Trump’s exceptionalism: No president has so disrespected our exceptional institutions
President Donald Trump branded the whistle blower, who first revealed reports about his effort to shake down Ukraine to dig up dirt on a political opponent, as a “liar” and “disgrace,” suggesting that’s what that genre is.
Whistle-blowers, many long celebrated as truth-tellers, join a list institutions Donald Trump smears, which includes: the intelligence agencies he once accused of using Nazi type tactics, the news media, the foreign service, the military and the Federal Reserve.
It’s customary for presidents to differ or complain about these institutions; none, however, has waged the vitriolic, systematic attacks to undermine them that are the hallmark of this president.
Several presidents have resented the Federal Reserve for its insufficiently accommodating — to their political interests — monetary policy. Richard Nixon went so far to leak defamatory and false stories about Board Chairman Arthur Burns. (Unfortunately, Burns ultimately capitulated to White House pressure and dashed his reputation in the process.)
But Trump repeatedly attacks the Federal Reserve, charging that chairman Jay Powell, whom he selected, is a bigger enemy of the United States economy than China. (Unlike Burns, Powell — a Republican — is unlikely to be intimidated by a bully.)
The foreign service has annoyed other presidents — the striped pants set pejorative — but most presidents appreciate the indispensable value they provide for American foreign policy. Not Trump. Witness the attacks on the distinguished former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine who he fired for putting national security interests ahead of the president’s parochial political interests. He also vowed to disseminate derogatory material about the Ukraine expert on his National Security Council, a decorated Iraqi war veteran. We’re still waiting on that.
William J. Burns, former Deputy Secretary of State, who served as top foreign policy official in both Republican and Democratic administrations, has warned that Trump’s “diplomacy of narcissism” threatens enduring damage. The foreign service he says hasn’t been under such assault since the Joe McCarthy witch-hunting days of the 1950s. (As a candidate, Dwight Eisenhower failed to stand up to McCarthy’s demagoguery in 1952, but helped engineer his downfall a few years later.)
Trump loves to parade himself as a great champion of the military. It’s largely an act.
Never was this more apparent than his intervention — spurred on by a right-wing Fox news commentator — in overruling the Naval chain of command in punishing a Navy seal turned in by colleagues for illegal acts in combat and found guilty of one.
The president rejected the military decision to hold the soldier accountable and strip him of rank. Trump just “parachutes in,” without knowledge, as former Bush national security adviser Peter Feaver put it, and ran roughshod over the military order. This has caused great dismay in the ranks.
Suppose the shoe was on other foot. An anti-war solider defected, out of conviction, and MSNBC pundits took up his case as the Army was punishing him — and President Obama, in this hypothetical case, overruled the military and pardoned him. Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham and Rep. Devin Nunes would have quickly drawn up bills of impeachment.
Most presidents complain about news coverage. Conservatives have long complained about a supposed “liberal bias,” and Nixon put unfriendly reporters on an “enemies list.” Few were more vehement than Bill Clinton’s tirades against his treatment by the New York Times.
But Trump has cheered on violent retaliation against reporters and constantly parrots the “fake news” charge that has long been a staple of dictators dating back to Hitler and Stalin. He revels in attacking the “failing New York Times,” which is flourishing financially and journalistically.
Trump actually craves the attention of the Times.
On whistle blowers, there are a few bad actors like Wikileaks’ Julian Assange, but many more have made invaluable contributions. These include Daniel Ellsberg who revealed the papers that showed the government lied about the Vietnam War; Mark Felt the “deep throat” who facilitated the Washington Post’s seminal early Watergate reporting; Pentagon official Ernest Fitzgerald who disclosed $2 billion of cost overrun scams; and Joe Wilson who revealed some of the untruths that led to America’s disastrous Iraq war.
The current Ukraine whistle blower is in that league.
What he reported last summer — and what the Administration initially sought to hide — has been confirmed as the tip of the iceberg in this scandal. He is irrelevant to the investigation now. Public testimony from higher-ranking officials has provided far more damaging and detailed stuff. The demands by Trump and his congressional allies to reveal the whistle blower’s identity is a disingenuous diversion.
Trump would reply, ‘So what?’
The only loyalty that matters is not to truth or the country but to him. Any individual or institution that interferes with that, he’ll try to take down.
Albert R. Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for the Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter-century he wrote a column on politics for The Wall Street Journal, then the International New York Times and Bloomberg View. Follow him on Twitter @alhuntdc.