Washington Watch: ‘Democracy dies in darkness’

The presidency has been a voyage of discovery for Trump, but early evidence suggests he is a slow learner. He knows not where he’s heading or how to get there.

US President Donald Trump speaks to reporters aboard Air Force One (photo credit: REUTERS)
US President Donald Trump speaks to reporters aboard Air Force One
(photo credit: REUTERS)
With little fanfare, The Washington Post recently added a motto to the top of page one, just below its name: “Democracy Dies in Darkness.”
It had been in the works since early last year, but US President Donald Trump took it as a personal insult, as did many of his supporters, according to published reports. Post editors insist it was not a response to his declaration of war on the news media.
Nonetheless, Trump has been on a mission to validate the Post’s slogan. The latest evidence came late Friday, a favorite time for releasing news in the hope of minimizing attention, when the administration – which Trump promised would be transparent – announced the reversal of the Obama administration’s policy of making public the White House visitors’ log and staff financial disclosure statements.
The rationale – “grave national security risks and privacy concerns” – lacks credibility coming on the heels of Trump’s decision to remove privacy rights for Internet users and allow providers to sell their private information without permission.
The White House also called it a budget cutting measure, saving $17,500 a year. That is insulting; that’s just a fraction of just one of the president’s weekly Air Force One golf excursions to his Florida retreat, which cost taxpayers $3 million each, according to CNBC.
The visitor log secrecy “equals more cronyism, more insider dealing and more corruption,” charged Public Citizen. Other watchdog groups agreed. The Sunlight Foundation said the Trump administration has “one of the worst” records in American history when it comes to open government.
The decree shields from public scrutiny conflicts of interest for the president, his family and top aides in their meetings with lobbyists, special interests, donors and business associates who visit the White House.
This week we were again reminded that there is no better example of Trump’s penchant for secrecy and duplicity than his refusal to release his tax returns. Despite repeated campaign promises to follow the example of every president since Richard Nixon and make his returns public (presumably, like the rest of us, he did file his 2016 return by Tuesday, but we may never know that either), he now steadfastly refuses.
At first he said he couldn’t because he was being audited, but that’s a lie. The IRS already had his return and doesn’t care if he makes it public. Then, after the election he dropped all pretense and refused flat out. Tens of thousands of taxpayers held demonstrations in some 200 cities around the country on April 15 demanding he keep his promise, but he responded in a tweet, suggesting they were just a small band of paid agitators, and then declared: “The election is over.”
American democracy won’t live or die on Donald Trump’s tax returns, but they have great symbolic value, and his refusal undercuts his promise to “drain the swamp” of special interest lobbying, cronyism and self-dealing in Washington.
Trump defends his penchant for secrecy by saying he likes to keep people “guessing,” whether foreign enemies or domestic players, but a more convincing case can be made that it is a cover for ignorance, chaos and incompetence.
The White House has reportedly ordered executive branch agencies to withhold information from Democrats in Congress needed to conduct hearings, oversight and constituent services. Democratic offices report being told by administration officials the data they seek will be made available only to Republican committee chairs.
A series of Los Angeles Times editorials called him “the liar in chief” and said he may not see much distinction between lies and the truth.
One of his biggest lies was probably when he said during the campaign, “Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it.”
Instead, he has undermined pubic confidence in key pillars of American democracy: the media, the electoral system and the judiciary.
He questions the integrity of the judicial system, insults judges and challenges their authority when he dislikes their rulings.
He said the only way his opponent got three million more popular votes than he did was by fraud and voting by non-citizens, but has failed to produce a shred of evidence to back up his lies.
He branded the media as “enemies of the people,” a tactic favored by authoritarian despots he admires, like Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Egypt’s Abdel Fattah Sisi, who have filled their jails with journalists who had the temerity to suggest the emperor had no clothes. Trump seems to get most of his news for his tweets from conspiracy theorists, crackpots, Fox & Friends and his own imagination.
Once in office Trump quickly discovered everything was harder than he imagined, and instead of fixing anything he has surrounded himself with incompetent, inexperienced advisers often at war with each other, and the most influential position is held by Jared Kushner, his monumentally unqualified son-in-law.
Trump undermines the authority and credibility of his own government by appointing agency heads hostile to the mission of their own departments (Justice, Energy, Education, Health and Human Services, Environmental Protection Agency, Food and Drug Administration and Labor to name a few) and then intentionally under-staffing them.
The presidency has been a voyage of discovery for Trump, but early evidence suggests he is a slow learner. He knows not where he’s heading or how to get there. He came to office largely uninformed, preferring to shoot from the lip rather than waste time learning about complex issues. He has a simple guiding principle: me. Actually, it is an obsession with his own fame, wealth and adulation.
Pulitzer prize winning columnist Eugene Robson aptly noted that “we have no idea where he really stands because, well, neither does he.”
That may pose more danger to our democracy than any foreign enemy.