Shortly before his first Fourth of July in office, Ronald Reagan honored the NAACP by addressing its convention. Eight years later, President George H.W. Bush declared, ”The law cannot tolerate any discrimination, and my administration will not tolerate abuse of that principle.” In 2001, his son used his first July Fourth in office to advocate “brotherly love” in Philadelphia. Bush’s successor, Barack Obama, made news when he warned that Russia’s Vladimir Putin still had “one foot” in the Cold War.
Flash-forward to 2017. Independence Day finds America plunged into what can only be called a crisis of the “new abnormal.” With an investigation into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia well underway, President Donald Trump has done little to respond to Putin’s massive cyberattacks against the United States and its allies. Instead, he spends his days tweeting against his critics. It’s no wonder his approval ratings have dipped below 40%.
Trump’s newest low has predictably involved attacks on the news media and includes a few seconds of video in which Trump punches a man with the CNN logo for a head — possibly borrowed from an individual that CNN reports may have anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim track record.
Coming from a president just days before the nation’s celebration of its independence, Americans have reason to be disheartened. But what makes matters worse is that his most recent tweets are just the latest in Trump’s growing list of juvenile outbursts, and they are accompanied by more serious acts, which may represent an abuse of presidential power.
Attacking and undermining the media
According to MSNBC “Morning Joe” co-hosts Mika Brzezinski and Joe Scarborough, top White House aides threatened that the National Enquirer, a notorious supermarket tabloid, would publish an expose about them if they did not apologize to the President for their criticisms. The National Enquirer and the White House both dispute this claim.
Given the Enquirer’s penchant for destructive and salacious gossip and the President’s longtime friendship with its publisher, the calls from the White House could be considered credible threats. And threats, both veiled and direct, have long been Trump’s stock-in-trade. After his abrupt firing of FBI Director James Comey, who was about to testify to Congress, Trump said Comey “better hope there are no `tapes’ of our conversations.” More recently, he reportedly threatened to sue CNN, saying, “Wouldn’t that be fun?”
Although he spent a lifetime exploiting the press to get free publicity, Trump entered politics without an appreciation for the role journalists play and with no intention of learning new ways to deal with them.
Trump is not the first president to express irritation with reporters, but his predecessors found ways to accommodate them and celebrate the First Amendment’s prohibition of any law “abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.”
Theodore Roosevelt chatted with journalists while having his morning shave. John F. Kennedy endorsed the idea of an “abrasive” press even though he didn’t like it. Reagan considered America’s “noble experiment in self-government” and declared, “There is no more essential ingredient than a free, strong and independent press.”
Kennedy and Reagan often suffered from press reports that revealed their struggles and missteps, but both men were confident their own motivations and methods were essentially good and could withstand the sunlight. In contrast, even before he was elected, Trump devoted an extraordinary amount of time, energy and effort to delegitimizing the press. In retrospect, Trump’s effort can be seen as a pre-emptive attempt to sow distrust of the messengers who may reveal unpleasant truths about him.
What does the current president have to hide?
His retreat from a promise to make public his tax returns suggests he doesn’t want the nation to learn about the true extent of his wealth, the nature of his business alliances and sources of investments in his properties. The sudden firing of Comey, who was overseeing a probe of the Trump campaign’s possible ties to Russian interference in the 2016 election, points to problems he might want to cover up — if he has anything to hide.
Richard Nixon shared Trump’s antipathy for the press. “The press is the enemy, the press is the enemy,” Nixon told his national security advisers Henry Kissinger and Alexander Haig in 1972 in one of many tape recordings Nixon secretly made in the Oval Office. The tapes reveal a President who was profane, conspiratorial, obsessive and afraid to be exposed — the same qualities that led to the crimes and cover-up known as Watergate and ultimately to Nixon’s resignation.
Nixon’s rage at the press was fueled by his understanding that his White House had failed not only the law but the norms of the office he held. And the same is true of Trump. He, too, has thus far failed to live up to the presidency’s demand for leadership that is steady, inspiring and respectful of the American people. In his relationship with the press, Trump has been worse than Nixon, repeatedly seeking to destroy its credibility in the eyes of all Americans.
In this flag-waving season, Americans tend to consider the patriotic example set by the White House. In general, presidents have shown themselves to be mature in their respect for the values enshrined in the country’s founding documents, even those, such as freedom of the press, that can be a hindrance to them. Anything less represents a selective expression of faith, pseudo-patriotism in the service of self and ignorance of the noble experiment.
Woodrow Wilson, speaking at Mount Vernon on July Fourth in 1918, recalled the founders and said, “From these gentle slopes they looked out upon the world and saw it whole, saw it with the light of the future upon it, saw it with modern eyes that turned away from a past of which men of liberated spirits could no longer endure.”
Twenty-four years later, Franklin Delano Roosevelt contemplated America’s entry into World War II and said, “To the weary, hungry, unequipped Army of the American Revolution, the Fourth of July was a tonic of hope and inspiration. So is it now.”
Trump’s official Fourth of July speech was delivered Saturday and included a mean-spirited broadside against the press. He reportedly has no plan to make a public address on his first Independence Day in office. Anyone interested in a little vintage Trump could refer to his Twitter post of three years ago, which said, “Happy 4th of July to everyone, including the haters and losers!”