Trump very busy making enemies

Jules witcover

WASHINGTON — Donald Trump, back from his first presidential overseas trip, has been smothering himself with often incoherent self-praise, while dealing serious blows to America’s hard-earned reputation as the West’s chief bastion of democracy.

His reckless assault on NATO — first as “obsolete” and now as an alliance of freeloading members soaking Uncle Sam — has invited conflict with Germany, arguably the strongest and most critical U.S. ally, and its feisty leader, Angela Merkel.

Trump has cheered on the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union, a multinational body that has been the cornerstone of the continent’s collective defense and postwar prosperity. And on Thursday he announced the U.S. is opting out of the Paris accord on climate change.

Meanwhile, Trump spews uninformed and poisonous attacks on the domestic press, escalating an increasingly hostile war of words. He reiterates his allegation that the media are “the enemy of the people,” sounding like some two-bit third-world despot. His much maligned mouthpiece Sean Spicer, in his first post-trip briefing room appearance, robotically and gushingly did his best to deify his master.

But Trump himself is taking dead aim at freedom of the press. He is abandoning the presidency’s longstanding healthy relationship with American news organizations that endured even the open warfare of the Nixon era.

There were, to be sure, periods of ill will between the White House and the press corps in every administration of both parties. But by and large a certain comity prevailed until Trump began actively undermining press credibility in ways not even Tricky Dick and his merry band of criminals practiced.

Nixon came to the Oval Office with a long history of resentment toward reporters, bred of real and imagined slights to him and his own galloping insecurity. Though he was easily re-elected in 1972 against a weak Democratic challenger, Sen. George McGovern, Nixon surrendered to hubris and colluded with corrupt associates on a series of crimes, largely uncovered by two young Washington Post reporters.

It ushered in an era of journalistic glory during which the press heightened presidential scrutiny, and it ended up restoring an era of more mutual respect that mostly reigned until Trump. Throughout his unorthodox but successful presidential campaign, Trump aggressively used the reporters covering him as a collective punching bag, playing them as dishonest and unreliable.

As Trump openly fed voters a steady barrage of factual distortions and outright lies, not to mention an array of insults aimed at women, he effectively turned the tables on the men and women trailing him. Cheering followers echoed his indictments along the way.

From the very start of his presidency, Trump challenged the press’s assessments of his popularity, insisting for example that the turnout of his inauguration was the greatest in history, even though photographic evidence clearly indicated otherwise.

While no Watergate-like crimes have been uncovered, the new president has continued his assault on the credibility of the American press corps. Meanwhile, reporters have aggressively pursued widespread U.S. intelligence agency reports that Russian hackers and other operatives interfered in the 2016 election to Trump’s advantage.

FBI investigations are continuing into allegations of possible Trump political collusion with Russia, and separate House and Senate committee hearings have sought testimony from past and present Trump campaign and administration operatives. The press is still riding shotgun on all of them, to the new president’s increasing ire.

His tweets, temporarily curtailed during his recent foreign trip, have resumed with new incoherence, relying heavily on resources that truly merit the description “fake news,” his favorite epithet for his adversaries in the media.

In all, this assault may constitute the most villainous attack on American values yet perpetrated by this worst president ever, the signal achievement of his less than five months in that awesome seat of global responsibility.

Editor’s note: Jules Witcover’s latest book is “The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power,” published by Smithsonian Books. You can respond to this column at juleswitcover@comcast.net.