U.S. presidents often feel it’s their duty to provide clarity to the country on pressing questions of right and wrong.
When President Abraham Lincoln was asked during the Civil War if his side enjoyed divine favor, he purportedly replied, “Sir, my concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God’s side, for God is always right.”
But President Trump, who often recognizes Lincoln for his superior leadership, can usually be counted on to blame “both sides.” Be the topic race relations, international affairs or the “civility” debates, Trump often refuses to point a finger.
“Do you hold Russia at all accountable for anything in particular?” a Reuters reporter asked Trump during his news conference Monday with Russian President Vladimir Putin. “And if so, what would you — what would you consider them — that they are responsible for?”
Yes I do. I hold both countries responsible.
I think that the United States has been foolish. I think we’ve all been foolish. We should’ve had this dialogue a long time ago; a long time, frankly, before I got to office.
And I think we’re all to blame. I think that the United States now has stepped forward along with Russia, and we’re getting together and we have a chance to do some great things, whether it’s nuclear proliferation in terms of stopping — you have to do it, ultimately that's probably the most important thing that we could be working on.
But I do feel that we have both made some mistakes. I think that the — the probe is a disaster for our country. I think it’s kept us apart, it’s kept us separated.
With this answer, Trump once again displayed his inability to recognize that one side misbehaved in a way that the other side did not. It is not clear what Trump believes the United States did that was comparably “foolish” to Russia's interference in the 2016 election, but what is clear is that blaming “both sides” has become a staple of his presidency.
After white supremacists led a rally in Charlottesville last summer that descended into violence, Trump blamed “both sides” for the chaos there. He compared anti-racism protesters who lacked a permit to white supremacists who had organized to defend Confederate memorials.
“I think there’s blame on both sides. And I have no doubt about it,” Trump said in the aftermath of Charlottesville.
“You had a group on one side that was bad and you had a group on the other side that was also very violent,” he said. “No one wants to say that, but I’ll say it right now: You had a group on the other side that came charging in without a permit and they were very, very violent.”
And during an interview with then-Fox News host Bill O’Reilly during the presidential campaign, Trump suggested that the United States behaved in a way comparable to Russia when it came to killing journalists and dissidents. The Washington Post reported:
O’Reilly pressed on, declaring to the president that “Putin is a killer.”
Unfazed, Trump didn’t back away, but rather compared Putin’s reputation for extrajudicial killings with the United States’.
“There are a lot of killers. We have a lot of killers,” Trump said. “Well, you think our country is so innocent?”
The pivot to blaming both sides isn’t limited to the commander in chief. Some supporters have adopted the same type of argument when asked to call out what to others is obviously inappropriate behavior.
A day before Trump’s meeting with Putin, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) appeared to play down U.S. intelligence findings about Russia’s interference in U.S. elections by arguing that the United States does “the same thing.” On CNN he said:
I think really we mistake our response if we think it’s about accountability from the Russians. They’re another country; they’re going to spy on us. We’re going to do the same. We all do it. What we need to do is make sure our electoral process is protected. They’re not going to admit it in the same way we’re not going to admit we were involved in the Ukrainian elections or the Russian elections.
While Paul argued that the two were not morally equivalent, his words repeatedly suggest that Russia's behavior is not morally inferior — just as Trump and many of his supporters and cable news surrogates do.
The president of the United States is historically viewed as a moral leader. And having a strong grasp of morals involves being able to clearly distinguish right from wrong. But on issues ranging from hate crimes based on race to the harmful acts of governments, Trump has shown that he is incapable of holding accountable those most responsible.