Donald Trump can’t seem to stop making self-sabotaging statements.
In tweets about his executive order halting travel from six Muslim-majority countries, Trump has contradicted the arguments of lawyers defending the order in court by proclaiming it is indeed a “travel ban.” He’s indicated publicly that the revised version of the order is not, in fact, a good-faith attempt to comply with the law but rather a “watered-down” version of the Muslim ban he promised during the campaign – statements that are so damaging to the legal defense of his order that some legal scholars have wondered if he’s deliberately trying to harm the already weak case.
Trump’s executive order targeting sanctuary cities has also been blocked by a court, which cited his public statements contradicting the arguments made in court to defend it. Trump has made little effort keep up the charade that he’s separating himself from his financial interests in order to comply with the Constitution’s anti-corruption provisions, which are the subject of three lawsuits against him. And he has engaged in repeated attacks on the judiciary that aren’t likely to encourage courts to give him the benefit of the doubt on any issue.
In the context of the Russia investigations, Trump has gone from merely sabotaging his agenda to making statements that are self-incriminating, or at least evidence of impeachable offenses short of crimes. His disinterest in finding out how Russia attempted to intervene in the U.S. election – and his attacks on those who do want to know – have long made Trump look like he has something to hide. But by firing FBI Director James Comey to thwart the investigation, openly admitting his motive in an interview and a meeting with Russian officials, and floating the idea that more heads may roll because he’s unhappy with the investigation, Trump has put himself in legal and political jeopardy independent of any improprieties his campaign associates may have committed.
Trump’s failure to heed the advice of aides and attorneys trying to, as one anonymous official put it, “keep him away from Twitter, dear God, keep him away from Twitter” is indicative of more than a lack of impulse control – it demonstrates a worldview that is fundamentally incompatible with his role as the leader of a democracy.
Trump won’t keep his mouth shut because he is an autocrat. He thinks he’s above the law or any other form of accountability, so why bother avoiding the appearance of flouting norms or breaking the law? Why even learn what the law is or how America’s system of government is designed to limit the president’s power?
Trump had an impressive track record of evading accountability for his actions before becoming president. As the head of a family company built on inherited wealth, rather than a public corporation, he survived failed projects and bankruptcies in the absence of a board of directors to remove him. When Trump did run a public company with shareholders, he ran it into the ground and lost their money, but made bank himself. Trump’s money and power allowed him to avoid complying with the law or honoring his contracts. When accused of housing discrimination, employment discrimination or fraud, he could make the problem go away by paying out hefty settlements. Trump got away with paying his contractors less than he’d agreed to by explaining they wouldn’t be able to afford the legal fees they would be forced to pay in order to recover what they were owed. Trump summed up his worldview in the infamous Access Hollywood video, in which he bragged about sexually assaulting women: “When you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.”
Trump appears to believe that his election win not only validated any past dishonesty, boorish behavior or lawbreaking, but has placed him at the pinnacle of entitlement to “do anything.” But to his constant surprise and frustration, he is instead in the job that entails more examination and criticism than any other in the world. Unlike the strongmen he so admires, like Putin and Duterte, Trump can’t depend on government actors, the press or the citizenry to accept his declarations as truth or law.
The courts have done their job in blocking Trump from implementing illegal policies, and the media has documented his lies and improprieties. Still, there’s been reason to fear our system of checks and balances might not withstand Trump’s autocratic aspirations in light of congressional Republicans’ reticence to perform their constitutional duty to provide oversight of the president. Their willingness to look the other way in the hope that Trump will sign off on their agenda has demonstrated their priorities: keeping their donors and then their base happy, rather than defending the rule of law.
But Trump has been so flagrant in his unwillingness to even pretend he’s interested in complying with the law that it’s becoming increasingly difficult for his apologists to defend or even rationalize his behavior. If he keeps bragging about his efforts to subvert the Constitution and obstruct justice, they’ll eventually have to take him at his word.