During a lively panel discussion on imperiled norms and ethics in the Trump era during the 2017 Texas Tribune Festival, longtime Republican Richard Painter, the no-nonsense ethics lawyer for the George W. Bush White House, was asked if long-established presidential norms and traditions should be codified into law to prevent conflicts of interest, nepotism and other ethical concerns in future presidencies. He practically exploded.
“I just think we need a sense of decency,” Painter said. “I don’t think [we need] a bunch of rules. For example, you’re not going to have a rule that, after you’ve won an election, you don’t keep trashing on the person you just beat in the election, whether or not she actually won the popular vote. You actually do your job as president. Anyone in the Bush White House who was mouthing off about Al Gore or John Kerry the way these people, including the president, mouth off about Hillary Clinton, we would have fired them on the spot.”
For months, the Trib has mostly stepped aside as columnists and letter-writers from different political perches fired off volleys at one another over President Trump’s actions and rhetoric. We’ve quietly hoped this president would soon assume a more presidential demeanor, take his job more seriously, consider his enormous potential for good, seek to bring our wounded nation together and put an end to political, racial and societal strife. But as we approach year’s end, we see no indication he contemplates this path.
Just last week he recklessly retweeted inflammatory, arguably groundless anti-Muslim videos from a British hate group, prompting a firestorm with the United States’ greatest ally; has revived birtherism claims that our nation’s first black president was foreign-born (and thus illegitimate); and has claimed off and on lately the scorching 2005 “Access Hollywood” recording of his obscene comments about women — the one for which he apologized in October 2016 — is fake. The middle-aged white guy in a gimme cap and holding a sign at Waco Drive and Valley Mills Drive Saturday afternoon may well have something: “Trump — That Boy Don’t Act Right.”
The problem with continuing to look past these daily presidential digressions into hate-mongering, conspiracy theories and artless put-downs is that, sooner or later, this could provoke an incident that costs lives. We hear growing fears from friends and neighbors about a nuclear confrontation that could kill millions. Trump may be right that his predecessors failed to contain North Korea, but his ad hominem attacks on “short and fat” Kim Jong-un and the president’s painfully obvious foreign-policy ignorance have by now needlessly aggravated matters to unprecedented, red-hot levels. And is this really the right time to stir up Iran too?
Republicans with blinders on prefer to cite Democrats’ own misbehavior in defending Trump, but that simply doesn’t negate the fact they repeatedly promised higher standards and competence where their predecessors failed. Republican lawmakers must call out their president or share in the disgrace. They’ll certainly have a hard time shaming any Democrat in the future given their own plummeting ethics and cowardice. That’s if we survive three more years of this.