President Trump is often depicted as “unconventional” and his actions “unprecedented.”
But his novelty exposes him and his administration to closer scrutiny than any previous presidency. Turns out the emperor has no clothes; his “unconventional” behavior is often criminal, corrupt, duplicitous, unreliable and incompetent. Across the spectrum of professions — from art museums and lawyers to actors, federal and local government employees, athletes, and NGOs — the outpouring of criticism is unprecedented. So is the number of negative votes cast by Democrats against every one of Trump’s cabinet nominees. Trump has been denied a honeymoon.
People in his administration are following the Trump pattern. His national security special assistant, General Michael Flynn, lied about his pre-inauguration contact with the Russian ambassador, somehow forgetting to mention that the conversation (recorded by U.S. intelligence, it turns out) included discussion of U.S. sanctions. Sean Spicer is the source of constant jokes as he desperately tries to represent the administration’s position—and consistently misrepresents it. (Spicer and Reince Priebus are rumored to be on Trump’s chopping block. Flynn just got chopped.) Kellyanne Conway violated the law by promoting Ivanka Trump’s jewelry on national TV. Betsy De Vos pretends to be an education secretary. Stephen Miller, a top aide to Trump, arrogantly claims that the president’s national security actions “will not be questioned,” and continues to trot out false claims about immigrants’ voting and links to terrorism.
As for Trump, every day he shamelessly violates the Constitution’s so-called emolument clause by profiting from the visits of foreign dignitaries to his hotels and golf resorts. He clearly will not reveal his tax returns or put a wall between him and his assets unless under court order.
Every day he displays an inability to focus on the important and instead attacks those who criticize him. And every day he reveals an embarrassing lack of experience in foreign affairs, such as welcoming Japan’s leader as “Prime Minister Shinzo” instead of Abe, changing his mind (at least for now) on “One China” and Israel’s illegal settlements in the West Bank, insulting the leaders of Mexico and Australia, and sloppily handling classified material and national security conversations (such as happened over dinner with Abe when informed of a North Korean missile test).
Stephen Bannon is a different species entirely. He hides in the wings, avoiding conversation about his attraction to fascism, his understanding of “America First,” and his cozy relationship with far-right white supremacists from the Vatican to France and Britain. Unlike some of his colleagues, he knows what he’s about, and thrives on not having to answer to anyone but Trump. When Bannon calls the media “the opposition party” and advises them to “shut up,” portrays Muslims as enemies of the state, and suggests that the 1930s were “exciting,” we had better wake up to the threat to democracy he poses.
Fortunately, this administration’s dysfunction is costing it in cohesiveness and efficacy. Leaks are more numerous than usual, so much so that an “insider threat” program is reportedly under consideration to catch the leakers. The New York Times reports that Flynn’s National Security Council is in turmoil as foreign policy professionals try to keep up with (and understand) Trump’s tweets.
As the fiasco surrounding the executive order on a Muslim ban showed, officials who should be consulted on important decisions are being bypassed. The halls of the State Department and other agencies are largely empty as many experienced people have either resigned or been pushed out.
Trump’s honeymoon never happened because he gave us no reason to be patient and “see how he does.” A majority of Americans are on to him: the Feb. 13 Gallup Poll shows that he has set another record for unpopularity: a 40 percent approval rating and 55 percent disapproval. How low can he go? Watch and see, but also act.
Mel Gurtov, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University.