THE MORNING PLUM:
Before you angrily suggest that I’m arguing that Donald Trump is an illegitimate president, let me be clear: No, I’m not. Even if valid questions linger about whether interference by Russia and James B. Comey did help make Trump’s victory possible, I believe Trump is a legitimate president who legitimately won the election.
Rather, I would like to argue that the message that Trump is not your president is one that Trump himself regularly sends to large swaths of the country — deliberately. This is the through line for understanding the Dinesh D’Souza pardon, Trump’s response to the firing of Roseanne Barr, his assaults on the rule of law, and other high-profile Trumpian degradations.
Today, D’Souza opened up to Fox News about a conversation he had with Trump about the president’s decision to pardon him:
“The president said, ‘Dinesh, you’ve been a great voice for freedom,’ and he said that, ‘I got to tell you man-to-man, you’ve been screwed,’ ” D’Souza told Fox. …
“He said upon reviewing it, he felt a great injustice had been done and that using his power, he was going to rectify it, sort of clear the slate, and he said he just wanted me to be out there, to be a bigger voice than ever, defending the principles that I believe in,” D’Souza said.
This generally comports with the White House’s public explanations for the pardon. Officials have said Trump views the original prosecution of D’Souza — for breaking campaign finance laws in an act of serious fraud — as a “selective prosecution by the previous administration,” i.e., a political prosecution. This is the “great injustice” D’Souza referred to.
But in these new comments, D’Souza is also implicitly pointing to what is almost certainly the real reason for the pardon: Trump sees D’Souza as an ally, and he wanted to use “his power” to reward and elevate D’Souza, because he can.
“When we evaluate a pardon, the first thing we should ask is whether the pardon is correcting an injustice, or whether it’s serving a narrow political interest of the president,” University of Chicago law professor Eric Posner told me today. The pardon power exists to “correct politically motivated prosecutions,” Posner noted. But if the original prosecution wasn’t, in fact, politically motivated, Posner added, such a pardon doesn’t actually correct an injustice, but instead serves some other interest and risks “contributing to the overall corruption of our country.”
We will never know for sure whether Trump actually evaluated the legitimacy of D’Souza’s prosecution. But we can infer that he probably did not in any meaningful sense. As Steve Vladeck points out, this is part of a pattern in which Trump doles out pardons without going through conventional internal processes. And we already know Trump views the pardon power as a way to reward allies and serve his own political interests — because he’s already used it that way. Trump pardoned former Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio, one of Trump’s staunchest political allies, after getting “sold on the pardon as a way of pleasing his political base.”
As Dahlia Lithwick and Mark Joseph Stern point out, these are basically “performative pardons,” in which Trump is effectively sending a message to his people — that is, the slice of his base that thrills to the likes of D’Souza and Arpaio — that he’ll use his powers in whatever ways he can to have their back. But as bad as that is, there is still another dimension to this that is even worse — the message it sends to the rest of the country.
Trump has no sense of institutional obligation to the people
It is now inescapably obvious that in cases such as these, Trump is demonstrating that he does not believe the presidency confers on him any institutional obligation to the rule of law or to the American people — that is, to all the people. If Trump will use the pardon power to tell his people he has their back, what does that say to everyone else? In Arpaio’s case, it says Trump will use his power to protect Arpaio from accountability — he’s one of us — but also that the rule of law will not provide justice to Arpaio’s Latino victims.
We see this on other fronts as well. In response to Roseanne Barr’s racism, the White House insisted that ABC’s sacking of Barr showed a “double standard,” in which Trump unfairly did not receive an apology. This is not an act of omission; it’s an act of commission. The intended message is that African Americans are not the victims of a form of racism that has uniquely awful status in our history, or at least that Trump feels no institutional obligation as president to condemn it as such during fraught national moments.
This was also the obvious intention behind Trump’s insistence, in the wake of white-supremacist violence and murder in Charlottesville, that there is “hatred” and “bigotry” on “many sides.” When faced with a severe backlash over this, Trump felt “vindicated.” Why? Because he sensed his base would agree with him. There was no sense of any obligation to speak to the whole nation as a unifying voice at a difficult moment or to use the presidential bully pulpit to acknowledge that today’s white supremacy carries echoes of a monstrous historical crime and as such deserves unambiguous condemnation. Trump thus shed the presidential obligation to speak in sufficiently conciliatory tones to the Americans who are descended from the victims of it.
Or take Trump’s assaults on the independence of the Justice Department. The norm of prosecutorial independence rests on the idea that law enforcement is supposed to answer not just to the president but also to the law and to the people. Trump flatly rejects this idea: Law enforcement is, to Trump, little more than an instrument of his political will. Here again Trump feels no institutional obligation to the law or to the people — with the exception of his people.
In short, all of this is part of the same story, in which Trump is basically telling you — most of you — that he isn’t your president.
* WHY TRADE TALKS COLLAPSED: The Post reports that Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau claims the talks over a renegotiated North American Free Trade Agreement imploded when Vice President Pence demanded a five-year sunset clause. Now Trump has slapped tariffs on our allies:
“I had to highlight that there was no possibility of any Canadian prime minister signing a NAFTA deal that included a five-year sunset clause, and obviously the visit didn’t happen,” Trudeau said Thursday. … Canada, Mexico and the European Union … are expected to retaliate in what is becoming a fast-developing global trade war.
A global trade war sounds easy to win. How many fronts will we be fighting this trade war on, anyway?
* BUSINESSES COPE WITH TRUMP CHAOS: Neil Irwin reports that Trump’s new trade war suggests something very dangerous to the business world that goes beyond just the tariffs themselves:
The administration’s trade policy is displaying an erratic, improvised, us-against-the-world quality that is anathema to businesses that must make long-term decisions about how to deploy capital. … This bigger cost is harder to measure, but that doesn’t make it less real. That is the risk that the United States is not as stable and reliable a place to do business as you once thought.
Is all this chaos really worth the tax cut?
* TRUMP ADVISERS HAVE NO IDEA WHAT HE’S THINKING: Politico reports on how the “fine-tuned machine” works when it comes to trade policy:
Senior administration officials profess privately to not knowing exactly what Trump will ultimately decide to do on trade at any given moment. The uncertainty has led the president’s advisers to compete for his attention in a bid to sway him, leading to nasty behind-the-scenes fights that are increasingly bursting into public view.
In all seriousness, how could they possibly know what Trump will do at any given moment, given that Trump himself plainly doesn’t?
* KUSHNER FRIEND COMES UNDER SCRUTINY: NBC News reports that Robert S. Mueller III is now scrutinizing a friend of Jared Kushner, hedge funder Richard Gerson, over his communications during the transition with officials and representatives from the United Arab Emirates:
Mueller’s interest in Gerson is another sign that he is examining connections between the UAE and Trump associates. Counterintelligence investigators have been scrutinizing UAE influence in the Trump campaign since before Mueller was appointed as special counsel, and the probe has continued in coordination with Mueller’s team, according to two people briefed on the investigation.
This is your regular reminder that we don’t have the foggiest idea what Mueller has learned.
* BANNON URGES TRUMP TO FIRE ROSENSTEIN: Stephen K. Bannon tells CNN that Trump should be ready to fire Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein if he doesn’t turn over all documents relating to the FBI informant:
“You turn over every document, and if he doesn’t turn it over, you give him 24 hours. If he doesn’t turn it over, I would fire him, and that’s not obstruction of justice. … That’s giving a law enforcement officer a direct order to turn over documents to Capitol Hill, and if he doesn’t do it, I would fire him.”
Trump’s allies are goading him to openly create a pretext for firing Rosenstein so he can install a loyalist to hamper a legitimate investigation into himself. Good times.
* A BIG TEST FOR SINGLE-PAYER: Vox reports that an argument is underway among Democrats over whether candidates embracing Medicare-for-All can win in swing or Republican districts:
This year, dozens of Medicare-for-all candidates … believe it’s time for Democrats to draw a line over issues like health care. … All over the United States, Democratic primary voters are being asked to choose. … Do they vote for the policies they really believe in — like Medicare-for-all, which is now a majority position within the party? Or do they vote on electability, knowing Republicans will pummel a single-payer advocate as just one more tax-and-spend Democrat?
As one Medicare-for-All candidate puts it, this is about projecting the courage to stand for something. How this plays in swing districts will have an impact on the party’s future agenda.
* AND TRUMP ACTED LIKE A ‘TODDLER’: Trump met with families grieving over the recent Texas mass shooting, and Rhonda Hart, a mother who lost a daughter, came away unsatisfied:
Hart … told The Associated Press that Trump repeatedly used the word ‘wacky’ to describe the shooter and the trench coat he wore. She said she told Trump, “Maybe if everyone had access to mental health care, we wouldn’t be in the situation.”
Hart, an Army veteran, said she also suggested employing veterans as sentinels in schools. She said Trump responded, “And arm them?” She replied, “No,” but said Trump “kept mentioning” arming classroom teachers. “It was like talking to a toddler,” Hart said.
In fairness, others said Trump showed sincerity and compassion. But we’ll never know for sure, because, as the AP notes, “reporters were not permitted to witness the meeting.”