve seen people with no legs and with no arms. I’ve seen people that were horribly, horribly injured in that area, that war—in fact, many cases put—those bombs put there by Soleimani, who is no longer with us. I consider them to be really bad injuries.
No, I do not consider that to be bad injuries. No.
President Trump disparaged the captain of the USS Theodore Roosevelt after that naval officer warned superiors of a COVID-19 outbreak aboard the aircraft carrier.
Here we have one of the greatest—here we have one of the greatest ships in the world. Nuclear aircraft carrier. Incredible ship with thousands and thousands of people. And you had about 120 that were infected.
Now, I guess the captain stopped in Vietnam and people got off in Vietnam. Perhaps you don’t do that in the middle of a pandemic or—or something that looked like it was going to be—you know, history would say you don’t necessarily stop and let your sailors get off, No. 1.
But more importantly, he wrote a letter. The letter was a five-page letter from a captain, and the letter was all over the place. That’s not appropriate. I don’t think that’s appropriate. And these are tough people. These are tough, strong people.
I thought it looked terrible, to be honest with you. Now, they made their decision. I didn’t make the decision. [The] secretary of defense was involved and a lot of people were involved. I thought it was terrible what he did to write a letter. I mean, this isn’t a class on literature. This is a captain of a massive ship that’s nuclear-powered. And he shouldn’t be talking that way in a letter. He could call and ask and suggest.
The uniformed military will remember how Trump has abused one of the greatest commanders of the age, Admiral William McRaven, who commanded the operation that killed Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden. In November 2018, Fox News’s Chris Wallace asked about an op-ed by McRaven that complained of Trump’s divisiveness.
Chris Wallace: Bill McRaven, retired admiral, Navy SEAL, 37 years, former head of U.S. Special Operations—
Donald Trump: Hillary Clinton fan.
Wallace: —Special Operations—
Trump: Excuse me, Hillary Clinton fan.
Wallace: —who led the operations, commanded the operations that took down Saddam Hussein and that killed Osama bin Laden, says that your sentiment is the greatest threat to democracy in his lifetime.”
Trump: Okay, he’s a Hilary 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? Wouldn’t it have been nice? You know, living—think of this—living in Pakistan, beautifully in Pakistan.
Trump has also abused General Stanley McChrystal, a former commander of forces in Afghanistan:“‘General’ McChrystal got fired like a dog by Obama. Last assignment a total bust. Known for big, dumb mouth. Hillary lover!”
And how did he treat Marine General John Allen, another former Afghanistan commander, who later coordinated the fight against ISIS? “His record = BAD”
Or Marine General James Mattis, Trump’s own former secretary of defense? “The world’s most over-rated general.”
So perhaps it’s no surprise that when Trump went looking for military character witnesses, he could find so few to vouch for him.
One of the most striking things about Trump is how seldom, if ever, anybody tells a story of kindness and compassion about him. Not even his own children have much to say. Here’s his daughter Tiffany at the Republican convention in 2016:
My father always asked about my family in Georgia, to make sure that they are healthy and safe … A few years ago, someone very dear to me passed away, and the first call I got, as I knew I would, came from my father.
And that’s it.
- Few former employees of the Trump administration praise him as a boss.
- Few business partners speak of his honesty.
- Few tenants of Trump buildings have anything good to say about the homes he supposedly built.
- Few officials of any city have been willing to celebrate any contribution to urban life.
- Few beneficiaries of any Trump philanthropy.
Imagine a man who has lived in the public eye for half a century, supposedly one of the country’s leading business figures, and when in trouble he struggles to summon credible or trustworthy witnesses from outside the Fox Cinematic Universe. There’s just a gaping zero where goodness should be.
So when it is reported—first in
that multiple sources have heard Trump sneer and jibe at America’s fallen, the reporting rings true because it is consistent with the public record. The denials ring false because they defy that public record.
The things reported fit in the mouth you know. Everybody knows it’s true, and most especially those who have been tasked to deny it.
Christian political engagement is about more than an issue checklist.
On April 15, the United States hit a horrifying milestone. It not only crossed 30,000 total COVID-19 deaths, but for the fourth consecutive day, the daily death toll was so high that COVID-19 was the single leading cause of death in the United States. This visualization of the rising death toll is simply horrifying:
At the same time, new reports have emerged demonstrating the president’s incredible reluctance to come to terms with the scale of a crisis that wasn’t just foreseeable, it was foreseen by members of his own administration. And while Trump deserves credit for limiting travel from China in late January, he not only squandered any advantage gained by that move, he actively spread misinformation about the virus throughout the month of February and into March.
Then, when he finally began to acknowledge the scale of the emergency, he went on national television and botched his own primetime address, misstating administration policies and triggering a panic from Americans in Europe who believed—based on the president’s own words—that they would be barred from coming home.
Since that time, his daily press conferences have featured a parade of presidential
- overstatements, misstatements, and outright falsehoods. He’s often fact-checked in real time by his own advisers. In the meantime, 22 million Americans have lost their jobs.
Something else happened on April 15—Albert Mohler, the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, the presumptive next president of the Southern Baptist Convention, and a man I respect a great deal—spoke from the midst of a ruined economy, soaring death rates, and presidential blundering and said . . . four more years. He declared not only that he’d support Donald Trump in 2020, but that he’ll almost certainly support Republican presidential candidates the rest of his life. Mohler focused on the classic culture war issues—marriage, sexuality, constitutional interpretation, and abortion. He expressed the belief that the “partisan divide had become so great” and Democrats had “swerved so far to the left” on those key issues that he can’t imagine ever voting for a Democratic president. He also claimed that Trump has been “more consistent in pro-life decisions” and consistent in the quality of his judicial nominations than “any president of the United States of any party.”
As he made clear in the video, Mohler has not always supported Trump. In 2016, he was consistent with his denomination’s clear and unequivocal statement about the importance of moral character in public officials. He has now decisively changed course.
In 1998—during Bill Clinton’s second term—the Southern Baptist Convention declared that “tolerance of serious wrong by leaders sears the conscience of the culture, spawns unrestrained immorality and lawlessness in the society, and surely results in God’s judgment” and therefore urged “all Americans to embrace and act on the conviction that character does count in public office, and to elect those officials and candidates who, although imperfect, demonstrate consistent honesty, moral purity and the highest character.”
Mohler so clearly recognized the applicability of those words that he said, “If I were to support, much less endorse Donald Trump for president, I would actually have to go back and apologize to former President Bill Clinton.” I do wonder if Mohler will apologize. He absolutely should.
Look, I know that for now I’ve lost the character argument. It’s well-established that a great number of white Evangelicals didn’t truly believe the words they wrote, endorsed, and argued in 1998 and for 18 years until the 2016 election. Oh sure, they thought they believed those words. If someone challenged their convictions with a lie detector test, they would have passed with flying colors.
(By the way, I use the term “white Evangelicals” because that’s Trump’s core political constituency. That’s the base that gave him 81 percent support in 2016. The rest of the Evangelical community leans Democratic.)
When C.S. Lewis said “courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of very virtue at the testing point, which means at the point of highest reality,” he was speaking an important truth. We may think we possess an array of virtues and beliefs, but we don’t really know who we are or what we believe until those virtues and beliefs are put to the test. There is many a man who goes to war thinking himself brave, until the bullets fly. There is many a man who thinks himself faithful to his wife, until the flirtation starts.
There were many men who thought character counted, until a commitment to character contained a real political cost. But that’s the obvious point. I’ve made it countless times before today. White Evangelicals, however, have shrugged it off. “Binary choice,” they say. “Lesser of two evils,” they say—even though those concepts appeared nowhere in the grand moral announcements of the past.
Many millions of Trump-supporting white Evangelicals no longer care about character (though a surprising number are still remarkably unaware of his flaws). That much is clear. But the story now grows darker still. As they’ve abandoned political character tests, they’re also rejecting any meaningful concern for presidential competence.
Listen to Mohler’s announcement, and you’ll hear a narrow political philosophy—one that’s limited to evaluating a party platform on a few, discrete issues. It’s nothing more than a policy checklist. He speaks of religious freedom, LGBT issues, and abortion.
Yet as the pandemic vividly illustrates (and as 9/11 also highlighted in recent years past), the job of the president extends well beyond the culture war. Indeed, there are times when a president is so bad at other material aspects of his job that he becomes a malignant force in American life, regardless of his positions on white Evangelicals’ highest political priorities.
The role of the people of God in political life is so much more difficult and challenging than merely listing a discrete subset of issues (even when those issues are important!) and supporting anyone who agrees to your list. The prophet Jeremiah exhorted the people of Israel to “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf; for in its welfare you will have welfare.”
This is a difficult, complicated task. We can’t reduce it to a list. In fact, this complexity is one reason why two key communities of churchgoing Americans are dramatically split in their political preferences. Black Christians go to church every bit as much (if not more) than white Evangelicals, yet they reject Trump every bit as much as white Evangelicals embrace him.
Are they less Christian? Or is their experience of the welfare of the national community shaped by history and experience that’s quite different from that of their white Evangelical brothers and sisters? And while that history is complex, it does clearly teach the deadly consequences of hate and the dangers of white populism.
When a president declares that there were “very fine people” in a collection of tiki-torch-toting white supremacists, shouldn’t Christians of all colors be gravely concerned? Shouldn’t they be alarmed when the CEO of the president’s campaign and his chief strategist declared just before his ascension to the president’s team that he wanted his publication (Breitbart) to be the “platform” for the racist alt-right? And when a president issues a stream of misinformation about a mortal threat to public health (with one eye on the stock market), is there not cause for accountability?
I could go on and on, but there are Christians in this country – mostly from communities who’ve suffered in the recent past at the hands of malignant government power—who look at Trump and do not see a man who’s concerned for their welfare. What is the white Evangelical obligation to listen to them? To hear their concerns?
The response can’t be the checklist. And when vulnerable Americans suffer mightily from the health and economic consequences of a global pandemic the president minimized, the response can’t be the checklist. White Evangelical leaders owe us a serious argument as to why that checklist trumps character and competence in the leader of the free world.
No one should minimize the difficulty of the job of president of the United States. It’s a fact that a number of democracies have struggled even worse than America to respond to the coronavirus (some have done much better), and economic damage will be felt worldwide. China bears immense blame for our national plight.
But President Trump was warned and warned and warned. For day after crucial day he chose to mislead Americans about one of the most significant threats to their well-being—to their “welfare”— in the modern history of the United States. He faced a key test, and he did not rise to the moment. And when he failed, he did real damage that even later course corrections could not entirely fix.
And please Christians, do not run back to arguments about “binary choice.” When I walk into the voting booth (or mail in my ballot), I will see more than two names. I’ll also have a choice to write in a name. I will not have to compromise my convictions to cast a vote for president.
If you do, however, want to revert to the language of “binary choice,” we need to examine the larger context. In January the nation faced a different kind of binary choice. It was, quite simply, “Trump or Pence.” When the president was impeached after he clearly attempted to condition vital military aid to an ally on a demand for a politically motivated investigation of a political opponent and on a demand to investigate a bizarre conspiracy theory, white Evangelicals had a decision to make.
They chose Trump.
They chose Trump when they would have certainly sought to impeach and convict a Democrat under similar facts.
In fact, for four long years, when the choice has been between Trump and even the most momentary break with the president for a single news cycle, the overwhelming majority of white Evangelicals—and their political leaders—have spoken loudly and clearly.
It’s Trump. It’s always Trump.
In the fourth year of Donald Trump’s first term, the deal white Evangelicals have struck is now increasingly clear. Their leaders will get unprecedented Oval Office access. They’ll get a few good religious liberty regulations. They’ll get good judges. Those judges will almost certainly issue rulings that protect religious liberty. They might issue rulings that marginally protect life (though the pro-life battle is fought far more in the culture and in the states than in the courts). Those will be important and good things. They are not the only things.
White Evangelicals will have also squandered any argument that character matters in politicians. That means we’ll have more politicians of low character.
White Evangelicals are squandering any argument that they seek to love their enemies. That means we’ll see more hate from America’s bully pulpit.
White Evangelicals are not only squandering any argument that competence matters, they are working hard to try to force more incompetence on their American community. Trump’s impact on the welfare of the American city is increasingly clear. It’s more division. It’s more hate. It’s more incompetence. And now that terrible combination has yielded a series of dreadful errors in the face of a deadly pandemic.
White Evangelicals, one of the most politically powerful religious movements in the entire world, should not use their power to maintain and ultimately renew the authority of one of the most malignant and incompetent politicians ever to hold national office. They shouldn’t, but they will.
One last thing …
This has been a rather grim newsletter, but authentic religious discourse requires discussing and debating hard questions, and the answers are not always easy or uplifting. I want to end not with a hymn or worship song, but rather something closer to a lament. It’s from one of my favorite artists, Sara Groves, and it speaks to the uncertainty and difficulty of life in a time of vulnerability and loss.
Harry S. Truman kept a set of Plutarch’s writings at hand in the White House. He said that in Plutarch’s “Parallel Lives,” he could find everything worth knowing about leaders—how they behave, what makes them tick.
In the “Lives,” Plutarch (A.D. 47-120) would compare a famous Greek to a famous Roman—setting Alexander the Great, for example, next to Julius Caesar, or Demosthenes beside Cicero. It was moral portraiture; Plutarch had a genius for details. He believed that a trivial detail can reveal a man more profoundly than a great event. Cicero, for example, became alert to an unexpected subtlety of Julius Caesar’s character after noticing, one day in the Senate, the way he adjusted his forelock with one finger.
Suppose Plutarch undertook to write one of his “Parallel Lives” on the subject of Donald Trump. If Plutarch were to study the biographies of the previous American presidents, to which of them would he compare the 45th?
Like Franklin D. Roosevelt, Mr. Trump is an illusionist. Like FDR, Mr. Trump has boundless confidence in himself. Like FDR, Mr. Trump has been known to lie. Unlike Roosevelt, Mr. Trump is a businessman. (FDR failed in his minor efforts at business investment during the 1920s.) Roosevelt undertook to make America great again by mobilizing the federal government against the “economic royalists” in a great depression; Mr. Trump wants to accomplish the same goal by demobilizing the regulators and resisting the cultural autocracy of the left.
Mr. Trump is best understood as a businessman and a performer. If you analyze him at the intersection of those two identities, you begin to understand him. As an actor on the world stage, his favorite role is a version of Stanley Kowalski.
Like Calvin Coolidge, Mr. Trump believes that the primary business of America is business. Like Truman, Mr. Trump has presided over businesses that failed. Unlike Coolidge, who was famously laconic, Mr. Trump is noisy.
Unlike Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, Mr. Trump does not read books. In that he resembles Lyndon B. Johnson and Franklin Roosevelt, both of whom preferred to gather information in conversation, face-to-face or on the telephone. Dwight D. Eisenhower read Zane Gray westerns to help him fall asleep.
LBJ liked to have three television sets going so that he could monitor the major networks simultaneously; Mr. Trump watches Fox News.
Plutarch, in a pairing of opposites, might have explored the contrast between Mr. Trump and Jimmy Carter —Mr. Carter hammering away for Habitat for Humanity, Mr. Trump putting up Trump Towers.
Mr. Trump’s enemies consider him a monster of racism. He claims to be “the least racist man who ever lived.” Twelve American presidents, starting with George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, owned slaves. Wilson was assuredly a racist. In early 1933, President-elect Roosevelt visited the state capitol in Montgomery, Ala., where Jefferson Davis had taken the oath of office as president of the Confederacy; FDR referred to it as “this sacred spot.” Truman and LBJ routinely used the N-word before they got to the White House. Yet Truman racially integrated the armed forces and Johnson told Congress “we shall overcome” as he pushed through the greatest civil rights acts in American history.
Like Julius Caesar, Mr. Trump is fussy about his hair. Unlike any other president, Mr. Trump has been married three times. ( Ronald Reagan was divorced once, and five other presidents remarried after their first wives died.) Like John F. Kennedy and Bill Clinton, Mr. Trump has a history of womanizing and marital infidelity.
In a famous remark, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. described FDR as a man with “a second-class intellect but a first-class temperament.” (The story was told secondhand, and some thought that the aged Justice Holmes was referring to the earlier Roosevelt, Teddy, whom he had also known). In fact, FDR had a first-class intellect. So, notably, did Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Wilson and (as a manager if not as a philosopher) Eisenhower. Mr. Trump has described himself as a “very stable genius.” On that, the jury is deadlocked. Intellectuals tend to despise Mr. Trump. They also dismissed Eisenhower and Reagan as dunces.
Edward Gibbon, author of “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,” summarized a half-dozen early emperors as follows: “the dark, unrelenting Tiberius, the furious Caligula, the stupid Claudius, the profligate and cruel Nero, the beastly Vitellius, and the timid inhuman Domitian. ”
Think of how one might compile a similar list of modern presidents: “the glamorous, amoral Kennedy; the Machiavellian, self-destructive Johnson; the saturnine Nixon; the touchingly decent Ford; the fussy weakling Carter.”
Plutarch or Gibbon would likely have loved to write about Donald Trump and his headlong, unfiltered singularity. Would they have entertained (before rejecting it) the theory that Mr. Trump’s apparently fantastic ego is mere performance, mere misdirection? That all of the Trumpian ego is an act that has served to get and keep the world’s attention, that has gotten him elected president, and allowed him to disarm his enemies, in part by reducing them to incoherent rage and hatred?
Whether he has deployed it consciously or simply cannot help himself, his personality has taken him far in an unhappy, disrupted land. It is also about to get him impeached.
Paul Gigot interviews political analyst Ed Goeas to find out where the President stands as he kicks off his re-election campaign. Image: AP
Announcing his candidacy for the Republican nomination back in June 2015, Donald Trump stated “We need a leader that wrote ‘The Art of the Deal’ “. Tony Schwartz was the ghostwriter of the book Trump calls ‘his proudest achievement’. Schwartz has been vocal about his regrets in working on the piece, but, having worked intimately with Trump, provides a fascinating perspective into the personality and idiosyncrasies of the Republican nominee
3 Distinctive Trump Traits:
- Utter disregard for the truth & lack of conscience
- Guided by immediate self interest
- Inability to admit he was wrong
- Persevering. Aggressive in pursuit of Goals
- Manipulating the Media to get Attention