Thomas Jefferson was wrong.
Of the presidency, he said: “No man will ever bring out of that office the reputation which carries him into it.”
But our third president surely could not have anticipated a man like Donald Trump. Trump came into the presidency with a deeply tawdry reputation. He admitted, on tape, that he sexually assaulted women and bragged he could do so because he was a “star.” Shortly before he was sworn in, he settled a fraud case concerning that esteemed institution of higher learning, Trump University. He was a draft dodger. His family real estate company had a reputation of discriminating against minorities. On and on and on.
And yet all presidents deserve a chance. I had hoped that Trump would leave this baggage at the White House gate and rise above his past. He said he wanted to be a president for all Americans. He has not been. He said America would be respected around the world. It is less respected. Of our many problems, he said “only I can fix” them. In most cases, he has made things worse.
Whenever Trump leaves office, in either January 2021 or, God help us, January 2025, he will do so with that same reputation he brought to the job. He had an opportunity to grow, to leave his baggage at the White House gate and rise up to the job. He had an opportunity to show himself worthy of the dignity that the presidency conveys, and the pride it instills in the rest of us.
He has brought this upon himself, like Bill Clinton did in 1998 with his own tawdry, dishonest behavior. But there are huge and substantive differences between then and now.
Clinton was impeached by the Republican-dominated House on two charges of lying under oath and obstruction of justice. Both charges stemmed from a sexual harassment lawsuit that had been filed against him by an Arkansas state employee, Paula Jones, and Clinton’s affair, as president, with intern Monica Lewinsky.
Clinton lied under oath about an affair. But Trump’s problems go far beyond this. His dealings with the president of Ukraine could mean an extortion charge. It could mean up to ten counts of obstructing justice—the ones detailed by former social counsel Robert Mueller. Oh, you didn’t read the report? Perhaps you should:
Aside from the fact that lying about sex is nothing compared to possible charges of extortion and all the rest, there are other differences that make Trump’s situation more perilous. When impeachment proceedings began against Clinton, he was quite popular, enjoying approval ratings in the mid-60s. Trump has never moved beyond the mid-40s.
Clinton, who had been easily re-elected in 1996, was always working to expand his base. Trump has not expanded his base, which has always been generally confined to people who are 1) older, 2) white, 3) male, 4) who live in rural areas and 5) have lesser levels of education. “I Love the Poorly Educated!” he bragged in 2016. (I emphasize that this “generally” describes his base; there are certainly some Americans who don’t fall into these categories who support him.)
The Clinton economy was booming. GDP grew 4.5% in 1998, and 4.8% in 1999, for example. Trump, who has said with his usual delusion that he can’t be impeached because we have perhaps the best economy we’ve ever had, currently presides over an economy that has slowed to a 2.0% growth rate. And more delusion: Trump says our economy is the envy of the world? That 2.0% rate is nearly a full percentage point below forecasts for the global economic growth as a whole, per a forecast released last week.
The federal budget was balanced—in fact showed a surplus—in fiscal years 1998-2001. Under Trump, and despite an expanding economy, it has soared—up 27% so for this year, putting it back in trillion-dollar territory.
Clinton, trying to redeem himself for his sleazy behavior, kept working. Trump’s press secretary said that thanks to the impeachment inquiry the White House might cease trying to work with Democrats on issues like gun control, drug prices and trade deals. This is typical Trump selfishness and pettiness—thinking only of himself. It also sounds like extortion and could help Democrats campaign on all the things Trump didn’t get done.
Thus, the strong pillars that supported Clinton in 1998—a roaring economy, stable government finances, broad political support—don’t exist for Trump. The only thing propping him up are the Kool-Aid sipping toadies who think party is more important than country. They aren’t Republicans, for if they were, they’d be honest brokers and take a page from the GOP playbook of 1974, when Republican leaders in Congress went into the Oval Office and told Richard Nixon how bad things were. Nixon listened and stepped down.
But Clinton and Trump do have something important in common, though. Clinton was acquitted in his Senate trial, and if impeached—a certainty in my view—Trump will be as well. That’s because it takes a two-thirds Senate vote to convict. This implies 20 Senate Republicans would have to break ranks and vote against the president. The odds of this happening are essentially nil. This would leave the president to face a second trial of sorts—with the American people on November 3, 2020. That verdict may be quite harsher. Mr. Trump will prove Mr, Jefferson wrong: He will leave office with the same reputation he brought into it.