A weak and paranoid president leads rapidly to a weak and paranoid government | Richard Wolffe

Richard Wolffe
‘It also turns out there’s a difference between playing the role of a business exec on reality TV and actually knowing something about the economy.’ Photograph: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

In Donald Trump’s Washington, the first casualty is truth. His dishonesty seeps across the city until it poisons what’s left of anyone’s reputation. Congressional leaders, administration officials, ethics lawyers, America’s moral leadership: it has taken less than three months to undermine them all.

Take the case of the hapless Andrew Bowen, a grasping Republican foreign policy blowhard who should be entering a bumper job market. Bowen has a couple of thinktank gigs and a column at the august Arab News, where he committed the cardinal sin of praising Hillary Clinton.

There he also took a clear-eyed view of one Donald Trump, which is where his embarrassment begins. Bowen called the 45th president “boorish and predatory” and accused him of “whipping xenophobia and anti-Muslim sentiments”. All of which is beyond reasonable doubt to any jury of 12 good men, and true.

Not so much in Trumpworld, where Bowen is now hoping to get a job in an administration that values loyalty tests above competence, public service, patriotism or the functioning of government. So Bowen demanded that the editors of Arab News delete all evidence of his previous good judgment, because – as those editors put it in a public note – “this is needed for him ‘to be cleared’ for what he claims to be a possible job with the new Donald Trump administration’s State Department”.

The editors refused to take down his work and wished him “the best of luck in his job application”.

Don’t bother looking for the columns: they are mysteriously no longer available on the website of Arab News.

This is how dishonesty infects a government and the nation it seeks to lead. Loyalty tests are not just confined to junior jobseekers. They can be extended to all visitors to the United States, in what the Trumpsters are calling “extreme vetting”.

If the plans move forward, homeland security officials will be able to demand access to social media accounts and cellphones from any visitor at the border.

As Gene Hamilton, senior counselor to the homeland security secretary, John Kelly, explained to the Wall Street Journal: “If there is any doubt about a person’s intentions coming to the United States, they should have to overcome – really and truly prove to our satisfaction – that they are coming for legitimate reasons.”

When your Muslim travel ban fails in the courts, repeatedly, you can always cook up some arbitrary border rules that make a mockery of American values.

Who could have predicted that “America First” would put American values last? How could anyone know that treating vast swathes of visitors like terrorist suspects might actually harm the American economy?

The Trump effect is already leading to 40% of colleges reporting fewer applications from international students, depriving the US of one of its greatest resources – the best of the world’s brainpower.

And analysts estimate that Trump has cost the US travel industry more than $185m in lost business since the start of his presidency. Which more than outweighs all that Oval Office bluster about job creation.

It turns out that a weak and paranoid president leads very rapidly to a weak and paranoid government. It also turns out there’s a difference between playing the role of a business exec on reality TV and actually knowing something about the economy.

Tourism and academia can rebound, once Trump abandons his follies or simply leaves office. It will take far longer to restore trust in the principles of American leadership.

Truth-telling used to be so easy for previous occupants of the White House that honesty was itself a forceful measure of American influence. Behind that truth-telling lay the implicit power of the world’s greatest armed forces, the world’s biggest and most expert diplomatic corps, and the world’s richest economy.

So when a foreign tyrant engaged in mass murder using chemical weapons that threaten global security, it used to be a simple response for any presidential staff: tell the truth, with moral clarity.

Instead, we have a White House that witnesses the horror of a chemical attack on Syrian civilians and contrives first to condemn its predecessors more than the perpetrators. With as many as 100 dead and the smell of toxic chemicals lingering in the air of northern Syria, the White House laid the blame on Barack Obama.

“These heinous actions by the Bashar al-Assad regime are a consequence of the past administration’s weakness and irresolution,” Trump declared in the second sentence of a brief written statement.

No, Donald. The heinous actions are the consequence of a heinous leader, supported by your heinous friend Vladimir Putin. But you always find it difficult to tell the truth about Vladimir, don’t you?

In his joint press conference with King Abdullah of Jordan on Wednesday, Trump said he’d changed his mind about Assad after the chemical attacks. “It’s already happened that my attitude toward Syria and Assad has changed very much,” he said.

But that was only after he made it clear that he had not changed his attitude at all to Obama. “I think the Obama administration had a great opportunity to solve this crisis a long time ago when he said the red line in the sand,” he said.

“And when he didn’t cross that line after making the threat, I think that set us back a long ways, not only in Syria, but in many other parts of the world, because it was a blank threat. I think it was something that was not one of our better days as a country.”

For a president famous for his hype and less famous for his delivery, this is what New Yorkers call a high degree of chutzpah.

Trump’s words don’t just represent a break with protocol. They represent a massive breach with decades of Republican and Democratic foreign policy: human rights abuses are war crimes with no excuse. Not even if you really hate your predecessor.

The statement is a permanent stain on the résumés of everyone working on the Trump national security team. Then again, we should be grateful there was a statement of any kind. Over at the state department, poor Rex Tillerson is struggling to get his head around this whole diplomacy thing. The secretary of state finds it hard to be diplomatic to his own staff and press, issuing the world’s greatest non-statement on the otherwise clearcut issue of North Korea’s missile tests.

“North Korea launched yet another intermediate range ballistic missile,” said the man who used to run one of the largest multinational corporations in the world. “The United States has spoken enough about North Korea. We have no further comment.”

Andrew Bowen should consider himself lucky that his job application is going nowhere. We have yet to reach the 100-day mark, but the course is already set: a weak president who cannot (or will not) tell the truth is leading a weak administration that looks and sounds an awful lot like himself.

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