By Paul Rosenberg, Senior Editor
Donald Trump’s presidency began with three acts that spoke volumes about what is to come. First, he cancelled Barack Obama’s executive order benefiting first-time home buyers — many of whom represented his base.
Second, he visited the CIA and tried to convince them he was their best friend. Media reports to the contrary were all lies. Third, he sent out his press secretary to attack the media angrily for accurately reporting the relatively small size of his inauguration crowd. But Trump’s real problem is not with the media, it is with reality.
Political scientist Corey Robin once wrote that conservatives “are aggrieved and entitled— aggrieved because entitled—and already convinced of the righteousness of their cause and the inevitability of its triumph.”
As such, they have no need of facts, only good stories to tell to show how much, how unfairly they’ve suffered. And, no one is better at that than Trump. Pointing out falsities only fuels his sense of grievance. It’s “very unfair” to point out that he’s lying. He’s entitled to say whatever pops into his head, however false, incoherent or defamatory.
Trump began by betraying the very sort of hardworking “forgotten” Americans who voted for him. By the start of his second week in office, he was virtually at war with both the military and intelligence services, because their concern for acting on accurate information was a severe impediment to his drive for unfettered power. His war with the media swirled throughout the week, but it was only a symptom of Trump’s deeper war with reality itself.
The day he took office, Donald Trump wasted little time betraying his base. He issued an executive order cancelling an Obama-ordered reduction in the Federal Housing Administration’s annual fee for most borrowers. The cut would have saved $500 in the first year for someone borrowing $200,000. Hundreds of thousands of new home buyers would be hurt.
“It took only an hour after his positive words on the inaugural platform for his actions to ring hollow,” said Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer, from New York, on the Senate floor. “One hour after talking about helping working people and ending the cabal in Washington that hurts people, he signs a regulation that makes it more expensive for new homeowners to buy mortgages.”
Trump’s action was not a surprise, really. Just after the election, a survey of economists by the Booth School of Business at the University of Chicago asked if enacting all of Trump’s “Seven actions to protect American workers” in his 100-day plan would be more likely to improve the economic prospects of middle-class Americans over the next decade. None of the economists surveyed agreed.
Lying to the Press About the Press
During his first full day in office, Trump also went ballistic over the fact that his inauguration had been poorly attended, dwarfed by the Women’s March on Washington the next day, which drew more than three times as many people. Another 500,000 to 750,000 turned out here in Los Angeles as well, adding up to somewhere between 3.3 and 5.3 million protesters nationwide.
Trump ordered his press secretary, Sean Spicer, to go out and attack the press. Spicer berated reporters at a press briefing Saturday evening, attacking the accurate reports of small crowd sizes and threatening to “hold the press accountable.”
“This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period, both in-person and around the globe,” Spicer lied.
But earlier in the day, Trump promoted the same lie in a visit to CIA headquarters, while also lying about his own past attacks on the intelligence agencies and his refusal to take their information seriously.
“The relationship [between Trump and the CIA] is the worst of any incoming administration ever,” former senior CIA official Paul Pillar told Alternet a few days before Trump’s inauguration. “You have to go back to Nixon to find a president with as strong negative views about the agency. But the agency did not get this kind of public disparagement from Nixon.”
Not only had Trump refused to take regular intelligence briefings, like every previous president-elect since Eisenhower, he openly disparaged their warnings of Russian election meddling and even lashed out in anger. Just 10 days before his CIA visit, Trump likened the intelligence agencies to Nazi Germany in a tweet, saying they “never should have allowed this fake news to ‘leak’ to the public. One last shot at me.” (The stories had been circulating for months and were actually suppressed during the campaign.)
But when Trump visited the CIA, he tried to pretend he was their best friend and it was only the lying media who said otherwise. To help sell his story, Trump brought along a contingent of about 40 loyalists to wildly applaud his speech— something the apolitical professionals at the CIA frown on. As noted by CNN:
Trump spent much of his speech lambasting the media. He spoke in front of a memorial wall that honors 117 CIA officers who have fallen in the line of duty. He focused on the size of the crowd size at his inauguration, his appearance on magazine covers and saying he “has a running war with the media.”
“The wall behind me is very, very special,” Trump said, which was the full extent of his acknowledgment of those who had given their lives.
He devoted far more attention to himself.
“Probably almost everybody in this room voted for me, but I will not ask you to raise your hands if you did. But I would guarantee a big portion, because we’re all on the same wavelength, folks,” he said later.
But that’s not how CIA officers saw things. CBS News reported, “a sense of unease in the intelligence community” after Trump’s visit, which “made relations with the intelligence community worse,” according to an unnamed official.
Former CIA Chief John Brennan issued a statement saying he was “deeply saddened and angered at Donald Trump’s despicable display of self-aggrandizement in front of CIA’s Memorial Wall of Agency heroes.”
And a scathing video commentary from former agent Nada Bakos went viral, in which she contrasted her initial hopefulness with bitter criticism.
“I was very hopeful that he would understand the building that he was in. That he would understand the apolitical nature of the work that they do. The objectivity that they strive for in their analysis,” Bakos said.
But what she saw disappointed her:
I didn’t see a president standing in the building trying to repair the relationship. I didn’t see a president that made an effort to understand the solemnness and the humility it should take to speak in front of that wall. In my view, Trump’s treatment of the CIA is rooted in politicization. He first tried to blatantly twist their arm into ignoring Russian meddling, by calling them ‘Nazis,’ hoping to cow them into submission. When that didn’t work, he used a not-so-subtle peace officer tactic and tried to persuade them he meant well, by extending the olive branch through his visits.
You can’t sweet talk a good spy. Falsehoods and ‘alternative facts’ are no way to win over a workforce whose job it is to discern the truth.
Holocaust Remembrance And Muslim Bans
A week later — without any expert input— Trump signed a refugee ban on Holocaust Remembrance Day. (His Remembrance Day proclamation, tellingly, made no mention of Jews.) That same day, a dedicated Twitter account tweeted out the entire manifest of the USS St. Louis, a ship full of Jews denied entry into the United States in 1939:
“My name is Max Hirsch. The US turned me away at the border in 1939. I was murdered in Mauthausen.”
“My name is Sophie Münz. The US turned me away at the border in 1939. I was murdered in Auschwitz.”
“My name is Paula Münz. The US turned me away at the border in 1939. I was murdered in Auschwitz.”
The list went on and on, hundreds and hundreds of them, many with pictures.
Trump’s ban covered entry into the United States from seven Muslim-majority nations — Syria, Iraq, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia and Yemen — none of which have done business with Trump, or pose a serious terrorist threat, unlike Turkey, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, for example, where most of the 9/11 hijackers came from.
“Foreigners from those seven nations have killed zero Americans in terrorist attacks on U.S. soil between 1975 and the end of 2015,” the Cato Institute noted on its blog.
Even U.S. residents — green card holders — and who were abroad at the time were being denied re-entry. Two Iraqi refugees detained at New York’s JFK Airport had spent the last decade working to help America in Iraq. One of the men, Hameed Darweesh, had been targeted at least twice by terrorists. He was released the next day after two New York Democratic members of Congress, Jerry Nadler and Nydia Velazquez, went to JFK, seeking both men’s release.
“America is the greatest nation, the greatest people in the world,” Darweesh told the press following his release.
Darweesh put a human face on the scary abstract threat Trump has repeatedly tried to paint—and it just didn’t match up.
A November 2015 tweet was typical: “Refugees from Syria are now pouring into our great country. Who knows who they are – some could be ISIS. Is our president insane?”
The reality completely different. Out of some four million displaced Syrians in 2015, the United Nations referred only 130,000 for resettlement by the end of 2016, 18,000 of them to U.S. interview teams, who were to select 10,000, in a process lasting 18 to 24 months. This involved 13 security clearance steps. Darweesh is the sort of immigrant you get after 13 security clearance steps. Trump, in contrast, has never even bothered to explain what “extreme vetting” even means.
By Saturday’s end, tens of thousands of people were demonstrating at airports from LAX to Boston, to Seattle, Atlanta, Dallas/Fort Worth, San Francisco, Washington, D.C. and beyond. Two federal court orders were handed down, staying implementation of the Trump’s ban, but immigration officers responded erratically, defying court orders more or less blatantly in multiple cases, refusing to let lawyers see detained travelers in many cases, and even sending some travelers back overseas.
A Constitutional Crisis
“I believe it’s a constitutional crisis, where the executive branch is not abiding by the law,” New Jersey Sen. Corey Booker told The Daily Beast.
Immigration officials at Dulles airport refused to even meet with him, but communicated with him through an exchange of written questions and answers. At LAX, immigration officials also refused to speak with reps. Nanette Barragan and Judy Chu. They spoke briefly by phone, but abruptly hung up.
The administration’s refusal to abide by federal court orders was noted by Princeton’s Sam Wang as the fourth item checked off in eight days from a “ten-point warning checklist for how 2017 America may becoming like 1934 Germany.” Other items checked off included:
- Taking sides with a foreign power against domestic opposition.
- Made-up charges against those who disagree with the government.
- Persecution of an ethnic or religious minority, either by the administration or its supporters.
A fifth item, “Detention of journalists,” has also occurred, but might be “a one-time error by local law enforcement,” Wang wrote.
Late on Jan. 28, CNN reported on the profound ignorance and confusion surrounding Trump’s ban. Career Department of Homeland Security staff weren’t allowed to see the final details until Jan. 27, the day the order was signed. The order was crafted by Trump’s inner circle, including Trump’s white nationalist “Senior Advisor” Steve Bannon, former head of the fake news website Breitbart.com. He was not subject to Senate confirmation hearings. When Homeland Security officials saw the order, they concluded it did not apply to lawful permanent residents — aka “green card holders” — but the White House overruled the department. What’s more, CNN reported:
“Before the president issued the order, the White House did not seek the legal guidance of the Office of Legal Counsel, the Justice Department office that interprets the law for the executive branch. A source said the executive order did not follow the standard agency review process that’s typically overseen by the National Security Council.”
A second, less-noticed executive order was in some respects even more troubling. It restructured the National Security Council by promoting Bannon to the Principles Committee—the council’s top body—and removing the top two officials from the military and the intelligence communities, the commander of Joint Chiefs of Staff and the director of National Intelligence. Sen.John McCain called Bannon’s appointment “a radical departure from any National Security Council in history.”
During his campaign, Trump repeatedly claimed he knew “more about ISIS than the generals,” and disparaged the intelligence agencies in multiple ways as well, while repeating numerous false stories and factual claims promoted by Bannon’s site Breitbart.com. So this executive order was a logical extension of how he had campaigned. But it also starkly underscored that’s not just the media that Trump is at war with. It’s any source of facts, whatsoever.