President Trump has never handled criticism well, but this past week has proved especially challenging.
President Trump’s contempt for the Constitution confirms the harshest charges leveled in recent accounts of his off-the-rails presidency.
First came the portrait of Mr. Trump in a new book by Bob Woodward — a scathing account featuring members of Mr. Trump’s own administration characterizing him as “an idiot,” “a professional liar,” the mayor of “Crazytown,” and a clueless, hopeless man-child with the comprehension of a “fifth or sixth grader.” A day later, a second blow landed: an Op-Ed article in this newspaper, by an anonymous senior administration official, that recounted how members of Mr. Trump’s team have worked to protect the nation from his “worst inclinations.”
Mr. Trump quickly corroborated these accounts by demonstrating precisely the sort of erratic, antidemocratic behavior that is driving administration officials to come forward with their concerns. He ranted that the stories were all lies and raved that the gutless traitors who had slandered him must be rooted out and handed over to the government. Finger-pointing, name-calling, wild accusations, cries of treason — it was an unsettling display, not simply of Mr. Trump’s emotional fragility and poor impulse control, but also of his failure to understand the nature of the office he holds, the government he leads and the democracy he has sworn to serve.
His blind spot for the Constitution has been much on display in other ways in recent days. Asked about protests that erupted during this week’s confirmation hearings for the Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, Mr. Trump expressed dismay and puzzlement:
“I don’t know why they don’t take care of a situation like that. I think it’s embarrassing for the country to allow protesters. You don’t even know what side the protesters are on.”
Someone with the president’s best interests at heart may want to explain to him that the First Amendment specifically protects political expression, no matter how befuddling some find it. Presidents do not get to outlaw speech simply because they find it distasteful.
This may seem like a familiar concept, but it is one with which Mr. Trump struggles. On the campaign trail in 2016, he argued that the protesters causing a ruckus at his rallies should be “thrown into a jail” and their lives ruined. “I hope you arrest ’em and do whatever you have to do,” the candidate told a crowd in Missouri. “And you know what? Once that starts happening, we’re not going to have any more protesters, folks.” No more Constitution, either.
Three weeks after his election, President-elect Trump shared his take on flag burning: “Nobody should be allowed to burn the American flag — if they do, there must be consequences — perhaps loss of citizenship or year in jail!” Such a move may strike some people as a bold and patriotic step toward making America great again. It was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1990.
Another constitutionally protected right in the presidential cross hairs this week: freedom of the press. In response to Mr. Woodward’s book, Mr. Trump mused provocatively on Twitter, “Don’t know why Washington politicians don’t change libel laws?”
No one enjoys criticism, especially from people who are considered supporters. Even so, it takes a special kind of leader to suggest that critical coverage should be handled by eroding the First Amendment, as Mr. Trump has since early in the 2016 race, when he began vowing that, as president, he would “open up those libel laws” to punish media outlets that did “hit pieces” on him. Apparently, denouncing journalists as the “enemy of the American people” and whipping the crowds at his rallies into an anti-media frenzy is not enough to soothe Mr. Trump’s chronic sense of victimhood
Also back in the news this week is Mr. Trump’s war on the N.F.L. playersprotesting racial injustice and police brutality. In this case, Mr. Trump hasn’t moved to make kneeling during the national anthem explicitly illegal. He has simply slammed the protests as “disgraceful” and the players as disrespectful, unpatriotic “sons of bitches,” called on the offending players to be fired, suggested they maybe “shouldn’t be in the country,” stoked public rage against the entire league, and toyed with the idea of punishing the league via the tax code.
Not all of the talk Mr. Trump is itching to do away with is, strictly speaking, protected political speech. When he learned last month that Michael Cohen, his former lawyer and longtime fixer, had cut a plea deal with federal prosecutors, Mr. Trump threw a fit, arguing that “flipping” — that is, cooperating in criminal investigations — wasn’t just disloyal and disgraceful, it “almost ought to be outlawed.”
Mr. Trump has also advocated denying due process to immigrants seeking asylum. As he tweeted earlier this summer: “We cannot allow all of these people to invade our Country. When somebody comes in, we must immediately, with no Judges or Court Cases, bring them back from where they came.”
Mr. Trump, we understand that you consider the Constitution inconvenient at times. And we appreciate how vexing you find these subordinates sniping at you. But if you continue to behave as you do, and keep proving your harshest critics right, it’s only going to get worse.