As he prepared to leave the White House, President Obama wrote a letter to the man who would succeed him: “Congratulations on a remarkable run. Millions have placed their hopes in you, and all of us, regardless of party, should hope for expanded prosperity and security during your tenure.” Obama explained that the presidency is a “unique office, without a clear blueprint for success,” but he offered a few “reflections” to guide the new president through the trials of the most demanding job on the planet.
President Trump should read them again.
First, Obama asked Trump to acknowledge their mutual “good fortune” and strive to “build more ladders of success for every child and family that’s willing to work hard.” But instead of expressing gratitude for his advantages, Trump is lost in an endless thicket of petty grievances and self-pity. He has concocted a paranoid narrative about the malicious lies pumped out by the “very dishonest Fake News Media,” going so far as to assert that any negative poll or unnamed source isn’t to be trusted. He whines that the Russia investigation is the “single greatest WITCH HUNT in American political history.” He thinks shadowy agents of the “deep state” are trying to overthrow him. And he refuses to take responsibility for his failures.
After the Senate dumped the unworkable, unpopular health care plan he championed, Trump blamed Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. After he lost the popular vote by almost 3 million votes, he blamed “millions” of imaginary fraudulent voters. After eight months as the most powerful person on the planet, he whimpers about his ceaseless bad fortune and blames just about everyone: “No politician in history — and I say this with great surety — has been treated worse or more unfairly.”
Meanwhile, instead of building “ladders of success for every child and family that’s willing to work hard,” Trump is yanking them down.
By rescinding the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (an Obama-era initiative that protects undocumented immigrants from deportation if they arrived in the country as children), he has betrayed nearly 800,000 people who were promised that they wouldn’t be callously ripped away from their friends and family in the U.S. These young “Dreamers” dutifully reported their immigration status when the government asked for DACA applications in 2012. They submitted themselves to background checks, proved that they were attending high school (or already held a diploma) and demonstrated their willingness to go through the proper channels to stay in our country — the only home many of them have ever known. Even if you disagree with the program or think it was an illegitimate exercise of executive power, terrifying these prospective young citizens with the threat of deportation is a cruel way to thank them for their honesty.
Trump is already relinquishing all accountability for his decision on DACA by shifting the responsibility to Congress and, of course, blaming Obama: “Congress now has 6 months to legalize DACA (something the Obama Administration was unable to do). If they can’t, I will revisit this issue!” If he’s thinking about “revisiting this issue,” why couldn’t he have left DACA in place? Why cause so much anxiety and frustration among people who just want to be Americans?
Second, Obama urged Trump to recognize the “indispensable” role of American leadership in the world and resolve to “sustain the international order that’s expanded steadily since the end of the Cold War.”
This part of the note was probably a reaction to Trump’s plain ignorance about how the American-led international order functions — from his strange and startling endorsement of more nuclear proliferation to his strictly transactional understanding of NATO to his promises to steal more oil, torture more prisoners, start more trade wars, etc. Obama wanted his successor to see that American security guarantees only work if they aren’t open to doubt. He wanted Trump to appreciate the fact that, under U.S. leadership, the world’s nuclear stockpile has been reduced from 60,000 warheads in the mid-1980s to 15,000 today (a good thing, by the way). If he could have written more, he may have noted the lack of interstate warfare in Europe over the past 70 years…or explained that our allies’ downsized militaries actually represent a feature — not a liability — of the postwar international system.
But instead of heeding Obama’s advice, Trump has spurned it at almost every available opportunity. Shortly after taking office, he withdrew from the largest trade agreement in history — the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Less than six months later, he abandoned the Paris Climate Accord. As Secretary of State Rex Tillerson dryly informed State Department employees that values like “freedom” and “human dignity” are often “obstacles” to our “national security interests,” Trump warmly received Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in the Oval Office (a “fantastic guy” with whom he has “good chemistry”) — proof that the U.S. has slackened its commitment to human rights.
A few days after Trump insulted members of NATO and vacillated on the U.S. commitment to Article 5, German Chancellor Angela Merkel declared that European countries could no longer “completely depend on others.” This loss of confidence is particularly conspicuous among the German people — only 11 percent of them trust Trump to “do the right thing regarding world affairs” (according to the Pew Research Center). This proportion jumps to 25 percent for Vladimir Putin. In fact, Pew reports that majorities in seven NATO countries — as well as Japan and South Korea — have more faith in Putin than Trump (often by large margins).
Trump hasn’t worked to “sustain the international order” or remind the world that the U.S. is “indispensable” for global security. He’s done the opposite.
Finally, Obama observed that presidents are “guardians of those democratic institutions and traditions — like rule of law, separation of powers, equal protection and civil liberties — that our forebears fought and bled for.” He told Trump that it’s every president’s responsibility to “leave those instruments of our democracy at least as strong as we found them.”
Can anyone seriously argue that Trump has preserved — much less strengthened — our democratic institutions over the past eight months? From his attempts to subvert the Russia investigation to his ban on transgender Americans in the military to his persistent assault on the legitimacy of the judiciary to his evidence-free declaration that “millions” of people voted illegally in 2016 to his ruthless and dishonest campaign against the media, Trump only cares about protecting the “instruments of our democracy” when they don’t get in his way.
Trump’s self-interest buries any loyalty he may have to the principles “our forebears fought and bled for.” This is why he fired FBI director James Comey as the Russia investigation expanded. (Comey also refused to stop investigating Michael Flynn when Trump asked him to do so.) It’s why he has repeatedly attacked and threatened special counsel Robert Mueller. It’s why he’s furious with Attorney General Jeff Sessions for recusing himself from the investigation. And it’s why, as The Washington Post reported in July, “Trump has asked his advisers about his power to pardon aides, family members and even himself in connection with the probe.”
Quaint “democratic institutions and traditions” like the rule of law may matter to some people, but our president doesn’t count himself among them.
Contact Matt Johnson at (785) 295-1282 or @mattjj89 on Twitter.