The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The worst president ever keeps getting worse

Roger Stone in Washington in February. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated the number of coronavirus cases on April 5. This version has been updated.

Three months ago — all the way back on April 5 — I proclaimed Donald Trump the worst president ever. Oh, how innocent I was. Sure, I knew he was bad. But not this bad.

Back then I thought he was barely edging James Buchanan in the annals of presidential ineptitude. But now, with the commutation of Roger Stone’s well-deserved prison sentence and so many other vile acts, he has disgraced the nation’s highest office as no previous occupant has come close to doing.

Think about all that has happened since April 5. That was before security forces attacked peaceful protesters in Lafayette Square so that Trump could stage a bizarre photo-op. Before he pushed to send the armed forces into the streets. Before he embraced “white power” and called Black Lives Matter “a symbol of hate.” Before he vowed to veto the defense authorization bill to prevent the renaming of military bases named after Confederate generals. Before he used the novel coronavirus as an excuse to shut down immigration and threatened to revoke the visas of college students unable to attend classes in the fall. Before he ignored reports that a Russian intelligence unit had placed a bounty on U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan. Before he moved to pull out of the World Health Organization during the worst pandemic in a century. Before he held rallies that most likely helped to spread the disease. Before he falsely accused MSNBC host and Post columnist Joe Scarborough of murdering a staff member. Before former national security adviser John Bolton revealed that Trump praised China’s prison camps for Uighurs and asked Chinese leader Xi Jinping to help him win reelection.

On Feb. 20, 2020, Roger Stone was sentenced to three years and four months in prison. President Trump commuted Stone’s sentence on July 10, 2020. (Video: Monica Akhtar, Erin Patrick O'Connor/The Washington Post)

Most of all, that was before the coronavirus had infected more than 3.1 million Americans and claimed the lives of more than 131,000. The pandemic was already a disaster on April 5, but back then we still had “only” 331,000 cases and 9,400 deaths. On April 5, some 25,000 new cases were reported. More than twice as many were recorded on Friday, when daily new coronavirus cases climbed to a record-breaking 63,900. In early April it was still possible to imagine that the virus really would abate by the middle of summer. That this hasn’t happened — that the virus is still raging out of control in America while being brought under control in so many other countries — is directly attributable to the epic failure of leadership by a president who infamously proclaimed “I don’t take responsibility at all.”

But what makes Trump the worst president ever is not simply that he is colossally incompetent. It is that he is also thoroughly corrupt. It is hard to think of a single major decision he has made for the good of the country, rather than for his own advantage. Trump has so egregiously abused the power of the presidency that he makes Warren Harding and Richard Nixon look like choirboys. Trump was impeached for trying to use military aid to blackmail Ukraine into helping his reelection campaign. He seems to have learned nothing from the experience save that, with Republicans in control of the Senate, he can get away with anything. Since his acquittal, he has committed one appalling act of corruption after another.

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Trump has purged anyone who dared to testify against him. The most recent victim was Army Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, a decorated combat veteran who was forced to retire while being belittled by a callow White House press secretary as a “former junior employee.” Also gone are the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York and numerous inspectors general who dared to investigate Trump and his cronies. At the same time, Attorney General William P. Barr has launched a politically motivated probe of the investigators who had looked into the Trump campaign’s copious ties to Russia. FBI agents have already been hounded into retirement and slandered by the president. They may yet face prosecution.

While seeking vengeance against those who spoke the truth about his ugly machinations, Trump has sought to reward those who broke the law on his behalf. Barr wants to drop charges to which former national security adviser Michael Flynn already pleaded guilty — a move that a retired federal judge described as “clear evidence of gross prosecutorial abuse.” Barr also sought a reduced sentence for Stone, even while conceding that his “prosecution was righteous,” before Trump on Friday simply set Stone free.

Stone served as the liaison between the Trump campaign and WikiLeaks, the website that Russian intelligence used to release stolen Democratic Party emails to help Trump win the presidency. Stone refused to testify about what he knew; he perjured himself and obstructed justice to protect the president. And now Trump has rewarded him for his silence. The quid pro quo is blindingly obvious. Not even Nixon during Watergate dared to pardon his co-conspirators or commute their sentences. That Trump has done so secures his unrivaled place in the annals of presidential infamy.

He is not just the worst president ever; he keeps getting worse.

Read more:

Ruth Marcus: Trump’s self-serving help for Roger Stone

Howard Fineman: Roger Stone is saved

The Post’s View: Trump’s commutation of Roger Stone’s sentence is an unforgivable betrayal of his office

Radley Balko: The Roger Stone case highlights our pernicious system of tiered justice

Seth Cousins: I was a juror in the Roger Stone trial. Attacking our foreperson undermines our service.

The Post’s View: Roger Stone’s sentence is a win for the rule of law