As the new year heads into its third week, President Trump remains on a personal political losing streak. None of his opponents — not the Democrats, not the Never Trumpers, not any of the others — can damage him as badly as he hurts himself.
It was only a few days ago when he opened up an immigration negotiating session with bipartisan members of Congress to the cameras and was lauded in some quarters for doing so. He was described in some accounts as a president doing the real business of the country. That proved to be a one-off moment.
Before and after, the conversation around the presidency — the conversation at times forced by the president — involved topics that were alternately disquieting and shocking, from questions about his mental fitness and stability to serve as president (which he helped elevate with tweets) to the racist and vulgar comment he made about African and other nations in a private meeting.
Together they reinforce a portrait of a president who doesn’t appear to understand or appreciate the importance of the immigrant experience, often lacks clarity of his own views or the details of issues he is negotiating, and who projects an image that regularly flies in the face of standards long applied to those who occupy the Oval Office.
Trump has tried to wiggle away from asking why the United States must take immigrants from what he called “shithole countries.” Amid the firestorm set off by Post reporter Josh Dawsey’s account of the meeting, Trump acknowledged that he used some “tough” language during the meeting at the White House but said he never used the exact words attributed to him.
His claim was quickly undercut by others. Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), one of the attendees, directly contradicted the president’s statement, saying the president used words that were “hate-filled, vile and racist.” Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), who has been courted by the president, issued a statement of his own that implicitly backed up Durbin. Graham said he had conveyed his feelings about what was said at the meeting directly to the president at the time. Graham notably did not side with Trump’s version of events.
Two other senators at the meeting, Sens. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and David Perdue (R-Ga.), both of whom opposed the bipartisan deal Durbin and Graham had brought to the president for his consideration, claimed they could not recall the language “specifically,” which is hardly an affirmation of the president’s explanation.
Trump has been at this place before on the issue of race. In 2011, as he was toying with running for president, he trafficked in the false allegation that President Obama was not born in the United States, claiming at one point that he had sent private investigators to Hawaii to find the evidence.
Obama punctured that canard by producing his long-form birth certificate. But the overt attempt to profit from the birther issue paid dividends politically for Trump and set him on a path that eventually put him in the Oval Office.
Through the course of the 2016 campaign, he attacked Mexican immigrants as rapists and criminals. He attacked a federal judge born in the United States of Mexican heritage, a judge who happened to be overseeing a lawsuit against Trump University. He got into a fight with a Gold Star family, who happened to be Muslim and whose son was killed in the Iraq War, after they used the platform of the Democratic National Committee to criticize his campaign proposal for a ban on Muslim immigration.
As president, he twice offered kind words for the white supremacists who marched in Charlottesville, saying that among them were some “very fine people.” Later, he called National Football League players who knelt during the national anthem, in protest of policing practices in some African American communities, sons of bitches and said the owners should fire them.
Now he has used a horrible vulgarity to denigrate nations whose immigrants to the United States have made valuable contributions to the country. He compounded his dismissal of those countries by asking why the United States country cannot take more immigrants from places such as Norway, which happens to be predominantly white.
Condemnations came quickly from different parts of the political spectrum. A U.N. human rights spokesman said there was no other word than “racist” to describe Trump’s comment. The episode once again left the president politically isolated, save for those who either agree with him or are willing to set aside their discomfort, as many voters did when he was elected.
What the president said in the Oval Office on Thursday was only the most shocking of the comments that have marked the early days of 2018. He has continued his attacks on the First Amendment and freedom of the press. He has questioned the libel laws of the country, which protect the press in covering public figures, except in cases of recklessness and malice.
His response to events that go against him is to lash out by declaring that the processes of our democratic system are rigged or broken. His perspective on democratic governance is viewed almost entirely through the lens of whether he, personally, is winning or losing.
For some Trump advisers and for many Republican elected officials, there is an almost automatic reaction to turn away when things like this occur, either to pretend what happened did not happen or to dismiss them as a president blowing off steam, like somebody ranting in a bar.
The consequences are far greater. As these kinds of comments pile one on top of another, they define the Trump presidency — and, in the eyes of much of the world, the current state of United States and the Republican Party itself — as much as the policies he and party leaders are pursuing.