Many of the same people who defended the independent counsel investigating President Bill Clinton now excoriate the special counsel investigating President Trump for no better reason than the fact that Clinton is a Democrat and Trump a Republican. And vice versa. This kind of tribalism is all too common in politics. That is why it’s important for those of us in the opinion-slinging business to do an occasional self-audit and ask whether we are taking positions based on merit or on political convenience.
That is an especially difficult question when politics is dominated by a figure as polarizing as Trump. The hypocrisy of his supporters is legion — fiscal conservatives have embraced record deficits, moral conservatives have embraced payoffs to a porn star, free-traders have embraced tariffs, champions of law and order have embraced a scorched-earth campaign against the FBI, etc. But just because Trump supporters are being hypocritical doesn’t mean Trump opponents can’t be guilty of the same vice. I have recently been accused of flip-flopping on the Iran nuclear deal and torture because of my hatred for Trump. “Double standards thy name is Max Boot,” wrote one Twitter troll.
Before I get to the specifics of those charges, I want to acknowledge that it is not easy to remain objective about a president I dislike. Indeed, I cannot fathom how anyone with a shred of decency can fail to dislike a president who is a pathological liar, braggart, bully, sexist, racist and nativist — a president who calls the free press “the enemy of the American people,” but praises the world’s most vicious dictators in the most fulsome terms.
Knowing what I do of Trump’s character, I find it impossible to judge his decisions in a vacuum as if they were being spit out of a computer. Indeed, it would be a mistake to do so. Whenever a president announces a policy, you must ask: Is he telling the truth, has he prudently weighed all the courses of action, and does he know what he is doing? With Trump, it is hard to have any confidence on those matters.
There are still actions of Trump’s that I support: his increase in the defense budget, his imposition of harsh sanctions on North Korea, and his move of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem. But I will concede that sometimes my skepticism goes beyond what is warranted. For instance, last fall, I was critical of Trump for raining rhetorical “fire and fury” on North Korea, but it now appears his threats of military action may have helped bring Kim Jong Un to the negotiating table. Whether Kim will make serious concessions is another issue — but I have to admit, despite my initial skepticism, that he might.
When I’ve changed my position, I’ve tried to be transparent about my reasoning — writing a whole column, for example, explaining why I supported John Bolton to become U.S. ambassador to the United Nations in 2005, but not to become national security adviser this year. Part of my change of heart about Bolton has to do with my change of heart about whether the invasion of Iraq was a good idea — an issue on which I am now, ironically, on the same side as Trump.
As the Iraq War suggests, I have been doing some rethinking in general that has nothing to do with Trump. Take torture. As I acknowledged in my recent column on Gina Haspel, the nominee to become CIA director, I used to be a supporter of “enhanced interrogation techniques,” but I came to conclude that the costs outweighed the benefits. This was a realization I made pre-Trump. In 2014, I wrote that “I tend to agree that we should not torture.” Admittedly the tone of that article was different, because it was focused on disputing liberals who would “flay [former president George W.] Bush, [former vice president Dick] Cheney, and the CIA as latter-day Nazis.” More recently, my focus has been on disputing Trump’s endorsement of torture. But I haven’t flip-flopped on torture because of Trump.
What about the Iran nuclear deal? As I’ve repeatedly acknowledged, I opposed it. So does that mean, as some suggest (“When did Max Boot go pro Iran??” a Twitterer demands), that I’m a hypocrite for opposing Trump’s pullout? Not quite. I wrote on July 19, 2015, that the deal “will be very hard to escape . . . absent pretty clear evidence of Iranian cheating” – which is, according to Trump’s own secretary of state, currently lacking. “The best bet for the next president,” I wrote, “could well be to calculate that, with the treaty at least placing some limitations on the Iranian nuclear program and with Iran already having gotten its financial windfall, it might be better to keep the accord in place while taking other steps to counteract Iran’s growing power grab.” That is the same thing I have been saying more recently.
In sum, I think I’ve stayed more consistent than most of Trump’s supporters. But I will remain vigilant against allowing my dim view of the president’s character — however well-founded — to distort my views of his policies. Even someone as offensive as Trump can still get a few things right.