Truth and consequences


Here’s a sentence I never thought I’d write: Mick Mulvaney was right.

Mulvaney is a former three-plus-term Republican congressman from South Carolina who quit the House of Representatives in February 2017 and spent the past three years as a director, former director, acting director and former acting director in assorted positions within President Donald Trump’s administration.

A couple of weeks ago, after a year and change as acting White House chief of staff, Mulvaney became the former acting chief of staff, leaving behind the continuing chaos of the administration’s coronavirus crisis.

But at a memorable press briefing on Oct. 17, Mulvaney, to his credit, made the mistake of responding accurately to a reporter’s question about Trump’s impeachment-grade dealings with Ukraine. The reporter wanted to know whether he correctly understood an earlier comment Mulvaney made that the administration was withholding military aid from Ukraine until Ukraine agreed to investigate a claim that it supposedly possessed a mysterious computer server formerly used by the Democratic National Committee during the 2016 presidential election campaign. The claim had been widely debunked as false.

According to the White House transcript of that press briefing, Mulvaney affirmed that that’s what he had said, a point that later became evidence supporting Trump’s impeachment for abuse of power.

At the time of the briefing, though, Mulvaney didn’t see any problem.

“The look back to what happened in 2016 certainly was part of the thing that he [Trump] was worried about in corruption with that nation,” Mulvaney scolded reporters. “And I have news for everybody: Get over it. There’s going to be political influence in foreign policy. … Elections have consequences.”

He was absolutely right.

In a column on these pages two weeks before Trump’s inauguration Jan. 20, 2017, I noted that winning the election gave Trump and his team the authority to set and pursue his policy agenda and the power to help get it done.

Yes, I was far from thrilled with the goals of that agenda in the areas of racial justice, access to health care, protecting the environment, immigration, consumer protection, job safety, tax provisions and more. But elections, as Mulvaney reminded us 2½ years later, have consequences. And anyone who didn’t think that a Trump presidency would mean radical changes to what the federal government did and how it did it either wasn’t paying attention or lived in an alternate universe very different from the one most of us inhabit.

But I nevertheless held out hope — optimist that I am — that another consequence of Trump’s election could be his realization that Americans expect more of a president in office than we seemed prepared to tolerate from candidates competing for that office. Whatever policy consequences a president’s election brings with it, we also want our president — whatever his or her party — to be someone who sets and meets a high standard of moral and ethical character and conduct and who deals with fellow humans in good faith.

So I wrote that Trump’s upcoming inaugural address gave him a chance, for example, to denounce racism, anti-Semitism, white supremacy and other extremist beliefs in clear, unambiguous language, something he had not done during his campaign.

He also could use the speech to embrace respect, dignity and equal treatment under the law for every person, and to vow that, as president, he would honor the moral and ethical values and principles of America’s founding documents, concepts that happen to be shared, one way or another, by virtually all of humanity’s belief systems, religious and secular.

Regrettably, Trump made no such vows in his inaugural speech. Nor have his words and actions since then suggested that he shares these values and principles. Elections certainly have consequences, but one of those consequences has not been Trump’s recognition of the higher standards we expect of our president, especially now.

The worldwide coronavirus crisis has raised the stakes infinitely for people everywhere. There will be time after the crisis passes for investigations of fact and science into whether humanity could have better anticipated and prepared for this pandemic or any other.Right now, we need our leaders to be smart, to be quick on their feet, and to be able to see dozens of steps ahead.

And we also need — desperately — leaders with heart, with empathy and sensitivity, with a deep reserve of human decency, with a clear sense of the power of kindness, people who can help us find our way through times that may confront us with changes and moments and tragedies of a kind and scale we’ve not encountered before.

And we need people who can use those qualities of the heart to tell us the truth, the hard truths and the good ones, truths that can help us figure out what to do with pain, relief, disappointment, gratitude, uncertainty and emotions we may never have had reason to feel before.

Truth is one of those preeminent moral and ethical values of human interaction, but it is not one that Trump understands or practices.

From Jan. 20, 2017, through this past Jan. 19, three complete years of the Trump presidency, the Washington Post’s definitive fact-checking database has catalogued a total of 16,241 false or misleading statements by the president, an average of 15 per day for 1,095 days.

Since January through last Friday, the news organization tallied 21 false or misleading statements by Trump about the coronavirus situation, and those were only the ones considered “most notable.” It found 10 such statements in his televised address to the nation March 11 alone. The address lasted only 10 minutes.

We’ve had more than enough time to become accustomed to Trump’s disconnection from truth and from the moral and ethical values that elevate us. It’s difficult enough for us to wrestle with that when they affect state policy, maybe even more difficult for those who support the policies but are repelled by the absence of human decency.

It’s another matter entirely when those qualities are not to be found in a leader at the precise time that we and our families, friends, co-workers, neighbors, fellow Americans and people around the world are confronting matters of sickness, health, life and death.

Eric Mink is a freelance writer and editor and teaches film studies at Webster University. He is a former columnist for the St.  Louis Post-Dispatch and the Daily News in New York. Contact him at [email protected].