It Will Be Amazing. Believe Me.

Amazing:  causing astonishment, great wonder, or surprise

— Merriam Webster Dictionary

We have now experienced the first week of the administration of President Donald J. Trump.  And it was quite a week.  I am not sure that the country can survive many more of these types of weeks. Among other highlights we have the following:

  • A public battle over the size of the crowd on Inauguration Day (somehow with Mr. Trump it always involves size), including a personal call from the president to the head of the National Park Service to have him produce pictures to prove he had the biggest crowd ever.  “Period.”  There are no such pictures.
  • In his first full day in office, he went to the CIA, stood in front of the Wall of Heroes, and proceeded to mislead about crowd sizes, the role of the media, and deny that he said the intelligence community was like “Nazi Germany.”  I watched it live and not once did he mention the ultimate sacrifice of those listed on the wall, some of whom still cannot be named because of the sensitivity of their actions. They died for their country yet somehow it was all about him. I have been to the Wall.  It is humbling. It was appalling to see our president be so unaware, or uncaring, of his surroundings and their meaning.
  • A senior adviser to the president introduced the administration’s use of “alternative facts.”
  • A claim by the president that 3 to 5 million “illegals” voted in the presidential election and that every single one of them voted for Secretary Hillary Clinton.  No proof was provided.
  • A self-created diplomatic crisis with our neighbors in Mexico when they said that they would not pay for a wall along the border.
  • A declaration that torture works and should be used in interrogations because terrorists do a lot worse than that.  Torture is illegal under U.S. law including the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution and under international law.
  • A draft Executive Order to bring back the “black sites” overseas where the CIA and other agencies can take terrorists secretly and interrogate them outside of international and U.S. law. The new Director of the CIA and the new Secretary of Defense say they were not consulted on the order.
  • A presidential pronouncement that lifting sanctions on Russia might be a good thing.  This while we still await the results of inquiries into their interference with our election and while they still illegally occupy Crimea and other parts of Ukraine.
  • An Executive Order halting immigration from seven Muslim countries including Iraq.  We currently have troops on the ground along side Iraqi military units fighting ISIS.  We will arm them and train them and send them into battle, but we will not let them into the country.  The ban includes those in danger because they worked with and helped U.S. forces as interpreters, informants, and fighters.
  • A presidential statement that his immigration ban is not anti-Islam, even though the only countries banned are Islamic and the president said that Christians from those countries would be admitted.  A gentle reminder may be in order that our Constitution prohibits discrimination due to one’s religion.
  • A host of other Executive Orders and Presidential Memoranda that create questions about the future of programs and freeze numerous regulations from the Affordable Care Act to inspections of commercial airliners.

There are more, but you get the idea.  Taken as a whole it is amazing.  Depending on your view of President Trump, it is amazing good or it is amazing bad.  But most of us can agree that as a whole his actions to date meet Webster Merriam Dictionary definitions and are certainly creating “astonishment” and “surprise”.  We may also “wonder” what is going on?

There are several ways to look at his words and actions thus far.  Some may think that President Trump is the ultimate egotist, thin-skinned and overly concerned about being the best ever — it is all about him and very little about the country’s well-being.  Some may say that he and his administration are rookies and that many of the rough patches will smooth out as they get accustomed to governing rather than campaigning — which is not unusual with changes in administrations.  Some may say that no one has ever told him “no” and that he is used to running a one man show and that eventually he will figure out that even though he ran as an autocrat, that is not how our government works.  Some may think that he is, simply put, a nut case.  Some may think that he is doing exactly what they voted for him to do and by golly he is out there doing it.

Of course, some or all of those opinions may be true in part or in whole.  The real question is whether the nation as we know it will withstand his impetuous actions and words.  And no, that is not a “sky is falling” we are all doomed statement.  It is too early to see how all of this will settle out.  More on that in a minute, but first let me digress for a few sentences.

Famously in the aftermath of the election, it was said that members of the press did not take him seriously, but they took his statements literally, while his supporters took him seriously but did not take his words literally.  An interesting way of looking at things. Maybe we should take him both literally and seriously as his actions thus far seem to indicate that he looks at himself that way. Regardless, here is the problem.

As president, words matter.  What the president says is often taken literally, or taken as a signal of intentions, in foreign capitals and can impact international relations, trade, economic matters and other elements of our national interest.  When he says he is building the wall and Mexico will pay for it with a 20% tax, the leadership in Mexico has to take him seriously.  When he says that 3 to 5 million illegals voted in the election and therefore it was rigged (yet he won!) it plays right into the hands of those in Moscow and other places that Americans are no better off than they are and that democracy is a sham. People around the world listen.  I have no idea if he believes what he says or not, but he must understand that as President and Commander-in-Chief he can no longer say the first thing that pops into his head.

There is an old military saying that he should become familiar with — “no plan survives contact with the enemy.”  Our opponents always have a vote in what happens because they have their own self interests and national goals to defend.  You can slap a 20% tariff on another country out of pique, but you have no say in what they do in return.  And you can be sure that they will react, often in ways that are unpredictable and harmful to our own interests.

Here is my opinion of Mr. Trump’s actions so far.  They are based on two factors.  He has never functioned as a part of government or of the military.  In his life all he has ever had to do was say he wanted something done, and it pretty much got done.  The government does not work like that. For better or for worse, there are a lot of moving parts.  The president alone cannot change laws or hand down court rulings.

The second factor is that much of Mr. Trump’s success, however big or small or entangled with overseas governments and entities (we still wait for him to reveal their extent), his biggest successes are in marketing and self-promoting — branding as it is now called.  His brand is brash and huge and a take no prisoners approach.  I am surmising that in his mind, he needs to keep the brand alive with his supporters and therefore he is continuing to be outrageous, bullying and a man of action. All of that feeds back into his own perception of himself as the best at whatever he does and the cycle continues. When it stops is anyone’s guess.

I am very concerned about the damage to our world position of leadership that will occur if he continues on his “America First” doctrine.  It may be a good marketing slogan, but isolationism is not in our own best interest and does not help us with our interests overseas.  Our history is replete with such attempts in our past and the result inevitably is war or a depression or both.  Neither of those outcomes are in our national interests.

I am less concerned about his actions thus far on the domestic front.  When looked at carefully, most of his Executive Orders are more like outlines of where he would like to go.  He is fairly restricted in what he can and cannot do without the House and Senate in agreement.  Thus far the Republican controlled Congress has begun to realize that governing, rather than just opposing the other party’s initiatives, is hard to do.  The first real test of President Trump will be when enough Republicans say “no” to one of his proposals. Hopefully when Congress collectively says no, it will be a political lesson to Mr. Trump and not result in a Constitutional crisis.

My biggest and most fundamental concern are his and his administration’s attacks on the First Amendment.  Most modern presidents have had a dim view of the media coverage they receive and some have had an adversarial relationship with the press.  That’s fine and to some extent it is good for our Republic’s health.  However it does no one any good for President Trump to continually and perpetually call the press dishonest, the worst people on earth, liars or any of the other epitaphs that he throws their way. His senior adviser told the press to “shut up.”  He went on to call the press the “opposition party” — not the Democrats.  The attacks come because the press reports what Mr. Trump and his advisers actually do and say.  As they used to say, “let’s go to the video tape!”  It’s there.  It’s a matter of public record and yet Mr. Trump continues to deny that a given action or statement took place.  This is dangerous.

I fear that over time the outrageous comments and attacks on the press will become old news. People will stop paying attention.  Or worse — justify the outrageous and potentially unconstitutional behavior because we got some jobs back, or some other narrow, short-range goal at the expense of what we hold dear. Most autocrats gain power that way.

None of us has any idea how the next four years will unfold.  Based on the last week, we know that it will indeed be amazing.  I trust that the Congress and the American people will begin insisting that we get more from our president than a sweeping “believe me” when it comes to critical issues.