By Frank Bowman
The media are understandably abuzz with reports about Mr. Trump’s use during yesterday’s White House meeting on immigration of a vulgarity to refer to Haiti, El Salvador, and some African nations. But the horrified focus on the phrase “s***-hole countries” has served to obscure the multiple ways in which, during a single day, Mr. Trump displayed his unfitness for the presidency.
The “s***-hole countries” comment does perhaps deserve pride of place because it illustrates at least two disqualifying character traits.
First, although I am deeply reluctant to get into the business of assessing anyone else’s racial attitudes (none of us being pristine in this regard), it is darn near impossible to hear Mr. Trump’s vulgar denigration of countries populated by brown people as anything other than a manifestation of personal prejudice, particularly in light of his reported enthusiasm in the same meeting for immigration from places like Norway. And even if, as Mr. Trump’s defenders are valiantly seeking to do, one could explain away this particular remark, it was not an isolated incident. His consistent use of overt or barely coded racial appeals compels the conclusion that he is either personally bigoted or is at the least prepared to play on the prejudices of a segment of the public to advance his political ends. Either characteristic should be disqualifying in a president because it places him in opposition to the founding ideals of the country (“all men are created equal”) and core legal principles written into the constitution and statutory law.
Second, the use of a racially-charged vulgarity in the setting of a delicate negotiation with congressional leaders is a demonstration of personal indiscipline and professional incompetence. Among a president’s primary jobs are the practical one of helping to guide the legislative process toward enactments consistent with the administration program and the aspirational one of acting as a behavioral exemplar to the country. It goes without saying that public displays of vulgarity and racial insensitivity hardly uplift the nation. But anyone who does not understand that behavior of this sort is almost sure to mortally offend those with whom one is negotiating and thus to derail the negotiation has no business in any executive position, much less the Oval Office.
That said, the “s***-hole countries” incident actually pales in comparison to several remarks Mr. Trump made during a Thursday interview with the Wall Street Journal. I’ll mention only two here.
During a discussion of the recently released tell-all book, Fire & Fury, Mr. Trump repeated his previously expressed view that libel laws should be strengthened, and went on to complain that this would not happen because “congress doesn’t have the ‘guts’ for that debate.” This is profoundly troubling for two reasons.
First, it is of a piece with Mr. Trump’s continued disparagement of the press. All presidents are at times resentful of the media. And there’s nothing inherently wrong with presidential criticism of either particular coverage or the general approach of the 4th Estate. But a president should not, consistent with his obligation to support and defend the constitution, actively seek to undermine the free press guaranteed by the First Amendment. Mr. Trump’s behavior has consistently run very close to that impermissible line, if indeed it has not already crossed it. Indeed, Trump’s virulent disparagement of all media not overtly adulatory of him is distressingly consistent with the approach taken by anti-democratic authoritarian leaders of the past century.
Second, Mr. Trump’s criticism of Congress for failing to change libel laws illustrates — once again — his yawning ignorance of American law and government. There is no federal libel statute. Libel law is a matter of state jurisdiction. This is not to rule out absolutely the possibility that, in theory, congress could pass a national libel statute. But it would seem quite difficult to find a constitutional warrant for doing so even in an expansive reading of the commerce clause. And more to the point, by immemorial American practice, libel is a state matter.
Mr. Trump’s defenders would no doubt respond that this is a picky, technical legal point that only an academic pointy-head would care about. But that’s precisely wrong. A president should know this sort of thing. It’s part of the background knowledge of American public life that should be a minimal qualification for the presidential office. But even more critically, a president who is actively proposing congressional action in a particular area has an obligation to find out the status of current law and to identify the appropriate body to make changes before he shoots off his mouth.
No president can know everything. All presidents, even deeply experienced ones, come to office with big gaps in their knowledge. But a minimal expectation of any president is that he or she become informed before advocating important changes in federal law.
During the Wall Street Journal interview, Mr. Trump also contended that text messages sent by an FBI agent during the campaign criticizing Trump and expressing dismay at the possibility of his election amounted to “treason.” This comment, too, illustrates multiple disqualifying Trumpian traits.
First, just as with the libel remark, Mr. Trump demonstrates a sad ignorance of the law. Treason is the one offense named and defined in the constitution itself, which provides that treason “shall consist only in levying war against [the United States], or in adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort.” Whatever the FBI agent’s texts may be, they are not treason.
Again, Mr. Trump’s defenders may say that this is picayune legal nicety. But it’s not. A president is supposed to know what the constitution says. And even if he doesn’t remember the place of “treason” in the constitution, a president should never publicly accuse someone of a capital crime – which treason is – without at a minimum fully and carefully considering whether the accusation has any merit. Indeed, the best practice is for presidents to studiously avoid publicly accusing people of crimes at all, since doing so both damages the reputation of the accused in a forum where he has no opportunity to respond and preempts the role of the Justice Department in determining through formal legal processes whether charges should be preferred against anyone.
Second, and more distressingly, the accusation of treason here is yet another in the steady stream of examples of Mr. Trump characterizing his opponents as criminals and criticism of him as something to be suppressed by either civil law (libel) or criminal prosecution (treason). It becomes plainer by the day that Mr. Trump increasingly conceives of himself as indivisible from the country, that, incredibly in an American president, he subscribes to Louis XIV’s view that “L’etat c’est moi.” Only for a man who sees the world this way is this accusation of treason comprehensible.
Our national crisis deepens.