Editor’s Note: Mark Weinberg is a communications consultant, speechwriter and the author of “Movie Nights with the Reagans” (Simon & Schuster). He served as special assistant to the president and assistant press secretary in Ronald Reagan’s White House, and as director of public affairs in former President Reagan’s office. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
And so it continues. With no end in sight to the government shutdown, President Donald Trump, who rightly said a government shutdown should be blamed on the White House, now seems unwilling to accept responsibility.
As a result, hundreds of thousands of innocent government workers – Democrats, Republicans and Independents – are being forced to go without the paychecks they need to feed, house and clothe their families. (These are government workers who, by the way, Trump decided will not receive any pay raise in 2019.) And millions of citizens nationwide are being forced to go without some of the government services on which they may depend.
Reacting to Congress’ resistance to force US taxpayers – rather than Mexico – to fund his border wall, Trump even threatened to shut down the southern border on Friday night. No one knows what that means exactly, but his impetuous response reveals a much bigger issue at play here: In whose interests is our President acting?
It increasingly appears he is acting in his own, putting America and Americans second.
Let’s take a look at a few recent examples of this “Trump first” approach at play:
Withdrawal of US troops from Syria
No one likes the idea of putting US troops in harm’s way, especially in the midst of what seems like an unwinnable war thousands of miles away. That said, our armed forces are in Syria for a good reason: to eradicate an avowed enemy that seeks to destroy us – ISIS.
Trump claimed our mission in Syria was done and it was time to withdraw our forces. Most experts disagreed. While outgoing Secretary of Defense James Mattis cautioned the President against such a hasty decision, it did not seem to matter.
Instead, Trump made a unilateral choice, which shocked our political and military establishment, as well as our allies abroad – but delighted our chief international adversary, Russian President Vladimir Putin. In a press conference, Putin said, “If the decision to withdraw was made, then it is a correct one.”
Though Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Trump ally who opposes withdrawal, said Sunday, “We’re in a pause situation” on Syria withdrawal, the President has not formally announced a change to his drawdown plans.
Given that the threat of ISIS still remains, it appears Trump’s decision is more motivated by a desire to fulfill a campaign promise than to ensure the safety of the American people at large. Also, if the United States leaves, ISIS could well be able to reactivate with few, if any, interruptions from enemy forces, and that certainly will not be in America’s national security interests.
Intentionally undermining pillars of democracy
Trump’s incessant criticisms of the press and our system of justice are so frequent that some may be getting numb to their poisonous effects. But a democracy cannot exist without these two pillars.
Trump does not seem to care. He has called the free press “the enemy of the people,” has suggested on Twitter the possibility of an official government network to rival the media, and has made the Federal Bureau of Investigation a repeated target of his ire.
A muzzled press and a corrupt justice system are hallmarks of authoritarian regimes. That Trump seeks to intimidate and corrode public confidence in these pillars of democracy is – to use one of his favorite words – a disgrace.
But Donald Trump knows both institutions are devoted to pursuing the truth about him, his businesses and his presidential campaign. That seems to scare him, so his attacks are unlikely to let up any time soon. His personal interests are best served by a lack of public confidence in the press and in the justice system. The heck with what is best for the country.
Endangering the smooth working of free markets
Add Wall Street to the list of institutions Trump appears to no longer respect. In his sights is the very essence of our economic system: the stock market. He is making it virtually impossible for anyone to know in what to reliably invest. Trump is smart enough to realize what he says matters to the markets, yet he insists on saying one thing on Monday, and another – sometimes the opposite – on Tuesday.
Like corporate CEOs who seek consistent and sustainable earnings growth to keep stock prices on an upward trend, so, too, should the President’s comments be consistent and sustainable. Lately, at least, Trump’s have been neither. And he has taken the highly unusual step of publicly criticizing his hand-picked chairman of the independent Federal Reserve, Jerome Powell, whom he appointed just last year – saying he was “not even a little bit happy” with him. In fact, according to CNN sources, Trump has even asked about the legality of firing Powell, which only adds to instability and uncertainty in the marketplace. Not surprisingly, Trump’s criticism of Powell has taken a toll on markets, which have seen extreme highs and lows over the last month for a variety of reasons.
Were Trump interested in stabilizing and strengthening the US economy, rather than merely bullying the independent Fed chairman, Trump would choose his words more carefully.
No one should be surprised at Trump putting himself first. After all, he campaigned on being a disruptor, and clearly much of the country welcomed that approach. He and his supporters seem to relish his eschewing of “presidential norms.”
But this pattern of Trump putting his interests before the country’s could not be more at odds with what a president is supposed to do.
Indeed, the one norm to which every president must adhere is putting the American people first. Regardless of his or her personal style, the president of the United States must at all times act in a way that protects the well-being of our citizens and the strength of our republic. That means supporting – not seeking to destroy – what makes our country great, even if doing so is at his own expense.
Recent actions by Trump provide legitimate reason to question if, whenever the government comes back to full strength, that will be his priority. On that there can be no compromise. Ever. Our survival depends on it.