I have been talking with political professionals who, like me, are concerned about the potential threat the Trump presidency poses to our country. These discussions have been with people of all political persuasions -- right, center and left. And there has been a recurring theme, for no one can avoid noticing President Trump's persistent distorting, destroying or abandoning democratic norms and values, the unwritten traditions and expectations that provide guard-rails for our system. Remove these protections and democracy is in peril.
It's unclear whether Trump's actions are the result of arrogance or ignorance; maybe his behavior is attributable to his authoritarian disposition, or it might be his over-the-top narcissism at work. Whatever the cause, it is clear he is not operating by America's traditional rules. Trump is doing things our highest elected official has never done, and this deviation has happened so often during his young presidency that it seems to be his standard operating procedure.
So far, the norms and values he has eviscerated are not laws, but rather the processes, procedures and standards of conduct that have never called for laws, for they are so widely accepted there was no need to make them laws. Trump's disregard of these customs and practices are exceptional, creating an unprecedented situation, so let me be specific.
American presidents had never persistently lied about everything, from the crowd size at their inauguration to the reason they fired the director of the FBI; they had never hired in the highest staff post at the White House, as national security adviser, a committed liar with known ties to foreign governments; they had never attacked the national security intelligence community because it uniformly concluded Russia helped elect them by hacking their opponent and leaking private information.
Presidents had never held press conferences without being prepared to answer conspicuous and predictable questions; they had never labeled leading American news organizations "enemies of the people" and accused them of reporting "fake news" whenever that news did not flatter; they had not used their high office for personal financial gain, ignored obvious financial conflicts of interest or assigned to their immediate family complex foreign and domestic problems for which those relatives had absolutely no background, experience or qualifications to address; they had not televised their first Cabinet meeting so their appointees could heap public praise on them.
No Oval Office occupant had falsely claimed the leader of the Boy Scouts had glowingly approved of a speech when, in fact, that leader instead felt it necessary to apologize for the president's embarrassing remarks; not even Richard Nixon during or after the Watergate investigation called that inquiry a "witch hunt," as Trump has done with the special counsel's investigation of his presidential campaign's relationship to the Russian hacking of the 2016 presidential race; no president had so blatantly blamed others for his own mistakes and failings. And this is only a sampling of norms obliterated by Trump.
Maybe the most insulting action by Trump is his description of his new home, 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., a site selected by George Washington, who supervised construction of the mansion that today has 132 rooms, 35 bathrooms, 28 fireplaces and eight staircases -- considered by most Americans, and all of its former residents, to be a national treasure. Trump, however, has told friends that the "White House is a real dump." (Frankly, I don't believe Trump's protest that the reporter got it wrong; rather I believe the circle of people who heard his disparaging comment.)
The first president to live in the White House, John Adams, had a prayer for the house, which President Franklin Roosevelt had carved onto the stone fireplace in the State Dining Room. Until Donald Trump arrived, the sentiment set a norm: "I pray Heaven to bestow the best of Blessings on this House and on all that shall hereafter inhabit it. May none but honest and wise Men ever rule under this roof."
Political scientist Brendan Nyhan, interviewed in The Atlantic shortly after Trump's election victory, observed: "" [T]he actions of the Trump administration-in-waiting suggest that they will be unconstrained by many of the previous norms that have limited the power of the executive branch. I think at the very least we are seeing an erosion of democratic norms in America."
Last December, Daniel W. Drezner, a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, wrote a Washington Post article cautioning against three ways Trump was upending norms:
--His "very conservative Cabinet appointments."
--"Unpresidented" actions that included use of Twitter to attack his critics, his continuing political rallies, his "decision to lean on generals and chief executives to staff the foreign policy portions of his Cabinet," his singling out of corporations for criticism or praise, and making his daughter Ivanka "the de facto first lady."
--His "refusal to properly divest from his company, which set up massive conflicts of interest in foreign policy."
Six months into his presidency, the always thoughtful Emily Bazelon was asking, as The New York Times Magazine headline put it, "How Do We Contend With Trump's Defiance of 'Norms'?" And when the administration was less than three months old, I asked, in the words of the headline in Verdict, "Is Trump's Norm-Breaking Presidency Un-American Or Merely Unorthodox?" My conclusion was that "his behavior is so outrageous it appears un-American. It is certainly beyond simply being unorthodox, because ignorance at this level is neither tolerable nor excusable."