“President Trump: 30 Hours,” the ABC News 20/20 special featuring a heavily promoted White House interview by This Week anchor George Stephanopoulos, finally aired in full Sunday night. It was alternately an absurd and harmful exercise. There are lists of five to 10 takeaways from the exchange on various news sites, but there are only two that matter: The president declared to a national audience that he is ready to betray the country, and his fellow Republicans have already taken steps to help him do it.
As journalism, the ABC special failed, letting many of Trump’s lies air unchecked and every bit of his racist policy go virtually unexamined. But as pure television spectacle, it sabotaged itself with its own hype. Like a blockbuster movie that has all of its most shocking twists revealed in the trailer, the ABC special had already teased its only truly newsworthy clips last week. Wednesday’s clip showed Trump saying that he would accept information about a political opponent if a foreign nation approached him or his campaign with it — much as Russia did to his eldest son, Donald Jr., three years ago. Trump all but laughed off the notion of calling the FBI in such an instance. (That earned the scolding of none other than FEC chairwoman Ellen Weintraub, who shared a letter Wednesday evening stating unequivocally that accepting anything of value from a foreign nation in connection with a U.S. election is illegal. Her tweet read simply, “I would not have thought that I needed to say this.”)
The furor over the soundbite provoked Trump to attempt an incomplete walkback on Thursday, when he said that “of course” he would alert the FBI when he received that oppo dirt from a foreign country that he still planned to use. “Of course you have to look at it, because if you don’t look at it, you’re not going to know if it’s bad,” Trump said during a phone conversation on Fox & Friends. “How are you going to know if it’s bad?” Because it is coming from a foreign country and that fact alone makes it illegal, that’s how.
For some reason, though, top Congressional Democrats went softer on Trump than they should have. While several of her party’s presidential candidates labeled Trump things like a “national security threat” and “unfit for the office that you hold” and called for immediate impeachment proceedings, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said that Trump “does not know right from wrong.” That seemed to give him an out, of sorts. She instead trained her fire on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s obstructionist tactics, erecting a poster at her Thursday presser reading, “McConnell’s Graveyard” in reference to all the bills he’s killed. Chuck Schumer, the top Democrat in the Senate, called the interview “disgraceful yet sadly par for the course for this president,” which seemed understated. Rep. Jerry Nadler, the head of the House Judiciary Committee, said it was “shocking.” Was it, really?
The GOP has long been engaged in a project of destabilizing democracy, from partisan gerrymandering to voter purging to various other methods of suppression. Add accepting foreign help to the list. No one can listen to Trump say the kinds of things he said in that interview, possessing the kinds of powers that he has, and think that we’re about to have a fair election. That may have been the height of naïveté to begin with, but everyone should disabuse themselves of that notion now. Election security was a paramount issue for a lot of black and brown voters already, and now it should be for everyone planning to go to the polls in 2020. It is now a topic we should be speaking about daily, and with the appropriate urgency. And we should be putting the blame for the problem where it lies.
Though Democratic leadership issued the rhetorical equivalent of “thoughts and prayers” as the sitting president openly spoke of colluding with foreign powers who might help him win the next election, there is only so much indignation we should be directing Democrats’ way. Yes, it did look a bit like accountability theater when Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va) tried to pass a bill Thursday via unanimous consent that would require all campaigns to report any offers of foreign assistance to the FBI, considering that such a bill had no chance in hell of being signed into law by the president who made it necessary (if not, per Weintraub, somewhat redundant). But even as some press outlets were quick to credit Republicans for distancing themselves a toe’s length away from the president after he made those unpatriotic remarks, it was one of their senators from Tennessee, Marsha Blackburn, who blocked the passage of the Warner bill by raising an objection.
It was as ludicrous a stance as McConnell’s steadfast refusal to allow any legislation enhancing U.S. election security to be even considered on the Senate floor during this term, including the Election Security Act, a House Democratic bill that would help bolster federal and state voting infrastructure. And now the Department of Justice is starting to “investigate the investigators” who initiated the Russia inquiry into the Trump campaign, so there is a greater likelihood that our nation’s defenses will be even weaker as intelligence officials either fear reprisals or outright prosecution from their own government for trying to protect our national elections.
Consider some of the rhetoric calling Trump “traitorous” too much? Too bad. I mean, we live in a time when the Pentagon deliberately keeps the president out of the loop with regard to U.S. countermeasures against Russian power grids, for fear that he will let sensitive details slip to top Russian officials as he already has in the past. But Trump’s willingness to undermine American democracy is not merely disloyal because of his literal encouragement of foreign interference in our elections.
The untold number of lives lost and the scars borne by people like Rep. John Lewis can’t allow us to say that voter suppression is “un-American.” Unfortunately, it is anything but. Americans still do not have the full protections of the Voting Rights Act, thanks to the 2013 Shelby County v. Holder Supreme Court decision. We should take Trump’s eagerness to accept foreign help and the Republican will to assist him within this context, because like the act of blocking the ballot, their acts vandalize the very purpose of democracy. For all their carrying on about migrants, they sure are in a hurry to give away a say in America’s future to foreign actors, some of whom may even be adversaries.
That is why it is difficult to get caught up in Trump’s gaudy redesign of Air Force One , or even his possibly imaginary Obamacare replacement that he teased during the ABC special. It was going to be tough to make that newsworthy in an age when his administration is building concentration camps for immigrant children. But perhaps news is where you make it.
Stephanopoulos never mentioned the words “family separation,” “Iran,” or “Census citizenship question” — despite those being arguably three of the most urgent issues currently facing the Trump administration — and still dominated the headlines. Trump faced no questions about the climate crisis, or how his government might be improving its abysmal record managing natural disasters. Many of the president’s outright and checkable lies were broadcast without correction. Trump was even able to drop a “Pocahontas” without any rebuke, as if that racist barb was actually Elizabeth Warren’s nickname.
One of our holes in the boat, as it were, is that the sitting United States president can remain in office, signing bills and even riding on Air Force One, after he has said the kinds of things that he has. Trump told the nation, on television, that he plans to become a criminal. That he steadfastly denies being a crook in the past, whether financial or political, matters not. Every single claim of “no collusion!” was zeroed out by this interview. We now lay in wait for he and his campaign to collude, whether with Russia or the Saudis or the UAE, or whichever foreign power may seek to sway Trump toward their preferred policy outcome.
This president has no definable moral code to speak of beyond his own personal profit and glorification. In that respect, he is a natural Republican for this day and age. That we know them to be this way, however, does not mean that we should merely shrug our shoulders at their depravity.
The president’s behavior is indeed “disgraceful,” if no longer “shocking.” He and his party do know “right from wrong,” of that I’m sure. They’re grown. So treat them as such.