We heard it as an impromptu bit of indelicate phrasing:
He was President, The World Trade Center came down during his reign.
– Candidate Donald Trump, February 13, 2016
He was President, okay? Don’t blame him, or don’t blame him, but he was President.
Americans were taken aback at the brashness of the accusation, at the casual way it was tossed into the debate. President George W. Bush was responsible for the worst terrorist attack on American soil.
There was a factual basis for the accusation. It was not simply the most reported incident, the President’s Daily Briefing of August 6, 2001. A month before the 9/11 terrorist attacks, George W. Bush heard the summary which began this way:
Bin Laden Determined To Strike in US
It was not only his dismissive response:
All right. You’ve covered your ass, now.
The institutional temptation is understandable. A new administration assumes office promising a change in national direction. Warnings, even desperate warnings, from the outgoing administration are easy to brush aside. The pleas to deal with the threat of terrorism were dismissed with derisive laughter.
Bill Clinton and his National Security team had practically begged President Bush and his people to take international terrorism seriously. They were brushed off. Agents that had been focused on stopping attacks were reassigned. Budgets were reduced. Programs were discontinued.
Donald Trump had historical evidence on his side. The gasp at the attack on a fellow Republican, the last Republican President, went beyond his words.
Headlines were all variations of the same note:
Trump blames George W. Bush for 9/11
Even now the real significance is hidden in the shock of accusation. The candidate described the time the previous Republican President had spent in office this way:
…during his reign
Later, during the general election, we listened to it again. This time, we heard it as debate bravado, rhetorical overkill to make a political point, as he spoke to his opponent:
If I win, I am going to instruct my attorney general to get a special prosecutor to look into your situation.
It went hand-in-hand with the chants:
Lock her up!
Lock her up!
Lock her up!
Anyone who paid attention knew that partisan Republicans had put Hillary through multiple investigations, complete with hours of sworn testimony. She made her interrogators look silly.
Did anyone during that debate think he was actually promising to order the imprisonment of a political opponent? What would happen if he was elected?
… you would be in jail
He did not fit the image of a clever mastermind, pulling political levers behind the scenes, manipulating enforcement mechanisms with adroit Machiavellian maneuvers.
It is true that he has a sort of animal instinct, a savage aim for the on-stage jugular, a little boy’s talent for sandbox insult.
But what kind of person says this:
Trust me, I’m like a smart person.
It is telling that one background defense during the Russia collusion investigation has been a lack of capability. Do we really think this gang of stooges is capable of collusion?
Certainly, they could take careful direction from Kremlin handlers, if Putin’s minions were careful not to use big words or complicated instructions.
This is a man who could be coached with a caring, gentle phrase:
There’s a brave man, a fallen hero. He knew what he was getting himself into because he enlisted.
General Kelly described a soldier who willingly went into danger to defend us. He is a hero and his loss affects us all.
And our President could take that careful instruction and butcher it until it sounded cold and uncaring: He knew what he signed up for but, yeah, it hurts anyway.
The president said that he knew what he signed up for, but it hurts anyways and I was — it made me cry.
This is not a man capable of the subtlety we associate with those who grasp for authoritarian power. Richard Nixon on his worst, most alcohol sodden day would be more adroit.
And yet we have this:
The saddest thing, because I’m the President of the United States:
I’m not supposed to be involved with the Justice Department.
I’m not supposed to be involved with the FBI.
I’m not supposed to be doing the kind of things that I would love to be doing.
And I’m very frustrated by that.
We have a strong faith forged during more than two centuries of governmental history. It is a history that includes the best and the worst of 45 Presidents. It is a faith that comes from a series of hard and bitter struggles. We know, and we have always known, that we are protected by institutional safeguards that are strong and reliable.
And now we awaken to this:
Attorney General Jeff Sessions is considering naming a special counsel to lead an investigation into a list of matters involving former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, according to a Monday letter the Justice Department sent to the House Judiciary Committee.
A day and a half later, the Attorney General gives carefully phrased semi-assurances about the need for evidence. There has not been enough evidence found to appoint a special prosecutor after all.
We hold to our faith. But we have caught a momentary glimmer of darker possibilities.
A man of great power and limited mentality can do great damage. The child’s vision of what a President does,
He was President … during his reign
…and an infant’s impatience with the careful design of institutional checks,
I’m very frustrated by it
…might bring a terrible change to our way of life.
…instruct my attorney general to get a special prosecutor…
The irony is that it won’t be because of a consistent fascist ideology, or a grand authoritarian design.
It will be a tragic comedy of deadly consequence, a bumbler’s catastrophe, a disaster produced by a dim ignorance of the danger his impulsive steps pose.
… you’d be in jail
The country that led the fight to destroy the Nazi dictatorship, the nation that produced the collapse of the Soviet Empire, may now be laid low by the saddest assailant history could provide:
Trust me. I’m, like, a smart person.
A leader who is too damn dumb to know better.
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