Vice President Pence, when challenged on President Trump’s language — for example, referring to a federal judge who enjoined his travel ban as a “so-called judge” — likes to use the crutch that the president has “a right to speak his mind.” This attempt to cast Trump as a victim — you’re denying him his First Amendment rights! — personifies the dysfunction and confusion at the heart of the presidency.
To begin with, the standard for being president, we’d like to think, remains higher than for the average citizen. Americans are entitled to expect more — that he abide by ethical standards, divest himself of conflicts of interest, reveal his tax returns, tell the truth and show respect for the co-equal branches. Frankly, his nominees (including Tillerson, who did divest himself of financial holdings) abide by a higher standard than he. The message Trump sends (and Pence as his surrogate sends) is that when it comes to this president we should have lower standards and higher tolerance for misbehavior. His desire to say what he wants, make money and ignore ethical standards take precedence.
There was this exchange on ABC’s “This Week”:
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: The president is vowing to overturn that order. This morning he called it, “A ridiculous order from a so-called judge.” A so-called judge.
Is it appropriate for the president to be questioning the legitimacy of a federal judge in that way?
PENCE: Through the course of the campaign and in the early days of this administration, President Trump’s made it clear that our administration is going to put the safety and security of the American people first. And the executive order that he put into effect, which suspends immigration from seven countries that have been compromised by terrorism and don’t have the kind of internal systems that we can be certain that people that are applying to come to this country are who they say they are, was legal. It was appropriate. And our administration is going to be using all legal means at our disposal to challenge the judge’s order.
STEPHANOPOULOS: I understand that. But is it right for the president to say, “so-called judge?”
Doesn’t that undermine the separation of powers in “The Constitution,” written right next door?
PENCE: Well. I don’t think it does. I think the American people are very accustomed to this president speaking his mind and speaking very straight with them. And it’s very frustrating when scholars on the left and the right, people as distinguished as Jonathan Turley of George Washington University have said, “While he doesn’t agree with the executive order, he recognizes the president has the full authority to put the security of the homeland first in determining who comes into this country–”
STEPHANOPOULOS: Right but this judge was appointed–
PENCE: And to see a judge actually suspend that order across the country, George, is frustrating all of us–
STEPHANOPOULOS: But so-called judge? This is a judge who was nominated by President Bush, 99-0 confirmed.
How is he a “so-called” judge?
He never got his answer.
Second, in the foreign policy realm the notion that Trump “gets to speak his mind” amounts to condoning every wrongheaded and reckless utterance. Both Republicans and Democrats swiftly rebuked Trump’s attempt to equate Russia with the United States in his interview with Bill O’Reilly, who noted Putin is a “killer.” (“There are a lot of killers. We get a lot of killers. What, you think our country’s so innocent?” Trump said.) In a written statement, ranking member on the Foreign Relations Committee Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) lambasted Trump:
Tonight, President Trump made clear he does not believe in America’s exceptionalism when he equated the United States to Vladimir Putin and his murderous regime. Such a ridiculous statement sends a signal that this White House does not in fact prioritize the United States but increasingly champions a Russia First Policy. It is offensive to the American people, veterans, and brave servicemen and women who put their lives on the line every day to protect our principles, liberties, and way of life. . . .
Equating our country with an authoritarian, murderous regime is outrageous and reprehensible, even for Mr. Trump. All elected officials in the United States have a responsibility to speak up against the President’s dangerous rhetoric
No Republican let President Obama off the hook for saying “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism,” on the grounds that the president “gets to speak his mind.”
Each time Trump speaks like Putin’s PR flack doubt grows as to whether Trump understands the threat Russia poses. (Perhaps his obnoxious moral equivalence in and of itself is “payback” to Putin, who frequently tries to convince the world that his country’s conduct is no different than that of Western democracies.)
Unsurprisingly, Pence’s effort to deny Trump was playing the moral equivalency game fell flat:
CHUCK TODD: Moral equivalency?
VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: No.
CHUCK TODD: Is there a moral equivalency there? What was that, Mr. Vice President?
VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: No, not in the least. Not in the least. I mean look, President Trump has been willing to be critical of our country’s actions in the past. And– But what you’re hearing there is a determination by the president of the United States to not let semantics or the arguments of the past get in the way of exploring the ability to work together with Russia and with President Putin in the days ahead. . . .
CHUCK TODD: I mean you know the Putin record here. Let me just put it up here. Obviously, a former KGB agent, in itself, an institution of mass killings. What he’s done to fund and promote the separatists in Eastern Ukraine, proxy wars that he’s gotten involved in that, of course, ended up in the killing of innocent passengers on MH17. Then there’s the list of mysterious deaths that are Putin-related. This is not something– what American leader has done something similar? That’s what the president seemed to say there.
VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: No, that’s not what the president said in the least.
CHUCK TODD: Then why can’t he say a negative thing about Vladimir Putin?
VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: Well, he has expressed himself in the campaign, an election that he won, that he was determined to go forward and see whether or not we might be able to start anew in a relationship with Russia. I mean the president has said many times if we got along with Russia better, that would be a good thing for the world. If we were able to work with Russia to hunt down and destroy ISIS and confront radical Islamic terrorism, that would be a good thing. . . .
CHUCK TODD: Are you comfortable with using those same words to describe Vladimir Putin?
VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: Well, using what words?
CHUCK TODD: That, basically, you know, “Yeah, he’s a bad guy, but we’ve done some bad things, too.” Are you comfortable with that moral equivalency?
VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: Again, I don’t accept that it’s a moral equivalency. I really don’t, Chuck.
CHUCK TODD: You think he misspoke?
VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: I– no. I truly believe– look, President Trump has been critical of American policy in the past. And I expect he’s always going to continue to be candid with the American people. But what you have in this president is an absolute determination to re-engage the world. I see it in the telephone calls with world leaders. We saw it when Prime Minister May came. But it’s to re-engage world leaders on American interests, to bring American strength back to the world stage.
Pence sounded incoherent, but the blame lies with the president. Republicans now are the party where the standard excuse for Trump is that words mean nothing, separation of powers deserves little respect and moral equivalency gets a pass. The GOP, in short, continues to disgrace itself each day Trump is in office.