Sunday, June 7, 2020

In Trump’s Bluster, Telltale Signs of Weakness

      Better late than never, James Mattis, the retired general who served as President Trump’s first secretary of defense, broke his silence last week [June 3] to denounce what he called Trump’s “deliberate effort” over three years to divide rather than try to unify the American people.
      The final straw that broke Mattis’ loyalty as a military man to the president was Trump’s use of armed soldiers to clear protesters out of Lafayette Square to allow the president a transparently political photo opportunity in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church. Mattis’s successor, Mark Esper, walked alongside Trump for the reality show-type tableau, as did General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, dressed in combat fatigues.
      Mattis opened his letter, as later published in full in The Washington Post, by recalling his oath to support the Constitution taken 50 years earlier when he joined the military. “Never did I dream,” Mattis wrote, “that troops taking that same oath would be ordered under any circumstances to violate the constitutional rights of their fellow citizens – much less to provide a bizarre photo op for the elected commander-in-chief, with military leadership standing alongside.”
      Trump, spared from military service in the Vietnam era thanks to bone spurs, staged the tableau to refute the unflattering suggestion of cowardice in reports that he had been sheltered from “Black Lives Matters” protesters in the secure White House bunker. Once in front of the historic St. John’s Church, Trump awkwardly held a Bible in his outstretched right arm to demonstrate, one supposes, his Christian piety. But the staging backfired in multiple respects.
      The Rev. Mariann Budde, archbishop of the Episcopal diocese of Washington, took offense that Trump had given no advance of his plan to use the church for his visit. She noted that Trump, of course, would have been welcome to use the church to pray or meet with parishioners, but she berated him for using the unopened Bible as a political prop.
      Trump’s entourage that day also included his lapdog attorney general, William Barr, who had personally inspected the park hours earlier to lay plans for the later dispersal of the peaceful protesters. Barr’s unquestioning obedience to Trump’s wishes earned him a spot as a named defendant in a federal court suit that American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) lawyers filed the next day charging him and other administration officials with violating the protesters’ free-speech rights by ordering the use of gas and rubber bullets to clear them from the park and the adjoining street.
      By week’s end, Bishop Budde had amplified her criticism of Trump with an op-ed in The New York Times [June 6] that described the visit as “outrageous” and cited messages she received from around the country to similar effect. Trump, she explained, “used sacred symbols to cloak himself in the mantle of spiritual authority, while espousing positions antithetical to the Bible that he held in his hands.”
      Mattis’s indignation over Trump’s actions also drew support by week’s end: specifically, from a chorus of 89 former Defense Department officials in a stinging op-ed in The Washington Post. The signers, including four former secretaries of defense, blasted what they called Trump’s “shocking promise to send active-duty members of the U.S. military to ‘dominate’ protesters in cities throughout the country — with or without the consent of local mayors or state governors.”
      Esper also dissociated himself from Trump’s plan to use active-duty troops to try to quiet the protests sweeping cities throughout the country over George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police officers. “The option to use active-duty forces in a law enforcement role should only be used as a matter of last resort and only in the most urgent and dire of situations,” Esper said in addressing the issue on Wednesday [June 3]. “We are not in one of those situations now.”
      Trump nevertheless made good on his promise in Washington, D.C., itself by sending troops to stand guard at the Lincoln Memorial and, with Barr’s help, by posting Justice Department personnel in riot-protective gear throughout the city’s streets. The sight of armed troops in the nation’s capital city inevitably brought to mind the images of tanks that the Chinese government deployed in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square three decades ago to quell student demonstrations.
      MSNBC researchers dug up an interview that the mediagenic Donald Trump gave to Playboy at the time praising the Communist regime for showing “strength” in dealing with the demonstrators. For reference, the number killed in Tiananmen Square has been put at 241 and the number of wounded at 7,000. Trump has yet to order tanks to city streets or to issue shoot-to-kill orders, but he is failing badly in his efforts to show strength.
      Instead, Trump is flailing weakly as polls show him 10 percentage points behind his presumptive Democratic opponent, former vice president Joe Biden, five months before the November election. Law-and-order themes may not be enough to save Trump from the harsh reality of having mismanaged the response to the coronavirus pandemic, now with more than 100,000 deaths nationwide and economic pain to a degree unseen since the Depression.
      Biden himself answered Trump’s bluster and stagecraft later that evening with a speech in Philadelphia with different themes. “I promise you this. I won’t traffic in fear and division,” Biden said. “I won’t fan the flames of hate. I will seek to heal the racial wounds that have long plagued this country — not use them for political gain.”

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