Trump is the 'see no evil' president
When it comes down to it, the best defense of President Trump's faltering leadership might be that he simply has no idea what is going on.
Twice over the weekend, the president and his allies pleaded ignorance as an excuse for his failures. On Friday, The New York Times reported that Russian operatives had offered bounties on American soldiers in Afghanistan — and that Trump had been briefed on the matter, but had failed to take any action in response. Then, on Sunday, Trump tweeted a video showing one of his supporters chanting "white power" at a demonstrator, only to delete the post several hours later.
In both cases, White House officials denied that the president knew anything was amiss.
"He did not hear the one statement made on the video," a spokesman said of Trump's tweet. "What he did see was tremendous enthusiasm from his many supporters."
The administration pushed back even harder on the Russian story. Trump questioned the Times' reporting, and Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe said Sunday "that neither the president nor the vice president were ever briefed on any intelligence" in the matter.
The president is a prolific liar, so it is tough to take his denials at face value. But let's say he really didn't know, in either case, about the problems. What does that tell us about Trump and the way he governs the country?
First, it tells us he's sloppy. As numerous observers pointed out on Sunday, the words "white power" were clearly audible within a few seconds after the video began. If Trump really didn't hear the words, it might because he was too smitten with the image of an angry supporter confronting one of his critics. This wouldn't be entirely surprising — this president is known for prioritizing appearances over substance. The result, though, was that for a few hours America's chief executive amplified and endorsed a message of white supremacy to the country and the world. Given Trump's history of bigoted remarks, the idea that this was accidental strains credibility.
So Americans are left with two options from which to choose: Either the president was doing something evil, or he was merely being dense. Neither option is appealing.
Second, Trump's supposed ignorance tells us he's hindered his own government's ability to keep him informed. Trump should have known about the Russian bounties. He doesn't get off the hook if the information was never given to him. The president is famously impatient with intelligence briefings, and analysts have reportedly had to dumb them down in order to hold his attention. Even when he understands the information being presented to him, Trump has a tendency to rage at the bearers of bad news — he reportedly threatened to sue his campaign manager over bad polls, and was furious in February when a health official sent the stock market tumbling with coronavirus warnings — and this is especially true where Russian matters are concerned. Trump prefers to take his information from friendly outlets like Fox News and One America News.
If we're to believe that Trump didn't know about the bounties, it is probably because he has made it difficult for America's intelligence agencies to give him bad news — or, really, any news at all. In this case, Trump's whims and moods have so damaged the usual processes of governance that U.S. troops lost their lives as a result.
Finally, these incidents demonstrate that Trump doesn't want to know what he doesn't want to know. This has become clear in recent weeks as Trump complained that the rising number of coronavirus cases in the United States is the result of improved testing. That isn't true: Overwhelmed intensive care units in Texas, Florida, Mississippi, and other states are proof the spike is real. But Trump prefers to ignore the problem by looking the other direction and hoping it goes away. That has real consequences: The administration tried to shut down federally funded testing sites last week, pulling back only after the plan was revealed publicly.
These kinds of debates are nothing new to American politics. During the 1980s, observers argued about whether President Reagan knew about and directed the Iran-Contra scandal on his watch. (The debate helped birth a classic Saturday Night Live skit.)
As with the Iran-Contra scandal, it doesn't really matter whether Trump is actively trying to do bad things or whether he just doesn't know what is going on. Either way, the result is an administration with a worldview more grounded in "see no evil" than "the buck stops here." Trump wants to close his eyes to America's problems. Unfortunately, they're not going anywhere.
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