Donald Trump has been president of the United States for 73 days -- and the deeper we get into the woods, the harder it gets to see the forest for the trees. These days, most of that timberland is a deep thicket of sturdy Russian birch trees, some carrying the telltale markings of Vladimir Putin or Trump's corrupt and money-grubbing inner circle, leaving a strong odor of collusion. Still, I wonder if that scent can throw us off the real trail.
About 80 percent of the TV cable news coverage that I watched last week (why do I torture myself so?...good question) centered on two stories -- whether the bizarre doings of GOP congressman Devin Nunes, tasked with leading a House probe of the Russia affair, were a ploy to aid Trump (spoiler alert: they were) and whether ousted Trump aide Mike Flynn gets immunity to testify on Capitol Hill (spoiler alert: he probably won't, and it's probably not so important). What worries me is that the growing sense among the anti-Trump majority that the Russia affair, coupled with the health-care fiasco, means that his young presidency is imploding will make it easier for those folks to ignore the disastrous ways Trump is actually not imploding at all.
One has to give a lot of credit to the editorial-page editors of the Los Angeles Times for rising above the dense stand of trees to show us the entire Trump forest, disease-ridden and ravaged by fire. Sunday's full-page editorial -- "Our Dishonest President" -- was a reminder of the perilous situation America is facing in April 2017. Here's an excerpt:
What is most worrisome about Trump is Trump himself. He is a man so unpredictable, so reckless, so petulant, so full of blind self-regard, so untethered to reality that it is impossible to know where his presidency will lead or how much damage he will do to our nation. His obsession with his own fame, wealth and success, his determination to vanquish enemies real and imagined, his craving for adulation — these traits were, of course, at the very heart of his scorched-earth outsider campaign; indeed, some of them helped get him elected. But in a real presidency in which he wields unimaginable power, they are nothing short of disastrous.
And this plays out every day in Trump's Washington. While the Nunes follies were grabbing most of the headlines, the president was successfully rolling back pollution rules on power plants that undid America's brief era of world leadership on climate change. The bad news for the White House on Flynn and his undisclosed Russia dealings wasn't bad enough to stop Trump from planning to sign a bill to strip your internet privacy. And when it comes to corruption, Trump's flouting of conventional norms and actual laws is taking place on such a massive scale that the traditional watchdogs -- federal agencies, Congress, the press, the public -- seem overwhelmed.
In a Twitter thread on Sunday afternoon. Think Progress editor Judd Legum noted that while the Trump-Russia affair "could be the biggest political scandal in history," we don't all the facts yet and, "In the meantime, Trump's use of the presidency to personally enrich himself is getting less attention than it otherwise would." The trips every weekend to play golf at his Trump-branded properties. Profiting from his new D.C. hotel that's leased from the federal government he heads. The myriad, multiple conflicts of interest of the $720 Million Couple, Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, as they set policies from the apex of White House power. And so much more.
And yet Trump's worst abuse of presidential power is arguably one that's been barely noticed. We should rejoice at the lives that were saved when -- under so much public scrutiny -- the Obamacare repeal that would have taken health coverage from 24 million -- went down in flames, but Trump's regime has already managed to take innocent life elsewhere. Halfway around the world, in an endless war with questionable authorization, Trump and his Pentagon are widening the conflict with violent force -- and with almost no public input, oversight, or scrutiny.
On the same day as its "Our Dishonest President" editorial, the Los Angeles Times' front page was reporting that the Trump administration has taken the unprecedented step of failing to initially disclose major troop deployments of hundreds of Marines and Army paratroopers into Syria and Iraq. In essence, Trump is determined to send young Americans into a secret war with no public scrutiny; as former Obama-era National Security Council spokesman Ned Price told the newspaper: "It's truly shocking that the current administration furtively deploys troops without public debate or describing their larger strategy."
It's worth noting that Trump didn't start the wars in Iraq and Syria, and his immediate predecessor Obama deserves criticism (and received it in this space) for continuing and even expanding the powers to wage war and to kill people with drone strikes that had already gone too far during Bush 43's tenure. Yet in just 73 days, the new president and his military commanders have waged war even more violently, and even more innocent people have died.
There was some attention -- not much, but some -- when American military officials admitted they're looking into reports that stepped-up U.S. airstrikes in the city of Mosul, which is the epicenter of the current warfare with the Islamic State, has killed as many as 200 civilians. In neighboring Syria, citizens are also blaming America for bombing runs that killed dozens more. Iraqi military officers told the New York Times "that there had been a noticeable relaxing of the coalition's rules of engagement since President Trump took office" and that airstrikes that were once nixed because of the chance of killing innocent people are now getting approved.
What the Iraqis on the ground are saying is backed up by the statistics on civilian causalities in the region. Those numbers started to gradually rise in the final months of Obama's presidency, as his Pentagon -- with full public disclosure -- increased military action. But the spike in deaths of civilians since Trump became 45th president on January 20 has been dramatic; the reporting website Airwars.org says that alleged civilian casualties in Iraq and Syria more than tripled from the last full month of the Obama administration (December) to March. On the ground, jihadis are already using the civilian deaths in a propaganda effort to gain more recruits for their anti-American cause.
Trump has performed another bait-and-switch with the American voter -- after months of implying that his fall election rival Hillary Clinton was the one who would escalate fighting in the Middle East. Instead it was Trump who -- during a casual Saturday night dinner with Kushner on his first Saturday in the White House -- signed off on a botched raid in Yemen that killed civilians and led to the death of a Navy Seal. He's given hawkish commanders more leeway to wage war without White House approval, and is studying ways to make it even easier to OK lethal drone strikes.
Add this all up, and Trump is building a U.S. war machine in the Middle East with no civilian oversight -- not even, for better or worse, from his own White House -- and without serious congressional scrutiny, let alone a proper declaration of war. The president's willingness to send new troops and allow bloodier rules of engagement without keeping the American people informed is running roughshod over any notion of constitutional government. Trump is taking the unchecked, non-stop expansion of America's hyper-militarized national security state over the last 70 years to its logical conclusion -- and it's an ugly place.
This is dictator stuff -- this secret, unmonitored expansion of war power. And it seems like an early ratification of the fears over Trump that the L.A. Times expressed so well in its editorial. And consider this: The more that Our Dishonest President blunders on the homefront -- stymied by ineptitude in dealing with a Congress of his own party, while drowning in a sea of disclosures in the Russia scandal -- the more tempted he will be to shred the Constitution on overseas battlefields, where a commander-in-chief has no apparent limits. For Trump, nothing will say "Make America Great Again" more than pushing for a military victory -- at any price.
We can't ignore this story -- no matter how shiny the latest object that gets pulled from the Russia cesspool. Our congressional representatives -- not just Democrats but the sane Republicans who've voiced real concern in the past over presidential war powers -- need to start asking questions and demanding answers from the Trump White House, as does the news media. There's been a lot of talk these days about how "Democracy Dies in Darkness" -- and that's true. And we need to shine a gigantic flashlight on what Trump is doing in our name in Iraq and Syria.