The President of the United States is considered the most powerful person on Earth. That power emanates from the U.S, Constitution, the clout of being head of a political party and interest groups that helped elect him, and the nation’s economic and military might. All combined, a President is incredibly powerful.
But like the comic book superheroes, having the power also comes with the responsibility to use it wisely and with restraint. When it comes to President Trump, there has been too little wisdom or restraint.
President Trump has been using his power. He has dramatically changed the nation’s policies toward immigration, withdrawn from international agreements, fundamentally re-shaped the courts, advanced legislative initiatives, and reversed public health and environmental regulations. All of that is in keeping with his campaign promises and, as a result, the President enjoys near unanimous support among members of the Republican party.
Being a President though is not just about popularity among members of your own party – it’s supposed to be about serving the public – everyone. And here his policies have been lacking.
Take for example the President’s approach to climate change. Unlike other issues in which there can be arguments on both sides, the President’s approach has been to reject science itself. There is no doubt that the planet is heating up and the vast and overwhelming majority of climate scientists believe that human activities are the primary cause. Even the secret research of the fossil fuel industry long ago concluded that the burning of oil, coal and gas heats up the planet.
By rejecting science, the President not only is sentencing millions to incredible misery and early deaths, but his policies are accelerating climate changes that may seriously damage civilization as we know it by the end of the Century. His approach is reckless and dangerous.
It’s the recklessness that is also reflected in the President’s abusive rhetoric in attacking his political opponents and, in particular, the media.
His tweets includes phrases that describe reporters as “very unpatriotic,” “disgusting and dishonest people,” who indulge in “fake news.” Those attacks are not only vulgar, but dangerous.
One example of the danger: covering a Trump rally these days opens reporters, now more than ever, to jeers, middle-finger insults, and threats of violence. Many have to be protected by their own “security guards.” CNN’s Jim Acosta, who covers the White House, said he was “very worried” by the “hostility whipped up by Trump.” MSNBC’s Katy Tur told her viewers that she has been threatened with “rape”—and worse. A reader warned New York Times columnist Bret Stephens, “once we start shooting you f—ers, you aren’t going to pop off like you do now.”
The danger goes beyond those faced by reporters, it extends to our democracy. It is clear that the President’s goal is to undermine the credibility of the mainstream media to weaken the impact of honest reporting covering his policies and to weaken the impact of reporting of the current Justice Department probe into his campaign’s alleged cooperation with the Russian government in the last Presidential election and whether the president obstructed justice in firing the head of the FBI.
The President’s approach may work if the Justice Department’s special counsel, Robert Mueller, issues formal charges against the President’s campaign or the President himself. The President has now positioned himself – at least among his supporters – to be believed if he responds as expected by charging that the investigation is the result of a partisan attack, one which is the result of a “witch hunt” and must not to be believed.
Because the President has a strong following within his political base, it is likely that they will believe his statements that the charges are the result of an unfair conspiracy, not the truth. Given current Republican control of the Congress, strong support may allow the President to avert the damage of a negative report from the special prosecutor. Of course, if no such report is issued, none of this will matter.
However, if the report is negative, and if the Congress refuses to act, where then is the rule of law, the idea that no person stands above the law, a pillar of American democracy?
It is the rule of law that is the foundation of our democracy. Freedom of the press is enshrined in our Constitution. If the President – or his top associates – are able to avoid punishment as the result of the manipulation and intimidation of the media, the nation loses and our democracy is damaged, forever.
Blair Horner is executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.
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