A week after firing FBI Director James Comey in May 2017, President Trump got out of Washington to deliver the commencement address at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy. He decided to give the graduating cadets some advice.
“Over the course of your life, you will find that things are not always fair,” Trump said. “You will find that things happen to you that you do not deserve and that are not always warranted. But you have to put your head down and fight, fight, fight. Never, ever, ever give up. Things will work out just fine.”
Pretty standard stuff to tell young adults. But then, he added this:
“No politician in history — and I say this with great surety — has been treated worse or more unfairly. You can’t let them get you down. You can’t let the critics and the naysayers get in the way of your dreams. I guess that’s why I … I guess that’s why we won.”
Trump has certainly not been treated more unfairly than any politician in history. Some have been assassinated, faced violent and discriminatory prejudice, and one twice-popularly elected president even had his American birth questioned.
But the fact that Trump believes it is instructive. His sense of fairness, or unfairness, really, has driven him, his rise in politics — and his priorities for the country. He has capitalized on grievance, especially that of white Americans chafing at the culture of a demographically changing country, and has expressed his view of what is unfair — everything from trade and immigration to the court system, the Affordable Care Act’s individual coverage mandate, the IRS, the plight of political allies and, of course, the news media.
Since he announced he was running for president, he has used the word “unfair” 69 times in tweets, and since becoming president, 40 times.
Trump often tweets his unfairness outrage when he is in a defensive crouch. For example, over the last several months, with his back against the wall on his trade policies, two-thirds of his tweets using the word “unfair” have been about trade. It’s a topic Trump has talked about for 30 years. In the 1980s, he railed against Japanese trade practices. Now, he is talking about China.
What he views as financial unfairness has been fundamental, not just when it comes to trade. He tweeted his outrage at the IRS for his being audited
… and even Nordstrom for dropping his daughter’s merchandise line.
But he also sees unfairness when people on his side politically get into trouble — even if they have been accused of wrongdoing.
Just this week, Trump was tweeting in defense of Paul Manafort, his former campaign chairman. The president raised the question of who was treated worse — Manafort or … Al Capone.
Capone was sentenced to 11 years in prison (and served 7 1/2), not for being a mob boss who ordered murders, but for tax evasion. Manafort could face a similar sentence if he is convicted of committing financial crimes.
It’s not the first time Trump tweeted about the “unfairness” shown to Manafort.
Trump also thought his former national security adviser Michael Flynn was treated unfairly. Flynn resigned after it was discovered he misled Vice President Pence, before Pence went on a round of Sunday shows, about the nature of his conversations with the Russian ambassador during the presidential transition period between Trump’s election and inauguration.
“General Flynn is a wonderful man,” Trump said in February 2017 after accepting Flynn’s resignation. “I think he has been treated very, very unfairly by the media, as I call it, the fake media in many cases. And I think it is really a sad thing that he was treated so badly.”
In Trump’s view, Flynn was treated “unfairly,” even though Flynn would later plead guilty to lying to the FBI about his contacts with the Russian ambassador. Trump, however, continued to defend Flynn on Twitter months after the guilty plea — when a political adversary came out with a book and started grabbing the limelight.
The New York Times reported earlier this year that one of Trump’s personal attorneys in the Russia investigation floated the idea of pardoning Manafort and Flynn. Trump’s praise for them does raise the question of whether he would pardon them at some point, especially if Manafort continues not to cooperate with the special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
Trump has already issued pardons to some political allies. And perceived fairness has been at the heart of those cases for the president.
Take conservative author Dinesh D’Souza, who pleaded guilty to campaign finance fraud. He used straw donors to get around contribution limits. Despite the facts in the case, Trump declared D’Souza was “treated very unfairly by our government” and gave him a presidential pardon.
Trump also pardoned Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who also landed on the wrong side of the law. He flouted a court order to stop detaining people suspected of being in the country illegally. Arpaio, who was a Trump friend dating back to their “birther” investigative days, was found guilty of contempt and was going to be subject to possibly six months in jail.
Trump wasn’t having it.
“I thought he was treated unbelievably unfairly when they came down with their big decision to go get him, right before the election voting started,” Trump said in August of last year. He added, “I thought that was a very, very unfair thing to do.”
Now, Arpaio is running for the Senate and reviving his claims that former President Barack Obama is not a U.S. citizen.
And, of course, there’s the news media. Four times since June, Trump has referred to the press as the “enemy of the people” on Twitter. His press secretary on Thursday refused to say the press wasn’t and instead ticked off a list of grievances and perceived slights.
If it’s negative news, Trump dubs it “fake” news. “Only negative stories from the fakers back there,” Trump told a crowd of supporters Thursday night at a campaign event in Pennsylvania. He derided what the press does as “fake, fake disgusting news.”
“Whatever happened to the free press?” he added. “Whatever happened to honest reporting? They don’t report it. They only make up stories.”
Veteran journalist Marvin Kalb has written a forthcoming book called, “Enemy of the People.” He warns that this kind of targeting of the press is familiar:
“Twentieth-century dictators — notably, Stalin, Hitler, and Mao — had all denounced their critics, especially the press, as ‘enemies of the people.’ Their goal was to delegitimize the work of the press as ‘fake news’ and create confusion in the public mind about what’s real and what isn’t; what can be trusted and what can’t be. That, it seems, is also Trump’s goal.”
Trump’s goal, as is that of most in power, is to get out their message in the widest and most unfiltered way possible. Trump understands the power of the media to get across a message.
Where his style differs, of course, from past presidents’ is a lack of reverence for the press’s role in a free society.
Trump’s style, in business and in politics, has always been to crush whatever and whomever stands in his way. Stand with him, and be rewarded — even if for a short while.
There’s no telling exactly how Trump will channel his latest perceived unfairness toward him, especially as the first trial of the Mueller Russia probe –Manafort’s — moves toward its conclusion in a couple weeks.
But, if past is prologue, the president will seethe and lash out in many directions, and there’s no telling what that will mean as the country heads toward an election that could have sweeping consequences for Trump’s agenda, legacy and time in office.