Don't Ever Forget What Donald Trump Did

We think we'll remember how bad this presidency was, but history says we won't.

As I write this, estimates from the New York Times and Wall Street Journal put the true number of COVID-19 deaths in the United States over the first ten months of the global coronavirus pandemic—a period of time during which the president repeatedly lied about the threat the virus posed, did virtually nothing to combat it, and showed only a vanishingly small interest in its toll—at more than half a million Americans. The over 500,000 of us who died of an illness a more competent president might have tamped down, as did scores of other world leaders, exceeds the number of U.S. soldiers who died in World War II by 100,000.

And America spent four years fighting in Europe and the Pacific, not ten months.

As I write this, neither you nor I can recite with precision the final disposition of the more than thirty rape, misdemeanor sexual assault, and sexual harassment allegations this president has faced since 2015. In consequence, the question of whether the leader of the free world is a serial sexual assailant is, incredibly, an open question. Likewise, while we know Donald Trump told more than 30,000 lies to the American people while in office, we’ve no well-formed idea of why almost fifty percent of Americans chose not to hold that against him during the last election. We know Trump considers U.S. soldiers “losers and suckers,” and that he himself dodged the Vietnam draft, but we don’t have nearly the same clarity on why the president never retaliated for Vladimir Putin paying a bounty to kill U.S. soldiers overseas, why the commander-in-chief almost lied America into a bloody war with Iran by falsifying a basis for assassinating the second-most popular man in that country, or on what grounds he considered it appropriate to help the brutal autocrat running Saudi Arabia cover up the murder of a Washington Post journalist.

Donald Trump has decimated our alliances, coddled our enemies, diminished our standing in the world, degraded our democracy, been the nation’s chief super-spreader of hatred and prejudice, winked at far-right domestic terrorists, gutted Americans’ health care, bribed and extorted his way through a personal enrichment plan disguised as a foreign policy, and even so, on the eve of his last day in office—as his approval rating, per a recent Pew Poll, sits at 29%, the lowest for an exiting president in modern American history—the big story in the media is that Trump is “snubbing” Biden by skipping his inauguration. Another “scoop” in the last 24 hours was that the president might pardon a corrupt New York Democrat who many folks think doesn’t deserve it.

As offenses committed during the four years of the Trump administration go, the ones American media is obsessing over now don’t rank in the top one thousand. Add in the nearly eighteen months of Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign—as disgraceful a major-party campaign as our country has ever seen—and they don’t rank in the top two thousand. But our wall-to-wall media needs to feed us breaking news several times an hour every hour, so this is what we get: a pardon of relatively routine obscenity and a historic but finally inconsequential bureaucratic slight. True, Jill Biden will not get the White House tour she is owed by first lady Melania Trump; on the other hand, Dr. Biden already knows the White House exceedingly well, and Donald Trump caged immigrant children, stole them away from their parents, and did nothing to reunite hundreds of them with the mothers and fathers they’ve now lost—possibly forever.

I don’t mean to be holier-than-thou here. I’ve gotten caught up in the scandal-of-the-hour as much as anyone. But having written three lengthy books on Donald Trump’s largely corrupt foreign policy, I don’t have to worry that I’ll ever forget the war crimes he greenlit in Syria to please business associate and Turkish president Recep Erdogan; I won’t need a reminder that he also greenlit war crimes in China (around the time he was soliciting election interference from Xi Jinping via phone call, meeting, and public press conference) even as he emboldened Mohammed bin Salman to kidnap and torture his own citizens. I can’t and won’t lose sight of the fact that he was negotiating the most lucrative deal of his business career with the Kremlin while he was running for president in 2016, and lied routinely to U.S. voters about that fact—nor that he aided and abetted Kremlin interference in the 2016 election as it was happening, spreading Russian disinformation near-daily in the run-up to election day in much the same way he has now done for almost the whole of his presidency. And how could I ever forget that he gave classified Israeli intelligence to two Kremlin agents in the Oval Office not long after moving to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue? I can’t. We shouldn’t.

Trump also planned and incited an armed invasion of the U.S. Capitol, stoked an ongoing domestic insurrection whose most violent outbursts and anti-democratic degradations we’ll be wrestling with for years, and lied to us about the availability of second doses of a life-saving vaccine. He nearly broke NATO, let North Korea advance its nuclear program significantly, sold heavy weapons to repressive regimes in the Middle East over bipartisan objections in Congress, was impeached for trying to extort a U.S. ally into interfering in the 2020 election, and ripped off his voters for over $300 million—during a historic recession, no less—via a scam “election defense” effort that was, per usual, merely a smokescreen for personal enrichment. Historians now call it Trump’s “Big Lie,” and sagely assure us that it will haunt U.S. politics for a generation. Maybe, but on the other hand very few of us remember the atrocities of the George W. Bush administration besides the president and his veep lying us into a war with Iraq.

As I write this in January 2021, Trump has coarsened our discourse, mainstreamed far-right fake-news websites, poisoned the well of core democratic values that have kept this nation strong for centuries, and done it all while refusing to divest himself of the most obscene conflicts of interest any president in our history has maintained. He promised to release his tax returns and he didn’t; he promised not to needlessly spend taxpayer money on personal travel and then did so; and he golfed his way through an appreciable percentage of his tenure—leaving office as unquestionably the least hard-working commander-in-chief the country has ever had.

Trump turned Washington into even more of a hotbed for cronyism and nepotism than it already was—a seeming impossibility—and missed hardly any opportunity to dog-whistle to white supremacists, mislead U.S. voters about the values and policy agenda of his political opponents, and bring a tacky sort of theater to the august institutions and political processes this nation relies upon to maintain itself as a free society.

We tell ourselves that we’ll remember all this, but will we? Or will we instead recall his byzantine hair constructions, his taped-down over-long ties, his lies about his weight, his dalliances with porn stars and pin-ups, his seeming disregard for at least two of his children, his preposterous lies about his own popularity—crowd sizes in particular—and his insistence on ersatz pageantry in place of anything meaningful or earnest? Some of this bears remembering, perhaps, but how many memories of any presidency can we hold in mind at once, and which ones shall we choose for this historically horrid era in our history? Donald Trump is, beyond any doubt, the worst president this nation has ever had, but is it enough to know that with certainty if we can’t remember why with specificity?

Or what if—worse than remembering only the minutiae of these times—we remember little more than the stench of the toxic cloud of wrongness he gassed all America with?

Already, we see a slippage. The Mueller Report, along with the bipartisan Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Report, inarguably established collusion between the 2016 Trump campaign and Russian agents—while remaining unable to prove a criminal conspiracy beyond a reasonable doubt, in part because Trump personally tampered with many of the relevant witnesses and obstructed investigators at every turn. But these days, a radical Trumpist can “remind” the rest of us on social media that “Mueller found no collusion” and no one speaks up to gainsay them.

The slam-dunk impeachment case that House Democrats put forward in January 2020, after Trump tried to extort Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky for dirt on his Democratic political opponent Joe Biden, is now accepted as a “failed” enterprise—not because the facts weren’t there for a conviction, but because a gaggle of sycophantic GOP senators, who slept and hobnobbed and played Candy Crush through the trial of the century, refused to consider them.

In short, few have been minding the narrative of the Trump presidency with attention to detail rather than mere indignation, leaving room for his admirers to wish-cast a legacy for the Dear Leader that bears no relation to phenomenological reality on Earth Prime. While many of us feel quite strongly that Donald Trump is a cretin, our ability to meticulously articulate the case for that view seems to be slipping away by the day.

All I can ask is that we remember the reason for our forgetting: that this president staged his presidency in such a way as to generate so many needless crises per week it was impossible to focus on any one of them for very long. And when finally caught out in illicit conduct he couldn’t distract us from, he used a pliant right-wing media and equally pliant political partners to shame mainstream journalists into a risible “bothsidesism” we still haven’t moved beyond. Had media not permitted itself to be falsely chastened by this historically hypocritical president, it would have given more than a passing mention to the genuinely jaw-dropping revelations about Donald Trump and his aides, allies, advisers, associates, agents, and attorneys that were contained in the bipartisan Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Report.

Just so, there would have been follow-ups on stories that were instead permitted to fall through the cracks for the sake of newer and shinier scandals. So it was that the policy atrocities of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos largely escaped sustained attention, or the president’s handling of our immigration system through nothing more than a vanity wall and xenophobic contempt, or the way he orchestrated the brutalization of social justice protesters in the nation’s capital and elsewhere in the summer of 2020.

A man as monstrous as Donald Trump can only continue to move in polite society if he leaves in his wake a swell of forgetfulness so dazzlingly mercurial we can’t help but watch the foam and spray glisten in the sun. Those of us who never bought into this inveterate con man’s schtick might think ourselves immune to his supposed charms, but we are not immune to the way he controlled and manipulated and artificially foreshortened over a thousand news cycles full of disgrace, horror, and vile conduct.

In other words, we don’t remember what we don’t remember, and Trump counts on it.

So for all that this despicable brigand from New York City really should have attended Joe Biden’s inauguration, and really should have written a nice note for his successor to leave in a drawer in the Resolute Desk, and for all that he really shouldn’t be seeking to upstage the inauguration of the 46th President of the United States via a schlocky pseudo-military sendoff at Joint Base Andrews, can we also remember—not just in broad strokes, but in the rank particulars—that Donald Trump is a career criminal, a seditious insurrectionist, a serial sexual assailant, and a grave national security threat?