There has always been a disturbing strand of anti-intellectualism in American life, but never has an occupant of the White House exhibited such a toxic mix of ignorance and mendacity. –Ariel Dorfman
It was “Character Counts” week last week at the White House — another sign that irony is dead — and if you added the words “incompetence” and “arrogance” to Dorfman’s blunt calculus you would get a better sense of the character Trump administration officials displayed throughout a week of insults and recriminations.
The pattern and practice was clear. First came the mendacity out of the mouths of the president and his tribunes. Next came the revelation to the rest of us of the ignorance and incompetence that so often manifests itself with this crew. Finally came the arrogant defense of the indefensible in the form of formal denunciations toward those Americans who had the temerity to highlight the ways in which this White House has fallen short.
We saw this scenario unfold in three different circumstances last week. First, President Donald Trump, his chief-of-staff John Kelly, and then White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders each in their own way lied or dissembled about condolence calls to the families of slain soldiers in Niger.. As each lie was exposed (some within minutes) we learned just how poorly this administration handles one of the most somber responsibilities of governance. But instead of apologizing for its ineptitude, instead of acknowledging a series of avoidable mistakes, the White House then attacked the motives and patriotism of those who revealed that ineptitude.
The president lied when he said on Monday that he was doing more for Gold Star families than President Obama had done. I suspect he had no idea how much Obama and his predecessors had done to comfort the afflicted and no idea how poorly his own team was doing in comparison. Then he lied again, saying that he had called “virtually all” of those families. Then Kelly lied about Rep. Frederica Wilson, the member of Congress who reported that Trump’s calls to grieving family members weren’t going over so well. And through it all Sanders attempted to spin the story to portray her bosses as paragons of compassion and virtue.
The lies helped the rest of us understand the depth of ignorance and incompetence of this administration in its handling of military bereavement. We now know that the Trump team not only did not send timely condolence letters to the families of slain soldiers — some of those letters were rushed out last week in the middle of the scandal — but that White House officials didn’t even have an up-to-date list of the names of the dead. We also now know, thanks to the Trump team’s mendacity, that the president called only about half of those he said he had called. We know, too, that for all his blustering militarism, Kelly, the so-called “adult” in the room, is not above invoking the combat death of his own son to score cheap political points.
The same scenario unfolded, with much less fanfare, at a Senate Judiciary Committee oversight hearing Wednesday for Attorney General Jeff Sessions. First came the mendacity, in the form of Sessions’ repeated refusal to answer even basic questions about his role in the unfolding saga of the Trump team’s ties to Russia. Worse, Sessions played mum without formally asserting “executive privilege,” thus depriving his questioners of a direct political or legal avenue to challenge his silence. Think Congress is keen on serving as a check-and-balance on this version of the executive branch? Think again. By Friday, Judiciary Committee chairman Charles Grassley, the Iowa Republican, had declared he would not press Sessions to tell legislators about his conversations with the president or force him to assert the privilege.
Sessions’ testy performance before the Committee did reveal something significant, however. It showed us how negligent the Justice Department is being when it comes to protecting us from the next illegal Russian incursion into electoral politics. Susan Hennessey and Ben Wittes lay out the disheartening exchange Sessions had with Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) in which the attorney general failed repeatedly to assure the Committee, or anyone else, that the feds have an aggressive plan to stymie the Russians the next time they seek to influence elections. And if there were a trace of regret or remorse over this failure I did not see it from Sessions.
Sessions’ testimony also showed us yet another Trump administration official, this time the nation’s chief law enforcement officer, who was remarkably unprepared for legitimate questions he surely knew were coming. Either that or he tried to pull what I would call a “full-Gonzales,” after Alberto Gonzales, an attorney general during the George W. Bush administration, whose appearances on Capitol Hill were legendary for their ineptitude. Either way, it should have been as uninspiring a performance (under oath, for the record) for the president’s allies as it was for his foes.
Finally, we come to the granddaddy of all mendacious Trump administration efforts, the so-called “voter fraud” commission. Since the day of its creation, it has been blindingly obvious that the panel is a ham-handed attempt to suppress the votes of minorites, the elderly, students, and those with low-incomes — all people who tend to vote for Democrats. We know this because three of the commissioners are the most prolific vote suppressors of our time — Kris Kobach, J. Christian Adams, and Hans von Spakovsky.
We also have known for months that the work of this commission would be relegated to farce (Think: The Three Stooges At The Election Board) if it did not have the full-throated support of the president and his attorney general. Indeed, the Justice Department’s has been in regular contact with the commission, even though it is supposed to be “independent.” This connection deserves greater scrutiny than it has received so far. What we learned last week, however, is that the commission isn’t even sufficiently competent to keep its own members informed of its work. We know this because two members of the commission wrote angry public letters denouncing the commission’s penchant for secrecy and demanding answers about its activities.
Mendacity. Incompetence. Arrogance. A dangerous trifecta that highlights the “character” that evidently “counts” most with an administration that can’t keep its stories straight, doesn’t itself know how poorly it is performing, and then is comfortable, even eager, to cynically attack the patriotism of those who point out how bad things really are.
The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.