Trump is enraged at being subjected to a system of democratic and institutional constraints, for which he has signaled nothing but absolute, unbridled contempt. The system is pushing back, and he can’t bear it.
On Monday morning, the latest chapter in this tale — Trump’s unsupported accusation that Obama wiretapped his phones — took another turn. Trump’s spokeswoman said on ABC News that Trump does not accept FBI Director James Comey’s claim — which was reported on over the weekend — that no such wiretapping ever happened.
As E.J. Dionne writes, this episode is a “tipping point” in the Trump experiment. Trump leveled the charge based on conservative media. Then, after an internal search for evidence to back it up produced nothing, the White House press secretary called on Congress to investigate it and declared the administration’s work done. While the previous administration did wiretap, the problem is the recklessness and baselessness of Trump’s specific allegations, and the White House’s insistence that the burden of disproving them must fall on others — on Congress and on the FBI. Trump’s allegations must be humored at all costs, simply because he declared them to be true — there can be no admission of error, and worse, the White House has declared itself liberated from the need to even pretend to have evidence to back up even Trump’s most explosive claims.
This is more than disdain for the truth. It represents profound contempt for our democratic and institutional processes. In this sense, it’s only the latest in what has become a broader pattern:
- When the media accurately reported on Trump’s inaugural crowd sizes, the White House not only contested this on the substance in a laughably absurd manner. It also accused the press of intentionally diminishing Trump’s crowd count, thus trying to delegitimize the news media’s institutional act of holding Trump accountable to factual reality.
- Trump has tweeted that the media is the “enemy of the American people” and has accused the media of covering up terrorist plots. Stephen K. Bannon has railed against the press as “the opposition party.” Trump gave a recent speech heavily devoted to attacking the media, once again for deliberately and knowingly misleading Americans. All this goes far beyond merely questioning the media’s role as an arbiter of truth.
- After getting elected, Trump continued to repeat the lie that millions voted illegally in the election, undermining faith in American democracy. When the media called out this falsehood, the White House threatened an investigation to prove it true, which hasn’t materialized, in effect using the vow of investigations as nothing more than a tool to obfuscate efforts to hold him accountable.
- After a court blocked Trump’s travel ban, Trump questioned the institutional legitimacy of the “so-called judge” in question. He also cast the stay as a threat to our security, even though the ban has no credible national security rationale, something that has now been demonstrated by leaks from the Department of Homeland Security (exactly the sort of leaking that has Trump in a fury). Senior adviser Stephen Miller flatly declared that the ban would be reintroduced in part to demonstrate that Trump’s national security power “will not be questioned,” thus declaring the explicit goal of sweeping away institutional checks on it. And then the White House delayed introduction of the new ban in order to continue basking in good press from his speech to Congress, thus undercutting its own claim that this is an urgent national security matter.
- Trump continues to hold court at Mar-a-Lago, using the power of the presidency to promote his own resort, whose membership fees sink money into his own pockets. The White House publicly intervened in a business dispute involving Trump’s daughter and even tried to steer customers her way, an act which Kellyanne Conway embellished by cheerfully sticking a rhetorical middle finger in the face of anyone who finds such behavior troubling.
We’re witnessing a level of total disdain for basic democratic and institutional processes that defies description, and perhaps calls for a new vocabulary. But the story does not end here. As Benjamin Wittes and Quinta Jurecic explain in a great piece, the almost comical lack of good faith that Trump and the White House are showing toward our processes is inspiring an escalation in institutional pushback — from the courts, the media, government leakers, and civil society — that is having much more of a constraining effect than Trump ever could have anticipated. Indeed, the Trump White House’s ongoing conduct is itself producing the very systemic resistance that now has Trump in such a rage.