The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘It’s only talk’ is a rotten rationalization for Trump support

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.  (Rogelio V. Solis/AP)

With President Trump’s lies and outbursts coming at a furious pace, Republicans’ favorite excuse seems to be, “It’s just talk. Ignore it. What he does is important.” They often say it with an air of condescension, as if only hysterics would get upset with the leader of the free world’s remarks. No matter how frequently the rationalization is proffered, it doesn’t become any more credible.

For one thing, what Trump does is plenty bad. Here is a small sampling:

  • Refusing to sanction Saudi Arabia and publicly contradicting the CIA’s findings that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is responsible for the killing of Jamal Khashoggi;
  • Engaging in a trade war with China;
  • Running up the debt (and demanding more spending);
  • Misusing the military as part of an election stunt to raise xenophobic fears;
  • Appointing a series of ethically challenged Cabinet members;
  • Using his presidential powers to infringe on the First Amendment;
  • Installing an acting attorney general utterly unfit for the job and in violation of the appointments clause; and
  • Endorsing and campaigning for Roy Moore.

A single one of these would be alarming; all of them collectively are unconscionable. When added to the many, many other offenses, Trump’s record of actions is awful.

Moreover, what a president says very much matters, as Republicans used to believe when they criticized President Barack Obama’s remarks about American leadership or his false promise that “If you like your health care plan, you can keep it.” The notion that the most powerful person in the world does not influence events (for better or worse) with the largest megaphone on the planet is daft.

It matters when he sides with Russian President Vladimir Putin in public over the findings of our intelligence community or praises the world’s most vicious dictator, Kim Jong Un, or picks fights with our closest allies. All these things affect the perception of the United States, our ability to influence events and our allies’ and foes’ risk-benefit analysis.

President Trump's news conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin was a disastrous capitulation, says Democracy Post editor Christian Caryl. (Video: Gillian Brockell/The Washington Post)

Likewise on domestic affairs, it matters to victims and sexual predators when the president mocks a survivor and advances the notion that false reports are rampant. It matters when he attacks the courts, as he did in his back-and-forth with Supreme Court Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. when he declared that there are “Obama judges,” and many times previously.

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The nonpartisan Protect Democracy has a useful tracker of Trump’s and his senior advisers’ attacks on the courts with dozens of outbursts since 2016. (Remember then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions came up with this when a federal court ruled against Trump in a travel ban case: “I really am amazed that a judge sitting on an island in the Pacific can issue an order that stops the president of the United States from what appears to be clearly his statutory and constitutional power.”) As former federal prosecutor Harry Litman put it, Trump is not the first president to criticize a decision, but his attacks are at an entirely different and inappropriate level of “scorn and sheer demagoguery.”

Trump has turned words (contempt for the rule of law) into action by now appointing (in violation of the Constitution, many legal experts say) an acting attorney general who has called into question Marbury v. Madison, to which we trace the entire notion of judicial review.

In a previously published report, Protect Democracy explained:

These verbal assaults are deeply concerning because they seek to delegitimize and intimidate the judges who are charged with determining whether the President’s actions are lawful.  Even more troubling, they cast doubt on the courts’ authority to fulfill its core duty: to say what the law is, and to ensure that no one, including the President, stands above the law. . . . Each of Trump’s attacks on the judiciary is troubling. But they are considerably more alarming when viewed in context – as part of a pattern of undermining the bulwark of our constitutional democracy, and quite possibly as the precursor to outright defiance.

And if you still think words don’t matter take a look around the globe:

Authoritarian leaders in Turkey, Hungary, and Poland have followed a similar pattern of verbally attacking the legitimacy of the courts when the judiciary takes steps to curb executive actions. These strongmen have then acted upon this dangerous anti-judicial rhetoric by purging the courts, increasing the ruling party’s power to appoint loyalist judges, diminishing the courts’ jurisdiction, and refusing to abide by adverse court orders. President Trump’s attacks on the courts are alarming not only because they delegitimize the judiciary, but also because they resemble the scripts these authoritarian leaders have employed to pave the way for the demise of the courts and the decline of democracy in their regimes.

In sum, Republicans can tell themselves whatever fables they please. The rest of us don’t have to buy them. Trump is an awful president both because of what he has done and for the effect his words have on our democracy. The moral nihilism inherent in this Republican defense of Trump (i.e., nothing he says matters) is indicative of the intellectual and moral rot that has destroyed a major political party.

Read more:

Charles Lane: What we should take away from the Trump-Roberts kerfuffle

Michael Gerson: The clownish caricature of Nixon in the White House

Anne Applebaum: Russia’s latest attack on the Ukrainians is a warning to the West

The Post’s View: Russia’s escalation against Ukraine shows how little Putin worries about the West

Jennifer Rubin: Trump’s weakness begets Russian aggression