WASHINGTON — It began with a lie and ended with an order.
Last Monday, President Trump rehashed one of his favorite conspiracy theories — that he was wrongly denied a bigger victory in the 2016 election. By the end of the week, he was “hereby” demanding American companies “immediately start looking for an alternative to China,” a desperate cry from a budding strongman that sent the stock market into a tailspin.
The moments bookended what was surely the Trumpiest Week yet. A seven-day buffet of all things Trumpian: Petty grievances, needless fights with foreign leaders, complaints about the media, conspiracy theories, casual bigotry — the kind of stuff that gets everyone talking. And while everyone was talking, Trump and his administration did truly monstrous things. It was the Trump presidency in a microcosm, the daily political chaos obscuring the steady churn of policy cruelty.
It looked like this: On Tuesday, the president once again took aim at Reps. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) and Ilhan Omar (D-MN), two Democratic congresswomen of color, who had been denied entry into Israel on an official delegation. “Where has the Democratic Party gone?” Trump said, veering off-script at the end of a visit by the Romanian president. “Where have they gone where they are defending these two people over the state of Israel? And I think any Jewish people that vote for a Democrat, I think it shows either a total lack of knowledge or great disloyalty.”
Accusing Jews of disloyalty or dual loyalty is, of course, a dangerously loaded and anti-Semitic claim. It was deployed in Nazi Germany in the 1930s; it’s a popular refrain among white supremacists today. “This #antiSemitic trope has been used to persecute Jews for centuries & it’s unacceptable to promote it,” tweeted Jonathan Greenblatt, the CEO and national director of the Anti-Defamation League. “He should apologize immediately.” Philip Klein, the executive editor of the conservative Washington Examiner, shot back at Trump: “No matter which way one wants to interpret this comment, it’s sickening coming from an American president.”
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That same day, albeit to less immediate outrage and breathless cable coverage, the Trump administration escalated its inhumane treatment of migrants and refugees who have come to the U.S. In the past year, at least three children have died in part from the flu at border camps — a two-year-old named Wilmer, an eight-year-old named Felipe, and a 16-year-old named Carlos. Yet despite this clear risk heading into flu season, a Customs and Border Protection spokesperson said the agency would not be vaccinating migrant families held in detention.
The next day, the president stood before a gaggle of reporters outside the White House and pronounced that he was “the chosen one” when it came to negotiating with China. This quip — later deemed a stab at sarcasm, Trump said — nearly overshadowed the clearest evidence yet that cruelty is indeed the animating force of Trump’s immigration policy. At the prodding of the White House, the Department of Homeland Security unveiled a plan to hold migrant families in border camps indefinitely. The proposed rule would eliminate the so-called Flores settlement, a hard-won agreement that set a required level of care for families held in detention and limited how long the government could keep them in border camps and other facilities.
The Flores settlement came after a lengthy court battle in the 1980s and ’90s. Lawyers representing children who had fled violence in Central America and sought refuge in the U.S. alleged that the children had experienced horrific treatment at the hands of the American government: housed in a dingy motel surrounded by razor wire, left unsupervised with strangers in overcrowded rooms, in some instances subjected to invasive body cavity searches. The children, lawyers claimed, were used as human bait to arrest their parents. With the help of TV icon Ed Asner, immigration lawyers negotiated the Flores settlement in 1997.
Before Trump, President Obama’s administration tried to get out from under the Flores settlement’s requirements. But Obama did not seek to throw it out entirely, nor seek to separate migrant families as a matter of policy. “If someone had told me in 1985 that our work to protect children would continue into 2019, there is no way I would have believed it,” one of the lawyers who worked on the Flores settlement told the New York Times.
This was how the week would go. Trump high-fived a nutty conspiracy theorist online who had said that Israelis love Trump “like he is the second coming of God.” He threw a presidential tantrum that involved calling the Danish prime minister “nasty” for having the gall to refuse to sell us Greenland. Sean Spicer and Anthony Scaramucci resurfaced in the same news cycle because the universe either hates us or has a wicked sense of humor (or both).
But there were also the very clear indications of this administration’s true colors and character. The Justice Department — the actual DOJ — sent immigration judges a blog post from a white nationalist website that contained racial and ethnic slurs aimed at sitting judges. The president used his bully pulpit to accuse the “Fake News LameStream Media” of trying to “create” a recession. Later, he unleashed his rage at his handpicked Federal Reserve chairman, asking on Twitter: “My only question is, who is our bigger enemy, Jay Powell or Chairman Xi?”
And finally, on Friday, President Trump dispensed with the pretense and let his inner authoritarian shine through. “The vast amounts of money made and stolen by China from the United States, year after year, for decades, will and must STOP,” he tweeted. “Our great American companies are hereby ordered to immediately start looking for an alternative to China, including bringing your companies HOME and making your products in the USA.”
….better off without them. The vast amounts of money made and stolen by China from the United States, year after year, for decades, will and must STOP. Our great American companies are hereby ordered to immediately start looking for an alternative to China, including bringing..
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 23, 2019
Because nothing says free markets and liberal democracy quite like a head of state ordering private businesses to follow his orders.
If you needed any clearer indication of what Donald Trump’s reelection strategy was going to be, last week was it. Chaos and Cruelty 2020. Rick Wilson, the acerbic never-Trumper, summed it up like this: “This isn’t the madman theory. This is a madman president.”
And it will only get more chaotic and more cruel from here on out, more distraction, more detention, more rage. Don’t underestimate the depths to which this president will go to stay in office and keep his power. Don’t underestimate the breadth of damage he will do it with.
This was the Trumpiest Week ever, but it won’t be the last.