Christine Todd Whitman
February 2, 2018
President Donald Trump delivered a commendable and uncharacteristically presidential State of the Union address on Tuesday. He came out of the gate as a proud American, but also with sincerity (a quality he has lacked over the course of his first year in office). On the whole, his address was well-crafted, and he proudly shared individual stories of grit and bravery, propounding a gentler and more appetizing “America first” mentality. Trump went on to say, “Americans love their country. And they deserve a government that shows them the same love and loyalty in return.”
I will be the first to agree with this statement – Americans do deserve a government that shows them love and loyalty.
And so, my challenge to the president is to prove that his State of the Union address was not just a fresh coat of paint or a cosmetic fix, but rather the beginning of a renovation that improves the structural integrity of our government. He needs to stop saying offensive comments, stop making false and ridiculous claims, and stop tweeting nonsense.
The question remains whether Trump can act in a manner befitting his office the other 364 days a year.
In his address, Trump spoke of bipartisanship, calling both parties to come together. Yet in the same breath, he made unnecessary swipes at former President Barack Obama and Obama-era policies, such as, “In the past, we have foolishly released hundreds of dangerous terrorists.”
Surely, Trump knows that such a comment is offensive and also questionable on the facts. Perhaps what he fails to realize is that these criticisms, entirely lacking in subtlety, simultaneously undermine his call for bipartisanship and serve only to harden partisan acrimony.
In the same vein, Trump’s false claims weaken his credibility. Presidents are unfairly blamed for things that happen during their administration and take undue credit for the successes that occur. In light of this, I will give grace for the exaggerations Trump made regarding his accomplishments, but grace ends where true falsehood begins.
On Thursday Trump boasted on Twitter that “the highest number in history” watched his speech, which is completely false. In his speech, Trump said, “We have ended the war on American energy – and we have ended the war on clean coal.” Let me be clear: there is no such thing as clean coal.
We can’t allow the president to feed falsehoods to the American people – not only for the sake of the American people and our children, but also for the sake of our nation’s credibility.
So too, his behavior on Twitter directly contradicts his claim, “All Americans deserve accountability and respect – and that is what we are giving them.” It’s no secret that his tweets are entirely devoid of the respect and integrity that should be inherent to a man of his office. If he wanted to show that he is really committed to working across the aisle and acting in a manner befitting his office, he could have announced that he was deleting his Twitter account following the speech. That would demonstrate that he is committed to acting out the lofty words he proclaimed.
Trump’s hypocritical behavior culminates in this statement: “For the last year, we have sought to restore the bonds of trust between our citizens and their government.” In what faith can American citizens trust the government if the president himself shows a lack of trust in those very institutions? His frequent denigration of the FBI – a formerly independent investigatory body that happens to be investigating his own Russian connections – is the kind of dangerous rhetoric that undermines the efficacy of that agency and, in turn, the institutions of government on which our democracy rests.
A workable democracy can thrive only when there are basic rules, often unwritten, that curb abuse and guide policymakers. That’s why former U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara and I announced this past week the formation of a task force at NYU’s Brennan Center for Justice.
Recent actions by the president and other elected leaders have made it clear that it is time to review these informal rules, to determine which ones should remain guidelines, and perhaps which ones should be enshrined into law. That there is even a need for such a task force is a sad reflection on the state of affairs in our nation today.
I will admit, Trump gave a good State of the Union address. Now the challenge is to demonstrate that he can back up those nice words with actions that restore his integrity, strengthen his credibility, and demonstrate respect for the democracy that he agreed to steward.
Christine Todd Whitman, a Republican, is president of the Whitman Strategy Group, was administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency from 2001 to 2003 and governor of New Jersey from 1994 to 2001. She is a co-chair of the National Task Force on Rule of Law and Democracy, with former U. S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York Preet Bharara.