President Donald Trump has successfully sidelined the U.S. State Department and the military intelligence of his own government by siding with North Korea’s dictator after the country’s recent missile tests.
That’s just one recent and particularly radical example of the president’s favored style of government: l’etat c’est moi.
“Let me tell you, the one that matters is me,” Trump said in 2017. He was describing to Fox News pundit Laura Ingraham why it didn’t matter that critical State Department jobs languished vacant. “I’m the only one that matters, because when it comes to it, that’s what the policy is going to be. You’ve seen that. You’ve seen it strongly.”
It was a prescient statement: The country continues to see the damage done by a government operated at the whims of a single man.
National Security Adviser John Bolton, for example, said North Korea’s recent missile tests violated U.N. resolutions — and whatever informal agreement the U.S. had entered into with North Korea after their last round of talk.
“U.N. Security Council resolutions prohibit North Korea from firing any ballistic missiles,” Bolton said. “In terms of violating U.N. Security Council resolutions, there is no doubt about that.”
But Trump rejected his own national security advisor’s view, saying in an interview that he didn’t personally consider these missile tests a violation. “They’re short-range, and I don’t consider that a breach of trust at all,” the president said. “And, you know, at some point I may. But at this point no.”
North Korea fired off some small weapons, which disturbed some of my people, and others, but not me. I have confidence that Chairman Kim will keep his promise to me, & also smiled when he called Swampman Joe Biden a low IQ individual, & worse. Perhaps that’s sending me a signal?
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 26, 2019
In other words, it doesn’t matter what the experts, the law, or the U.N. say. It only matter how Trump personally feels — “at this point” — about these missile tests and whether they violate his trust.
In response, North Korea called Bolton a “war monger” and “defective human product.”
Trump has sidelined his own intelligence advisers before, notably by rejecting the universally held view (among experts) that Russia meddled in the 2016 presidential election in his favor, and that they plan to meddle again in 2020.
Trump has belittled and denigrated career intelligence officials who contradicted his personal views on Iran, ISIS, NATO, climate change, and even the value of a government shutdown. He supported diplomatic isolation of Qatar when the State Department did not.
In some cases, this one-man government has served Trump’s own financial interests. Consider the millions in public funds spent at Trump’s resorts and private clubs. A report by the Government Accountability Office found each trip to Mar-A-Lago cost $3.4 million — every dollar taken from a taxpayer and dropped into the president’s own pocket, since he still owns the resort. That figure doesn’t include his trips to his own golf courses and hotels, or the money paid to protect his family members as they travel for private business purposes. Trump’s adult sons cost the Secret Service a quarter of a million dollars in one month of business travel.
The government-of-one approach extends to Trump’s dealings with any and all officials who he feels have crossed him. Whether it’s former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, former FBI Director James Comey, former special counsel Robert Mueller, or even low-level career officials, Trump has said their “conflict of interest” precludes them from acting fairly. Rather than a true conflict of interest, Trump in fact describes a willingness by these officials to hold him — or even themselves, as with Sessions — accountable to basic ethical norms and the rule of law.
The conflict these officials have, Trump seems to feel, is failing to put the president’s interest above the nation’s.
Trump has championed personally loyalty to him above all else. “The FBI person really reports directly to the president of the United States,” he once said, seemingly justifying the personal loyalty tests and illegal nondisclosure agreements he forces on public officials. He has even claimed to have the right to end any and all investigations, including investigations into himself.
It’s a refrain echoed in his “deep state” rhetoric. Trump and his loyalists use the term to describe anyone working in government who isn’t completely loyal to him personally. In some cases, Trump has used the term to describe his own political appointees, whom he considers allies until they fail to use the government to protect him. Trump once described the entire Justice Department as part of the “deep state” because the agency failed to prosecute an aide to Hillary Clinton, one of his political enemies.
The government, in Trump’s view, exists to serve at the pleasure of the president, including to protect him from embarrassment, such as what might be revealed by his tax returns, and to advantage his family and friends. He steers government contracts to friends, rewards paying members of his private club with plum appointments, and hires his adult children to surround him, protectively, in the Oval Office.
No wonder the president gets along with dictators, autocrats, and strongmen. They share his view of government, and he admires the authority they wield, begrudging the relative slowness with which the U.S. government responds to his personal wishes. He’s sung the praises of Viktor Orban (Hungary), Vladimir Putin (Russia), Kim Jong Un (North Korea), Xi Jinping (China), Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi (Egypt), Recep Tayyip Erdogan (Turkey), Mohammed bin Salman (Saudi Arabia), and Rodrigo Duterte (Phillippines).
In his dealings with North Korea and its own dictator, Trump has fully embraced his one-man-government style. It remains to be seen how much further the president is willing to nudge the country toward a dictatorship in the style he so openly admires. He’s hinted several times at extending his own term limits, citing his perceived popularity or the damage done by the special counsel investigation. In 2016, he suggested he might not accept the outcome of the election if he didn’t win, then claimed voter fraud was the reason he didn’t win the popular vote. (There was no widespread voter fraud.)
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has expressed fear that Trump might not concede the next election if he loses by a slim margin, but it may be a moot point. Trump’s approval rating among Republicans is close to 90%, and he now has the tacit endorsement of a favorite personal ally, albeit an adversary of the U.S.: Kim Jong Un.
“Kim Jong-Un made a statement that Joe Biden is a low IQ individual,” Trump said recently, using Kim to undercut his front-running Democratic 2020 rival. “He probably is based on his record. I think I agree with [Kim] on that.”