August 10, 2020
The most striking news of the day was not that Trump has suggested he wants his image on Mt. Rushmore but rather that such an outrageous statement has garnered so little attention. That says something about his presidency.
This weekend, the New York Times ran a story by Jonathan Martin and Maggie Haberman laying out Trump’s apparent interest in adding his face to those carved on Mt. Rushmore. He’d like to be up there next to Presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt. After Trump told the governor of South Dakota, Kristi Noem, that he hoped to have his likeness there next to his predecessors, an aide reached out to the governor’s office to learn about the process of adding an additional face. When Trump visited the monument last month, Noem greeted him with a four-foot replica of the monument with his faced added.
This entire concept is moot. The rock face cannot support more carving, which answers the question definitively. Even if it could, though, the sculpture is carved on a mountain that is part of land that the United States government took illegally from the Lakota people in 1877. The monument remains embroiled in the legal dispute over this land grab. The chance that anyone would now attempt to add a new carving to it is pretty close to zero.
Not to be deterred, on Sunday night Trump tweeted a picture of himself positioned in such a way that his face was superimposed on the structure, beside Lincoln. Yet the story that the president wanted his likeness added to Mt. Rushmore had no sticking power.
A similar fate met Trump’s statement that last week’s devastating explosion in Beirut, caused when an estimated 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate blew up, was a “terrible attack.” “I've met with some of our great generals and they just seem to feel that it was not a -- some kind of manufacturing explosion type of event. This was a -- seems to be according to them, they would know better than I would, but they seem to think it was an attack. It was a bomb of some kind.” U.S. Defense Department officials said there was no indication that the explosion was an attack. The statement came and went.
This afternoon, at his press conference, Trump told reporters that “the Obama campaign spied on our campaign, and they've been caught, all right?.... It's probably treason. It's a horrible thing they did.... They used the intelligence agencies of our country to spy on my campaign, and they have been caught." This is a statement Trump has been making since June 22, and it is an astonishing lie. And like Trump’s other outlandish statements recently, people didn’t pay a great deal of attention to it.
During his first three years in office, Trump could command headlines with outrageous statements. They often distracted us from larger stories. But that power has waned from overuse, and now outlandish stories—Trump’s face on Mt. Rushmore, a deadly attack in Beirut, Obama committing treason—barely make a ripple.
That we are no longer shocked by his outrageous comments weakens Trump’s ability to control the narrative. It also badly weakens the office of the presidency. Increasingly, he seems to be sidelined from any real decision making, which makes it hard to run for reelection with the argument that he will accomplish anything in a second term.
The White House dropped Trump’s three executive memorandums and one executive order on Friday evening, clearly expecting to set up a situation in which Democrats challenged their legality and Republicans argued that Democrats were keeping ordinary Americans from getting coronavirus relief payments. Trump’s people came out swinging as soon as Trump signed the actions, suggesting that Democrats would oppose them and it would be their fault Americans were suffering from the economic crash.
While even some Republicans opposed Trump’s redirection of congressionally-appropriated money—Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska called the actions “unconstitutional slop”-- Democratic leaders took a different approach. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi agreed that the executive announcements were “absurdly unconstitutional,” but she and Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer challenged them not on legal grounds, but on their effectiveness.
On “Fox News Sunday,” Pelosi said they were “illusions,” and listed, point by point, their weaknesses. The relief memo relies on state money that states don’t have; the payroll tax cut only defers the tax until next year, meaning employers will be reluctant to implement it since they will have to claw it all back after the election. Schumer told ABC’s “This Week” that Trump’s executive actions were “a big show, but they don’t do anything.” They both called for Republicans to return to the table for negotiations.
This threw Trump back on his heels and he is trying to spin the exchange as a victory. “The Democrats have called,” Trump said on Sunday night. “They’d like to get together. And we say if it’s not a waste of time, we’ll do it…. They’re much more inclined to make a deal now than they would’ve been two days ago.” This morning, he tweeted: “So now Schumer and Pelosi want to meet to make a deal. Amazing how it all works, isn’t it. Where have they been for the last 4 weeks when they were “hardliners”, and only wanted BAILOUT MONEY for Democrat run states and cities that are failing badly? They know my phone number!”
Pelosi and Trump haven’t spoken since October 16, when she walked out of a meeting where he railed at her and called her a “third-rate politician.” She told reporters he had a “meltdown.”
Meanwhile, the country’s governors today issued a statement outlining their concerns about Trump’s executive actions. Five days ago, the National Governors Association, a nonpartisan organization of the 55 states, territories, and commonwealths, unanimously elected New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, as their chair. Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson, a Republican, is the NGA vice chair. Their statement calls out “the significant administrative burdens and costs this latest action would place on the states.”
“The best way forward is for the Congress and the Administration to get back to the negotiating table and come up with a workable solution, which should provide meaningful additional relief for American families. NGA has requested $500 billion in unrestricted state aid and NGA continues to urge Congress and the White House to reach a quick resolution to provide immediate assistance to unemployed Americans. This resolution should avoid new administrative and fiscal burdens on states. It is essential that our federal partners work together to find common ground to help restore our nation’s health and protect our economy.”
Today Trump has floated yet another outrageous idea: the notion that he will make his speech accepting the Republican nomination for his reelection either at the White House or at “The Great Battlefield of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania,” which is a national park. Both locations run into both ethical problems and optical problems, since both are federal property and iconic sites.
Federal law prohibits federal employees from promoting political positions at work. The law does not cover the president, but it does cover all the other federal employees who would need to be present to make such an event possible.
Either choice also has optical problems for Trump. The White House is the people’s house, and giving a partisan speech there will not play well. And Gettysburg? It will invite comparisons the president might not like.
It was during the dedication of the Gettysburg National Cemetery, where the dead of the 1863 battle were laid to rest, that Lincoln rededicated America to “the proposition that all men are created equal.” He reminded his listeners that the men who had died there to save the Union had given “the last full measure of devotion” to their country. And he charged Americans to “here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”