Where to begin? That’s the daily question for anyone trying to follow the words and deeds of the new administration, which is like drinking from two fire hoses – one gushing policy, the other spewing insanity.
Neither stream can be ignored. I wish I could agree with those who say we should pay little attention to President Donald Trump’s verbal eruptions and focus only on concrete actions, but I can’t. It matters that the most powerful man in the world insists on “facts” that are nothing but self-aggrandizing fantasy. It matters that the president of the United States seems incapable of publicly admitting any error. It matters that Trump’s need for adulation appears to be insatiable.
The president’s most acute obsession is with the false notion that he only lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton because of widespread election fraud committed by “millions” of people.
There were, in fact, four documented cases of voter fraud in the election, not millions. Yes, I said four; two of them involved individuals who said they were Trump supporters. House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., is among the many officials who have acknowledged there is zero evidence of the kind of fraud Trump alleges. It simply did not happen.
When pressed on the subject, Trump cites a 2012 report by the Pew Center on the states that found problems with inaccurate voter registration rolls – but no indication of fraud, according to the study’s author. When David Muir of ABC News pointed this out to Trump in an interview Wednesday, the president claimed the author of the Pew study was now “groveling,” whatever that means. I have read the study, and indeed it presents no evidence of voter fraud.
At a meeting with congressional leaders on Monday, Trump cited a different piece of purported proof, according to The New York Times: He told a story about how professional golfer Bernhard Langer tried to vote in Florida on Election Day but was not allowed to do so, while suspicious-looking voters ahead of and behind him, possibly Latin American immigrants, were permitted to cast provisional ballots.
At the risk of repeating myself, this simply did not happen. Langer indeed lives in Florida but is a German citizen. He has never voted in this country.
Why is any of this important? Because Trump, relying on a misinterpreted study and a garbled anecdote, has called for a “major investigation” of all this nonexistent voter fraud. He now has the vast resources of the Justice Department at his disposal, which means that if he wants a big investigation, he can have one. Press secretary Sean Spicer said Wednesday that the focus would be on “urban” areas, and he mentioned California and New York – both of which voted heavily for Clinton – as states that may be looked at carefully.
What we have, then, is an instance in which Trump’s fixation on his own popularity, or lack thereof, dovetails with the Republican Party’s long-standing political interest in minimizing the electoral weight of Democratic “urban” strongholds – meaning cities with large populations of minorities and liberals. We should prepare for a GOP attempt to channel Trump’s delusion into the rational, but nefarious, purpose of voter suppression.
Another example is Trump’s insistence on the value of torture in the fight against terrorism. Trump pledged during the campaign to bring back waterboarding and “much worse.” Doing so would violate U.S. and international law. Trump has said he will leave the decision up to Defense Secretary James Mattis and CIA Director Mike Pompeo, neither of whom has shown the slightest enthusiasm for getting the United States back into the torture business.
So can we relax? Not really, because Trump won’t admit he was wrong. He said in the interview with Muir that “we have to fight fire with fire” in the battle against the Islamic State and that torture “absolutely” works. Since Trump is the commander in chief, words such as these create political problems at home for our allies. How can they fully share intelligence with the United States if they believe captured suspects may be tortured?
My point is that Trump’s off-the-wall statements and Twitter rants cannot be dismissed as mere attempts to distract. We have a president who is obsessed with his public standing, given to outlandish statements, eager to believe in conspiracy theories and unwilling to admit when he is wrong. To our peril, his character and moods will shape his policies.
Eugene Robinson can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.