The Damage Already Done by Trump's Presidency

Trump's just taking office, but he's already cost America gravely

Donald Trump is being sworn in as the 45th president of the United States Friday, with historically low approval ratings, and despite losing the popular vote. Credit: Win McNamee/Getty

Donald Trump moves into the White House already having done damage to the presidency, our democracy, the economy and America's place in the world.

We have watched this unfold in the open: Trump has thumbed his nose at custom and the Constitution by refusing to resolve the conflicts of interest that will now shadow his presidency. He has used his Twitter account – a 21st-century bully pulpit – not to unify Americans behind his agenda, but to settle personal scores in a sustained assault on freedom of the press, freedom of assembly and freedom of speech. Trump has installed an inner circle that aims to marginalize millions of our countrymen, even as it seeks to degrade the institutions of our government. Finally, Trump has clutched Russia in a perplexing bear hug. Whether he's done this out of genuine admiration for its brutal regime, because he's indebted to its oligarchs, or because Trump has somehow been compromised by former KGB colonel Vladimir Putin we have yet to resolve. For Americans, and for our NATO allies, none of these alternatives will be reassuring.

Republicans in Congress have stood by quietly, almost without objection. They've acted as enablers – even as Trump has inserted himself as the ur-chairman of publicly traded companies, blessing their manufacturing plans or tanking their stock prices with a single tweet. Republicans used to object to politicians "picking winners and losers." Just last July, Speaker Paul Ryan called it "a recipe for a closed economy – for cronyism."

History will judge this period harshly.

Conflicts of interest
Trump has not released his tax returns. The American public remains in the dark about the debts and deals that could bind the 45th president against the national interest or pervert the foreign policy of the United States.

The lack of transparency matters because Donald Trump has not divested from his businesses. His promises to set up a blind trust and to halt new business deals were both empty. As the director of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics, Walter Shaub, described it, Trump's decision to hand daily management of the Trump Organization to his adult sons instead is "meaningless from a conflict of interest perspective."

Sounding more than a bit like Richard Nixon, Trump has proclaimed that "the president can't have a conflict of interest." By a lawyerly reading of 18 U.S.C. § 208, that may parse as true – but the claim is false from any moral perspective. The Supreme Court has written that when our leaders "engage in activities which arouse suspicions of corruption," those office-holders endanger "the very fabric of a democratic society." Trump, Shaub insisted in remarks delivered January 11th at the Brookings Institution, has failed to rise to the standards "that every president in the past four decades has met."

In fact, during the transition period, Trump and his children appeared to trade on his status as president-elect: The Trumps have reportedly secured a stalled building permit for a tower in Argentina; Ivanka Trump joined her father in a meeting with the prime minister of Japan, where she has business with a state-backed enterprise; and the Trump Organization's new leaders, Don Jr. and Eric Trump, took seats at the conference table for a once-in-a lifetime meeting with executives from Facebook, Google, Apple, Amazon, Oracle, Microsoft and others at the "tech summit" convened by their president-elect father at Trump Tower. Even Donald Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, has been pursuing lucrative business deals with foreign investors. Trump has now named Kushner a senior adviser, skirting anti-nepotism laws.

The president's global business enterprise remains an invitation to corruption – from interests who may try to ingratiate themselves to Trump by leasing his properties, golfing at his resorts or lodging at his hotels, including the new Trump International, down the street from the White House.

Trump's business conflicts raise not only ethical but constitutional concerns. Can profits earned from foreign governments paying exorbitant sums for luxury rentals, hotel rooms, golf retreats or $24 cocktails be construed as either bribes or "emoluments" (i.e., gifts)? Those would be impeachable offenses under the Constitution.

The Republican Congress could act to place limits on Trump's ability to profit from his office. Congress could also force Trump to reveal his tax returns, which 74 percent of Americans want him to release. But the only move a Republican from the legislative branch has made on presidential ethics so far is to threaten the independent government watchdog who dared criticize Trump.

This has left our 45th president, in the words of Harvard legal scholar Laurence Tribe, "a walking, talking violation of the constitution from the moment he takes the oath."

Creeping authoritarianism
As he did on the campaign trail, Trump has continued to do violence to both America's political norms and its constitutional values, striking an authoritarian tone and railing against "my many enemies" – including the Senate minority leader, whom Trump now calls "head clown Chuck Schumer."

During his time as president-elect, Trump showed contempt for free speech and free assembly in behavior that the executive director of the ACLU calls "incredibly troubling." After his win in November, Trump lashed out at "professional protesters, incited by the media," calling their street marches "unfair." He proposed punishing Americans who burn the flag with a "loss of citizenship or year in jail!" And in a series of tweets, he accused the cast of Hamilton of having "harassed" Mike Pence with "rude" and "terrible behavior" after the cast appealed to the vice president-elect "to uphold our American values and to work on behalf of all of us."

Trump also relentlessly bashed the "crooked" and "dishonest" media. He brought a paid cheering section to his lone press conference. And he used that forum to club CNN as "fake news" and to call BuzzFeed a "failing pile of garbage" for, respectively, reporting on and publishing an intelligence dossier authored by a former British spy that alleged a "well-developed conspiracy of cooperation" between Trump's campaign and the Russian government.

Trump warned that BuzzFeed, in particular, would "suffer the consequences."

Anti-government agenda
When he wasn't trashing the First Amendment, the president-elect was building an inner circle of ideologues who are either hostile to large segments of the American public or to the idea of government itself.

The first list starts with senior adviser Steve Bannon, the hero to white nationalists who built Breitbart into the media platform for the "Alt-Right." Trump tapped as his national security adviser retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, who has tweeted that "Fear of Muslims is RATIONAL" and declared that Islam is a "malignant cancer."

Trump's pick to enforce civil rights and the rule of law at the Justice Department is Jeff Sessions – the Alabama senator who was notoriously denied a federal judgeship in the 1980s over allegations of racism as well as his prosecution of voting rights activists who had been close to Martin Luther King Jr. (Trump, himself, used King's birthday weekend this year to bash Rep. John Lewis, a civil rights hero and King confidant, as being "all talk, talk, talk" and for neglecting the "burning and crime infested inner-cities.")

Trump's anti-government brigade is headlined by EPA nominee Scott Pruitt, the Oklahoma attorney general who repeatedly sued the agency he has been tapped to lead – including in a failed attempt to strike down limits on emissions of neurotoxic mercury. It includes billionaire Betsy DeVos, the would-be education secretary who testified this week that states should decide whether to enforce the federal civil rights law guaranteeing education to students with disabilities; energy secretary nominee Rick Perry, who famously wanted to eliminate his future department; housing secretary nominee Ben Carson, who had assessed himself unqualified to lead any federal agency; and treasury secretary nominee Steve Mnuchin, who profited from both the housing bubble and its aftermath, pivoting from the mortgage desk at Goldman Sachs to running a bank dubbed a "foreclosure machine" by critics – which tossed military service members out of their homes and tried to foreclose on a 90-year-old lady who owed the bank 27 cents. Mnuchin's "number one priority," he's said, is to "strip back" the Dodd Frank financial reforms that Congress passed in 2010 to prevent another housing-market crash.

The Russian cloud
To borrow a line from Churchill, Donald Trump's relationship with Russia is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. We have at best spotty information, but what we do know should alarm any American.

Vladimir Putin's Russia invades its neighbors, threatens NATO allies, is linked to murders of dissidents and journalists, and subverts democracies – including our own. The CIA, FBI and NSA have concluded that Putin had "a clear preference" for Trump over Clinton in the 2016 election and that Russia orchestrated a multifaceted "influence campaign" to help boost Trump, including by hacking emails of the DNC and "senior Democratic officials" ultimately published by WikiLeaks.

We know that Trump – who touted the WikiLeaks disclosures ad nauseam on the campaign trail – laboriously resisted linking Russia to to the hack, insisting "it is very hard to determine who was doing the hacking," that "the whole age of computer has made it where nobody knows exactly what's going on" and that "I know things that other people don't know." Only during his press conference – following an in-person classified briefing by the heads of the intelligence community – did Trump finally admit, "I think it was Russia," only to once more praise the product of Putin's cyber op, telling reporters, "Look at what was learned from that hacking."

We have come to know Donald Trump as a man who relishes dominance displays and bullying his adversaries. Recall: "low-energy Jeb," "lyin' Ted," "little Marco" and "crooked Hillary." But when it comes to the former KGB colonel who leads Russia, Trump has a very different posture. The new American president doesn't hold himself up as the new big wolf on the global stage. Instead, Trump acts like Putin is his alpha – praising him in December as "very smart!"

Far from letting Russia's meddling in American elections spoil the bromance, Trump tweeted in January, "Having a good relationship with Russia is a good thing, not a bad thing. Only 'stupid' people, or fools, would think that it is bad!" With his foreign policy team, Trump has surrounded himself with Russia-friendly advisers, including Gen. Flynn, and Rex Tillerson, the secretary of state nominee and former Exxon CEO on whom Putin pinned a medal of friendship in 2013. Trump's praise for Putin is so effusive, and his administration's posture toward Russia so deferential, it is not difficult to believe the Russians have some sort of leverage. Is it financial? As remarked above, Trump refuses to release his tax returns or business records. We don't know. Back in 2008, Trump's son Don Jr. revealed that "Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets." Donald Trump has loudly denied in recent days that he owes "Russia" anything. But as the journalist David Cay Johnston has smartly observed, Trump's disavowals seem lawyerly, never extending to "Russians." After all, Russian oligarchs, not the state of Russia, are the lenders Americans would be concerned about.

A more salacious alternative is that the Russians have compromising material – kompromat – that they are holding over Trump. This possibility is addressed in the scandalous but unverified dossier published by BuzzFeed that Trump has blasted as "A COMPLETE AND TOTAL FABRICATION, UTTER NONSENSE," and "A TOTAL POLITICAL WITCH HUNT!" suggesting it had been leaked by the U.S. intelligence community, which he likened to "Nazi Germany."

A third, and perhaps more disturbing, possibility is that Trump simply and genuinely admires Putin, and seeks to emulate his rule. That Trump sees little value in the NATO alliance that has kept the peace in Europe, and that he'd rather align himself with the Russian autocrat than with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

On day one of the Trump administration, we have far more questions than answers. But we know that the 45th president – historically disliked, elected despite losing the popular vote – has already done real damage to our republic.

And that we owe America our resistance.

Donald Trump pledged to eradicate radical Islam and put "America first" in his inaugural address. Watch here.