The past week of the Trump presidency felt like that point in a video game when you’ve reached a new level and the widgets suddenly start flying at you too fast to dodge. There was an attack on free speech. On an independent judiciary. And with the president’s horrific reference to “shithole countries,” on America’s tradition of offering a welcoming hand to the downtrodden. So much so quickly that it’s difficult to process it all.
But we must. To fail to note these departures from normalcy — from the institutions and values that have actually made America great all along — is to tacitly countenance the outrage and, worse, to risk that we will begin to fail to recognize it as such.
So, fresh from having dispatched his personal lawyers to make the laughable but, coming from a president, nonetheless scary effort to halt publication of a critical book, President Trump renewed his assault on free speech. “Our current libel laws are a sham and a disgrace and do not represent American values or American fairness,” Trump announced during a Cabinet meeting Wednesday.
In fact, our libel laws embody American values, balancing First Amendment imperatives with the need to provide a remedy for egregiously irresponsible conduct.
It’s easy to dismiss Trump’s words as more ignorant bloviating, without real-world consequences. After all, libel laws — beyond the constitutional limits placed on them — are essentially a state matter. And yet, it was scary enough when threats to “open up the libel laws” came from a presidential candidate. This man is the president. He swore an oath to defend a Constitution about which he knows little and cares less.
More evidence for that conclusion: Trump’s tweeted blast, earlier on Wednesday, on a court ruling that blocked the president’s plan to end the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, designed to protect “dreamers” from deportation.
“It just shows everyone how broken and unfair our Court System is when the opposing side in a case (such as DACA) always runs to the 9th Circuit and almost always wins before being reversed by higher courts,” Trump tweeted .
So goes the rule of law according to Trump: When he wins, the court is wise and good. When he loses, the system is rigged and the judge is so-called. Perhaps the district court’s ruling was wrong and will be overturned. That does not prove our “Court System” is any more “broken and unfair” than when opponents of another Obama-era immigration order chose to file suit in a federal court in Texas that would probably be sympathetic to their claim. The appropriate response to losing in court is respectfully disagreeing and filing an appeal — not spewing forth tweets that undermine the system’s very legitimacy.
The next day found Trump once again demonstrating his disdain for free speech and, relatedly, his authoritarian impulses. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Trump accused an FBI agent of treason — yes, treason — for sending texts critical of the president’s candidacy.
The question that unleashed this alarming tirade had to do with Trump’s tweeted call for Republicans in Congress to “finally take control” of the Russia probe. From this prompt, Trump made his way to FBI agent Peter Strzok, who was removed from the special counsel investigation into Trump and Russia after the texts were discovered.
Trump: “And what went on with the FBI, where a man is tweeting to his lover that if [Hillary Clinton] loses . . . we’ll go to the insurance policy, which is — if they lose, we’ll go to phase 2, and we’ll get this guy out of office. . . . I think that is — that is treason. See, that’s treason right there. . . . What he tweeted to his lover is a treasonous act.”
Leave aside Trump’s ultraparanoid interpretation of an ambiguous text. Leave aside the Constitution’s careful definition of the crime: “Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort.”
Trump — a man who claims the “absolute right to do what I want to do with the Justice Department” — is accusing a lifelong public servant of the gravest offense. Luckily for Trump, the libel laws would probably protect him against the lawsuit he deserves.
So yes, Trump’s reference to “shithole countries” represents a terrible, tragic moment in our nation’s history. Even more terrible and tragic: This was only the worst of so many more, over the span of just a few days, in a week all too typical of this appalling presidency.