The sheer volume and rapidity of successive Trump outrages, cascading swiftly past one another, keeps even the most attentive among us from properly paying attention to any one of them, much less to their cumulative significance.
We watch the rollout of Neil Gorsuch for the vacant seat on the Supreme Court and are asked by partisans from all sides to consider his views on such contested matters as abortion, gay rights and presidential power – but the circumstances leading to the vacancy, nearly a year after Justice Scalia’s death, and the motives of the senators who shredded all constitutional norms so that Obama could not fill Scalia’s seat, have receded from view. What does Gorsuch’s readiness to assume a stolen Supreme Court seat say about his judgment and character? And whatever the merits of this particular nominee, what are the likely implications for the next two or three vacancies? Justices have life tenure; the norms shattered today may have repercussions that last decades.
But all this has been utterly obscured, partly because of the timing of Gorsuch’s appointment after Trump’s sudden suspension of travel from seven predominately Muslim countries. Without any advance notice, even to the executive agencies involved, Trump caused panic by immediately implementing a thinly disguised version of his ‘Muslim ban’, as trumpeted during the presidential campaign. Gorsuch’s appointment was originally scheduled for a week later, but was moved ahead, no explanation offered, though the reason was plain: it took attention away from the travel ban, until a federal judge’s decision to suspend it brought it back into the headlines.
Before anyone had a chance to assess that decision, along with the degree to which it did or didn’t alleviate the fear and confusion stirred at hundreds of airports and among tens of thousands of people who no longer knew whether the entry visas they had waited years to receive had any worth, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency began rounding up undocumented immigrants across the country. Many of the people targeted had relied on government promises that, having been productive and law-abiding residents for years, they would not be in danger of sudden deportation. Many of them were brought to the US as infants or toddlers. I am currently representing one such detainee, who was covered by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals programme.
Attention then shifted to the president’s ad hominem attack on the ‘so-called’ judge who had suspended the travel ban. And before anyone could ask whether Trump’s disregard for the constitutional rights of various non-citizens is a harbinger of worse to come, we were distracted by his public trashing of the unanimous appellate court decision upholding the district court’s stay of the travel band as ‘political’ and ‘disgraceful’ – unworthy, the president said, of a ‘high school student’. The more extreme and outrageous his tweets, the more they succeed in diverting attention from what he is doing on the ground.
But before we could consider the place of the judiciary in the Trump era, we were confronted with the no less troubling questions raised by Trump’s insistence that he had, in fact, won the popular vote, if one simply disregarded the three to five million votes ‘illegally’ cast for Hillary Clinton. Was he simply indulging a fantasy, in order to slake his insatiable thirst for victory and public approbation? Or was he paving the way to sinister measures that would suppress the votes of minorities, students and others who pose a threat to his re-election in 2020 and to the GOP’s retention of its stranglehold on both houses of Congress?
And all the while, manifestly unqualified cabinet nominees were being confirmed. Legitimate controversies about their inexperience, or conflicts of interest, or moral turpitude, were muffled by other, more novel controversies.
By the time pending litigation against Trump and his business empire – challenging his use of the White House as a personal profit centre in violation of the constitution’s emoluments clauses – began to gain traction in the public consciousness, Trump forced a change of subject by making the national security adviser resign. Weeks earlier, Sally Yates, the acting attorney general, had told Trump that Michael Flynn tried to sabotage the Obama administration’s financial sanctions against Russia. Trump fired Yates for refusing to defend his travel ban, but did nothing about Flynn until it would divert attention from the furore about his financial conflicts. And the shattering prospect of impeachable collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia to help put Trump in the White House is just now starting to break through the orchestrated progression of other crises.
National attention on the old Watergate-style question of what the president knew and when he knew it has so mesmerised the public that the far graver character of this episode is ignored – and Trump gets a pass for praising his aide Stephen Miller for claiming on national television that the president’s judgment ‘cannot be questioned’.
Was Trump sending up a trial balloon to test how ready the nation might be to discard its system of checks and balances in favour of ‘strong man’ government? This question has been relegated to the margins by the rush of announcements. Similarly, mounting doubts about Trump’s mental stability, emotional deficiencies and divided loyalties have had little time to gain traction in the whirlwind of colourful news stories. Few if any of us can keep the real issues in mind as Trump tosses one shiny object after another into the winds of public discourse.