The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion At the root of Trump’s new fury: Total contempt for American democracy

Here's what happened after President Trump fired off a tweet accusing former president Barack Obama of wiretapping Trump Tower before the 2016 election. (Video: Monica Akhtar/The Washington Post)


President Trump is now wallowing in fury, we are told, because he can’t make the Russia story disappear; he can’t stem the leaks to the media; and he can’t seem to realize his promises. Some reports tell us that unflattering comparisons to Barack Obama’s early accomplishments are “gnawing at Trump,” while others say he went “ballistic” when Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from the Russia probe, because it telegraphed capitulation to Trump’s foes.

But all of these things are connected by a common thread: Trump is enraged at being subjected to a system of democratic and institutional constraints, for which he has signaled nothing but absolute, unbridled contempt. The system is pushing back, and he can’t bear it.

On Monday morning, the latest chapter in this tale — Trump’s unsupported accusation that Obama wiretapped his phones — took another turn. Trump’s spokeswoman said on ABC News that Trump does not accept FBI Director James Comey’s claim — which was reported on over the weekend — that no such wiretapping ever happened.

As E.J. Dionne writes, this episode is a “tipping point” in the Trump experiment. Trump leveled the charge based on conservative media. Then, after an internal search for evidence to back it up produced nothing, the White House press secretary called on Congress to investigate it and declared the administration’s work done. While the previous administration did wiretap, the problem is the recklessness and baselessness of Trump’s specific allegations, and the White House’s insistence that the burden of disproving them must fall on others — on Congress and on the FBI. Trump’s allegations must be humored at all costs, simply because he declared them to be true — there can be no admission of error, and worse, the White House has declared itself liberated from the need to even pretend to have evidence to back up even Trump’s most explosive claims.

Trump needs an intervention

This is more than disdain for the truth. It represents profound contempt for our democratic and institutional processes. In this sense, it’s only the latest in what has become a broader pattern:

  • When the media accurately reported on Trump’s inaugural crowd sizes, the White House not only contested this on the substance in a laughably absurd manner. It also accused the press of intentionally diminishing Trump’s crowd count, thus trying to delegitimize the news media’s institutional act of holding Trump accountable to factual reality.
  • Trump has tweeted that the media is the “enemy of the American people” and has accused the media of covering up terrorist plots. Stephen K. Bannon has railed against the press as “the opposition party.” Trump gave a recent speech heavily devoted to attacking the media, once again for deliberately and knowingly misleading Americans. All this goes far beyond merely questioning the media’s role as an arbiter of truth.
  • After getting elected, Trump continued to repeat the lie that millions voted illegally in the election, undermining faith in American democracy. When the media called out this falsehood, the White House threatened an investigation to prove it true, which hasn’t materialized, in effect using the vow of investigations as nothing more than a tool to obfuscate efforts to hold him accountable.
  • After a court blocked Trump’s travel ban, Trump questioned the institutional legitimacy of the “so-called judge” in question. He also cast the stay as a threat to our security, even though the ban has no credible national security rationale, something that has now been demonstrated by leaks from the Department of Homeland Security (exactly the sort of leaking that has Trump in a fury). Senior adviser Stephen Miller flatly declared that the ban would be reintroduced in part to demonstrate that Trump’s national security power “will not be questioned,” thus declaring the explicit goal of sweeping away institutional checks on it. And then the White House delayed introduction of the new ban in order to continue basking in good press from his speech to Congress, thus undercutting its own claim that this is an urgent national security matter.
  • Trump continues to hold court at Mar-a-Lago, using the power of the presidency to promote his own resort, whose membership fees sink money into his own pockets. The White House publicly intervened in a business dispute involving Trump’s daughter and even tried to steer customers her way, an act which Kellyanne Conway embellished by cheerfully sticking a rhetorical middle finger in the face of anyone who finds such behavior troubling.

We’re witnessing a level of total disdain for basic democratic and institutional processes that defies description, and perhaps calls for a new vocabulary. But the story does not end here. As Benjamin Wittes and Quinta Jurecic explain in a great piece, the almost comical lack of good faith that Trump and the White House are showing toward our processes is inspiring an escalation in institutional pushback — from the courts, the media, government leakers, and civil society — that is having much more of a constraining effect than Trump ever could have anticipated. Indeed, the Trump White House’s ongoing conduct is itself producing the very systemic resistance that now has Trump in such a rage.

Trump: Bonkers, paranoid or trapped?


* BIG MAJORITY WANTS SPECIAL PROSECUTOR ON RUSSIA: A new CNN poll finds that nearly two thirds of Americans want a special prosecutor to examine potential contacts between Russia and the Trump campaign, including a large chunk of Republicans:

Among Republicans, a majority feel Congress can handle the investigation, but a sizable 43 percent support the call for a special prosecutor, as do majorities of Democrats (82 percent) and independents (67 percent). Overall, the poll finds that 65 percent would rather see a special prosecutor handle the investigation, while 32 percent think Congress is capable of handling it.

Meanwhile, the poll finds that Trump’s approval has barely budged — it’s 45 percent — which is odd, since pundits told us that his awesomely “presidential” speech would give him a bump.

* HERE COMES THE NEW, REVISED TRAVEL BAN: The Associated Press reports that Trump’s new immigration ban will be rolled out today or later this week:

The revised order is expected to remove Iraq from the list of countries whose citizens face a 90-day U.S. travel ban. That follows pressure from the Pentagon and State Department … Other changes are also expected, including making clear that all existing visas will be honored and no longer singling out Syrian refugees for an indefinite ban. Syrian refugees will now be treated like other refugees and be subjected to a 120-day suspension of the refugee program.

It’s hard to say whether this one will fare better in court, but it’s worth noting that two Department of Homeland Security documents have now leaked undercutting the case for it.

The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld an earlier halt on President Trump's second attempt at a travel ban on May 25. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)

* WHAT A WIRETAP OF TRUMP TOWER WOULD MEAN: Charlie Savage notes that the former president could not legally have wiretapped Trump Tower and adds:

If it was a criminal wiretap, it would mean that the Justice Department had gathered sufficient evidence to convince a federal judge that someone using the phone number or email address probably committed a serious crime. If it was a national security wiretap, it would mean a federal judge on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court had a basis to believe the target was probably an agent of a foreign power, like Russia.

It seems unlikely at best that this happened, but it’s kind of amusing that Trump is alleging it, given what it would really mean in practice.

Former director of national intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. denies that President Trump’s 2016 campaign was wiretapped. (Video: Bastien Inzaurralde/The Washington Post, Photo: JONATHAN ERNST/The Washington Post)

* DEMS SCHEME TO BLOCK TRUMP’S WALL: Axios reports that Chuck Schumer and other top Democrats are planning to filibuster the funding for Trump’s planned wall on the Mexican border, as a huge symbolic victory:

There’s nothing the Republicans would be willing to offer that could get Trump the eight Democratic Senators he needs to fund the wall … The way Democrats see it, if they can block the wall, they’d crush a central feature of Trump’s political identity. And … Schumer would thrill the Democratic base (though less so the red-state Democratic senators up in 2018).

Okay, but if Democrats really want to deal Trump a big blow on immigration, they should block funding for his proposal to add 10,000 agents to carry out mass deportations.

* RUSSIAN HACKERS TARGET LIBERAL GROUPS: Bloomberg scoops that Russia hackers are targeting a number of progressive groups, demanding “hush money” by using sensitive data they’ve obtained to blackmail them:

The hackers’ targeting of left-leaning groups — and the sifting of emails for sensitive or discrediting information — has set off alarms that the attacks could constitute a fresh wave of Russian government meddling in the U.S. political system … Some of the groups are associated with causes now under attack by the Trump administration.

The coincidences continue to mount.

* GOP HEALTH PLAN WILL ENRAGE EVERYBODY: Paul Krugman explains why the GOP’s repeal-and-replace bill seems destined to infuriate people all across the political spectrum:

Republicans have belatedly discovered what some of us tried to tell them all along: The only way to maintain coverage for the 20 million people who gained insurance thanks to Obamacare is with a plan that, surprise, looks a lot like Obamacare. Sure enough, the new plan reportedly does look like a sort of half-baked version of the Affordable Care Act … it’s enough like Obamacare to infuriate hard-line conservatives, but it weakens key aspects of the law enough to deprive millions of Americans … of essential health care.

But Republicans will be able to claim they finally liberated the country from Obamacare after seven long years of darkness and oppression, so who cares about the details?

* AND THE QUOTE OF THE DAY: Trump spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders, on NBC this morning:

“If the president walked across the Potomac, the media would report that he couldn’t swim.”

How long until Trump’s Ministers of Disinformation bash the media for refusing to report that he can walk on water?