Since Attorney General William Barr’s “summary” of the report by Robert Mueller was issued, there’s been a lot of hand-wringing among progressives about what went wrong, and a lot of gloating from conservatives, and of course, from Donald Trump himself, about how Trump has been “exonerated.” Sean Hannity has talked of taking down Trump accusers one by one; Trump has called his opponents treasonous and “evil.”
This is, quite simply, utter nonsense. First off, Barr’s memo is so brief and cryptic, so cherry-picking in its use of quotes, and so devoid of the broader context in which Mueller presumably placed those quotes, as to be next to useless. We don’t know how much corruption, if not collusion, Mueller discovered, or how many spin-off cases were forwarded to other prosecutors. We don’t know where the Southern District of New York investigations are now heading, or which members of the Trump inner circle are likely to face prosecution down the road as these other investigations gather steam. Until the full report, or at the very least a comprehensive summary, is released, which I have no doubt at some point will be the case, these questions remain open.
But, for the sake of argument, let’s say that all of these end up being legal dead-ends, and that none of the people closest to Trump end up being convicted of any crimes.
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If such were the case, none of the horror of the Trump administration would be diminished in the slightest.
What makes Trump so bloody awful was never simply the possibility that he may have conspired with a foreign government in his pursuit of power. What makes Trump so awful is how he wields his power now that he has it.
Whether or not Vladimir Putin and Trump colluded, and whether or not the Russian government blackmailed candidate Trump, since taking office the president has, time and again, made it clear that he admires strong-men leaders and their ability to silence dissent, to break the free press, and to politicize the judiciary to go after opponents. Trump has shown admiration for (and even aspirations to imitate) the world’s most dictatorial leaders: from Putin to Xi Jinping, from Mohammed bin Salman to Kim Jong Un to Rodrigo Duterte. Even as he has taken a more confrontational approach to China as a geopolitical rival, he has made it clear that he approves of many of Xi’s methods – including his being essentially made leader for life by a recent Congress of the Chinese Communist Party. He likes leaders who are worshipped and who render dissent treasonous. He likes despots who are unafraid to play violent, dirty games, to preserve and expand their personal power. He is clearly working to be such a leader himself.
Trump has used his platform, the vast reach of his Twitter feed and the huge audiences that his presidential speeches command, to demonize immigrants, including refugees, asylum seekers, unaccompanied minors fleeing drug gangs, and those so poor they walk hundreds of miles, with nothing but the clothes on their backs, to find succor in the United States.
He has instituted a travel ban against residents from five majority-Muslim countries, as a result of which no Syrian or Yemeni refugees are being allowed into the country, effectively condemning huge numbers to death in the most violent war zones on earth, and in Syria in particular, he has made it clear that the U.S. doesn’t care how much life is sacrificed. Under Trump, the language of human rights is entirely off the table. Last year only 11 Syrian refugees were admitted into the United States. Not a single one was admitted from Yemen. This horrifying reality alone ought to be enough to shame any internationalist GOP politicians who, for opportunistic reasons, continue to hold their noses and go along with this administration’s nativism.
Trump’s bureaucracy has put the U.S. government in the business of kidnapping thousands of children from their immigrant parents. It has turned the border lands into a vast military encampment laced with concertina barbed wire. It has fetishized the creation of prison camps to lock up tens of thousands of migrants while their asylum claims are held; and it has, against both U.S. and international law, bottled up tens of thousands of additional asylum seekers in camps in Mexico.
Domestically, the administration is doing everything it can to undermine health care access for poor people – including its decision this Monday to argue before an appeals court that the entire Affordable Care Act is unconstitutional. It is attempting to shred the food stamps safety net. It is making it all but impossible for immigrants and their U.S. citizen children to access any public benefits, even emergency nutritional and health assistance. And in its attacks on organized labor, its hostility to an increased minimum wage, its weakening of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and its embrace of exploitative payday lending companies, it has gone out of its way to hurt the working poor.Trump has defended the Saudi leadership for its assassination of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi; and has cooperated with that same leadership in pursuing an utterly vicious war in Yemen, a war that has resulted in tens of millions of people facing starvation and epidemic diseases such as cholera. Elsewhere in the ongoing global war on terror, he has made the already awful usage of drones that he inherited from the Obama administration far worse, and has loosened the already feeble restraints on when bombs can be dropped on targets where civilian casualties are likely.
In going after Planned Parenthood and other organizations that perform abortions, Donald Trump is seeking to deprive women, especially lower-income women, of basic health care services. In attacking the LGBT+ community, through his transgender ban in the military and other actions, he is stoking hate-based violence and prejudice. Trump has race-baited Black people when talking about crime and has repeatedly used language dismissive of Native Americans, in addition to adopting policies that have disproportionately harmed Black and Native people.
The Trump administration is wildly destroying public health and environmental regulations that took a half-century or more to build up. It is making it exponentially easier for corporations to do grab-and-runs, extracting resources from the ground as fast as possible and leaving others to clean up the pollution of air, land and water that accompanies that plunder.
As for climate change — almost certainly the most urgent challenge facing humanity over the coming years — not only has Trump’s team turned the EPA and other agencies into agitprop centers for the fossil fuel industry, but it has, at every opportunity, tried to undermine efforts, from the local to the international, to mitigate the scale of global warming and its impact. In the long run, this malicious policy, while delivering high profits to the oil industry, will massively, perhaps permanently, undermine communities around the world. In the name of untrammeled profit, it locks into place untold misery for untold numbers of people globally.
Trump has shredded the Intermediate Nuclear Forces treaty; has humiliated traditional allies such as Canada, the U.K., France and Germany through attacking their democratically elected leaders and mocking their stances on everything from trade to security; and has violated a raft of UN resolutions in moving the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, and in recognizing Israel’s permanent sovereignty over the Golan Heights.
Time and again, Trump has shown himself unwilling to condemn white nationalism and land-soil-and-blood racial purity movements. This goes from his calling some of the Nazi marchers in Charlottesville in 2017 “very fine people,” to his struggling to disavow ex-KKK grand wizard David Duke’s repeated utterances of support for him, to refusing to label white nationalism a growing threat in the wake of the massacre of 50 Muslims in New Zealand earlier this month.
Trump’s legacy won’t be defined by the technical legal conclusions of the Mueller report, and certainly not by Barr’s scandalously opaque memo to Congress last weekend. Rather, his legacy will be defined by historians for the moral, cultural and physical violence his presidency has inflicted. He will be remembered for images of toddlers in diapers being paraded, unaccompanied by parents, before immigration judges. He will be remembered for the sadistic attacks on DACA recipients, the breaking up of families with Temporary Protected Status, the illegal appropriation of billions of dollars to build a wall that Congress repeatedly refused to fund.
Trump has been running the country as he ran his real estate and hotel business: He threatens and he intimidates, he takes pleasure in hurting the poor and the vulnerable, and in humiliating those courtiers whose presence he has grown bored of. He cuts constitutional corners whenever it is convenient to do so, and he bludgeons rather than compromises, because, temperamentally, while he fashions himself a master negotiator, in actual fact it’s always been his way or the highway.
If one lesson has been learned from Trump’s methods, it is that in this damaged political environment it pays dividends to always stay on the offense. If those who loathe what he represents start softening their critique of Trump in the wake of the Mueller report “exoneration,” they will give the autocrat an opening that he will ruthlessly take advantage of.
Now is not the time to backpedal on criticisms of Trump. Now is the time to step them up, to laser-focus on the moral ugliness and cruelty of this horrific man and the enablers now charged with implementing his vision. The damage he is already doing is immense; the damage he will do if his presidency is suddenly deemed respectable will be even more horrific.