As America is now officially in the long exhale of the post-Trump Presidency, more than a few Americans are looking at his single term in office and wondering: Will he really be the worst of all time?
It is a question that has dogged Trump since his inauguration. Many people viewed his obvious inexperience; inability to apologize, change course, or do any critical thinking; nearly constant lying; general crudeness; and his penchant for putting himself ahead of others; and predicted that the guardrails of American democracy would be put to the test. In hindsight, these were all pretty healthy predictions.
However, I think it was a few years ago that Jim Swift wrote a piece in the now-defunct Weekly Standard, where he went through some of the actual, already agreed-upon Worst Presidents in History™ and argued that Trump would have to be pretty bad to reach even their levels. It’s pretty sound logic: Even if Trump were to be a terrible president by modern standards, how can you compete against the likes of James Buchanan, Franklin Pierce, Millard Fillmore, or Andrew Johnson? After all, these are guys who actually owned slaves and defended the Confederacy. There were also a host of other presidents in the 19th Century who did little to nothing to avert the Civil War.
Even when you look to the 20th Century, questions still linger: How could Trump possibly match the corruption of the Warren G. Harding Administration? It’s easier to find (slightly) smaller examples too: Although Trump’s war with the press has been well-documented, Richard Nixon actually plotted to have a journalist murdered. And though it will pain many Republicans (including Never Trumpers) to admit this, Trump did not make any foreign policy decisions as disastrous as The Iraq War. When there are 44 other presidents to look at, it’s quite easy to find evidence that rebuts the argument Trump is the worst. But for some reason, it still lingers.
The mark of a good president is often how well they handled the economy, or how influential their policy proposals ended up being. But the mark of a great president is defined by how well they handled the extraordinary challenges that were handed to them. This is why Abraham Lincoln is almost universally considered the best in history: Faced with the ultimate challenge — the dismantling of the Republic — he restored the Nation and eradicated slavery, America’s original sin. Franklin Delano Roosevelt is often regarded as one of the best because of how he dealt with the Great Depression and World War II. George Washington led the country through its new experiment, and established many of the traditions we follow today, most crucially choosing to serve only two terms in office.
Some of these accomplishments can even overshadow other severe deficits: Woodrow Wilson, for instance, led the country through World War I and reshaped public thinking around progressive policies, but — being the last president to be a subject of the Confederacy — also supported racial segregation and white supremacy.
It’s easy to look at the bare facts of Trump’s presidency and conclude that he will not hold up well in the history books: He is an impeached, one-term president, who lost the popular vote twice. He also inherited a robust economy, yet leaves office as the only president to lose jobs under his watch in 80 years. However, his supporters will likely cite to the economic numbers prior to the arrival of COVID-19, the restraint in foreign policy (as noted above), and other isolated, but significant accomplishments, such as killing the leader of ISIS, Abu Al-Baghdadi.
Yet nearly all of Trump’s high points are caveated: Despite his ability to brand it as such, Trump’s economy (while strong) was not the best in American history. In fact, his economy was — in many ways — weaker than his predecessor’s, as job growth slowed under Trump from its previous highs in 2014 and 2015. And although the U.S. did not engage in a major war overseas, he greatly increased the number of drone strikes and supported a Saudi Arabian war in Yemen (like the prior Administration) that has resulted in a humanitarian crisis. And if that wasn’t enough, one of the most overlooked developments in 2020 has been the reemergence of ISIS.
On its face and in all its simplicity, the Trump Experiment failed. But to truly understand how significant Trump’s failure was, you do have to look below the surface and put everything in context: He could not face the great crisis that was put before him and he reversed much of the progress made possible by the modern presidency in the 20th century. One thing is objectively clear: It is stunningly easy to conclude right now that Donald Trump is one of the worst presidents in the history of the United States. But when the analysis of his presidency is complete, it is hard to find an equal to Trump even when you consider that America has had to suffer through the likes of Buchanan, Harding, and Pierce.
The Muslim Ban
On December 7, 2015, Donald Trump gave a press conference that has become so normalized that some of it now seems like a punchline: He called for a “total and complete shutdown” on Muslims entering the U.S. until we could “figure out what the hell is going on.” It is a phrase that is now used to mock Trump, but it shouldn’t lead us to overlook what actually happened: A presidential candidate called for an immigration ban on the basis of a person’s religion and when he became President, he followed through on his promise.
The Muslim Ban went into effect on January 27, 2017, via Executive Order 13769, shortly after Trump was inaugurated. Though it was the first of four iterations of the ban, the message from the Trump Administration was clear: Immigrants are no longer welcome here. Throughout his campaign, Trump repeatedly recited a song called The Snake, in which — in his telling — America makes the mistake of allowing in Syrian refugees, despite knowing that they are “snakes” who hate the country. The Snake would become one of Trump’s many epithets against immigrants on the campaign trail. From the moment he descended down the escalator and referred to undocumented Mexicans as “rapists,” to his comments about “shithole” countries as President, Trump’s immigration legacy will be one that is much more similar to America in the 19th Century than the 20th or 21st, but his singling out of an entire group of people solely based on their religion deserves a special mention.
Although Trump’s supporters have pointed to the actual text of the Muslim Ban — which does not specifically bar any immigrant on the basis of their religion — that argument expects the listener to have been born yesterday. The President’s own personal lawyer said openly that he was asked “how to do it the right way legally,” meaning that the legal dressing on the Executive Order was there to only achieve Trump’s ultimate goal: Fulfill his campaign promise to ban Muslim immigrants from the United States.
The Supreme Court did not pretend that it misunderstood President Trump’s intent; after citing to “inspiring” rhetoric from past presidents who welcomed Muslims into America, Chief Justice John Roberts stated:
Yet it cannot be denied that the Federal Government and the Presidents who have carried its laws into effect have — from the Nation’s earliest days — performed unevenly in living up to those inspiring words.
Plaintiffs argue that this President’s words strike at fundamental standards of respect and tolerance, in violation of our constitutional tradition. But the issue before us is not whether to denounce the statements. It is instead the significance of those statements in reviewing a Presidential directive, neutral on its face, addressing a matter within the core of executive responsibility. In doing so, we must consider not only the statements of a particular President, but also the authority of the Presidency itself (emphasis added).
While it is legally accurate to say that the Executive has broad authority over immigration in the United States, it is also logically accurate to say that President Trump sought to ban the immigration of Muslims into the United States because he is a bigot.
The President’s ban on Muslim immigrants had a real world effect: According to the Bridge Initiative, Muslim immigration from the banned countries declined by 90%. The real world, individual effect of the Ban was communicated by Dr. Abdollah Dehzangi, who testified before Congress about how the Ban separated him from his wife:
We happily married in September 2016 and I launched an I-130, petition for alien relative, application for her by October 2016 to join me. We knew this process is going to take up to two years, so she could join me after she completed her PhD in Australia. We believed that with the strong bond and love between us, we could overcome the difficulty of a long-distance relationship, with the hope of rejoining again and finally live happily ever after. However, our dreams and hopes are all shattered after the Muslim ban imposed to several countries, including Iran. This cruel policy threw our lives into disarray.
The most devastating effect of the Muslim Ban has been on the country experiencing the worst refugee crisis in a generation: Syria. With estimates of refugees reaching somewhere around 5 million people, the United States shut its doors to some of the world’s most vulnerable displaced persons. The resettlement of refugees has declined steadily under President Trump: In 2017, the U.S. resettled 54,000 refugees. Since then, Trump’s Administration has reduced that number to only 15,000 for the 2021 fiscal year.
In the aforementioned Supreme Court decision, Justice Sonia Sotomayor dissented to Roberts’s opinion for the Court and invoked the Supreme Court’s decision in Korematsu v. United States, which allowed for the internment of Japanese-American citizens during World War II. While Justice Roberts argued (correctly) that Korematsu was related to the status of American citizens, and Trump’s Muslim Ban was related to the immigration status of foreign nationals, Sotomayor’s reasoning is correct that the Muslim Ban echoes the spirit of one of the Nation’s most shameful episodes (and an obvious strike against FDR’s reputation).
One of the most well-known statements about this country is that America is not only a nation, but also an idea. That idea rests on a single and obvious principle: No matter your race, creed, gender, social status, place of birth, or religion, every individual has a right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It was Thomas Jefferson — the author of the Declaration of Independence — who identified “that natural right, which all men have of relinquishing the country, in which birth, or other accident may have thrown them, and, seeking subsistance and happiness wheresoever they may be able, or may hope to find them.” In his first report to Congress in 1801, Jefferson asked, “Shall oppressed humanity find no asylum on this globe?”
There are other, perhaps more obvious horrors enacted by the Trump Administration. But they have only become more obvious because the Muslim Ban is the genesis of Trump’s most evil policies. It was the first taste of what was to come, and it has only faded from our memories because the people it has turned away are too easily dismissed by us. But as Dr. Dehzangi and the millions of displaced Syrian refugees demonstrate, the human implications are real and they have faces.
In 2017, America banned people from its shores on the basis of their religion. It may have left our minds for the time being, but history will not forget, and it will be a major stain on Trump’s legacy.
On Friday, April 6, 2018, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the “Zero Tolerance” policy of the Trump Administration: Any person who crossed the border illegally would be immediately prosecuted and detained indefinitely. While Sessions’s order itself (which described a policy that had been in effect for over a year) appears benign on its face, the implications of it were not lost on members of the Administration.
The explicit goal of the policy had been to separate children from their parents as a deterrent to the latter from entering the country illegally. Behind closed doors, Sessions plainly told the prosecutors who would be carrying out the order that, “We need to take children away.” Later, his deputy — Rod Rosenstein — would clarify that this should happen, “No matter how young.” It is currently the subject of an inspection by the Inspector General for the Justice Department, but even preliminary findings from the Administration have told us that:
- 4,368 children and adults have been separated from each other.
- Since the policy stopped in June of 2018, 1,100 more families have been separated.
- The U.S. government could not locate the parents of more than 600 children (it’s actually 666, if you don’t believe in coincidences), meaning that the Trump Administration’s immigration policy has created more than half a thousand orphans.
- The Trump Administration refused to provide the necessary assistance in reuniting migrant families.
I think the last point is particularly important, because third-party organizations have had to fill in the gap left by the Administration. As Lee Gelernt put it:
I am worried, but I am remaining optimistic. I mean, what we have said in court is, we will not stop this search until we have found every last family. I’m worried, but I ultimately believe, hopefully not naively, that we will find every one of these families.
I think we just — we cannot stop until we have found every one. Otherwise, it would just be a tragedy on top of a tragedy.
The reader should remember two things: 1. I have chosen the phrase “family separations” as opposed to “kids in cages” because I know that we are not debating whether or not past presidents have detained migrant children in cages; anyone who has followed immigration policy for more than five minutes knows that we have and also knows that the Trump Administration’s policy is fundamentally different on a moral and legal level. 2. The Trump Administration separated children from their families and then refused to assist with reunification to the point that third-party organizations had to step in and pick up the slack.
In the coming months, we will probably learn a lot more about the Trump Administration’s Family Separation policy. As noted above, an inspector general’s report is about to be published, now with the presumption that it will come out under a Biden Administration. But that doesn’t mean we should pretend it didn’t happen. In fact, there is clear, documented evidence that it did; that its effects will be long-lasting; and that it will be a stain on the modern presidency the likes of which haven’t been seen in over a hundred years. Currently, the parents of children who have been separated from them are suing the United States government.
In 2017, this policy was enacted by the government under the authority and wishes of the President of the United States. It is not a mystery as to how it happened and it does not compare to the immigration policies of any modern president.
To find apt comparison point for Trump’s views on immigration, you have to go back almost a century. In 1929, the United States admitted only 153,714 immigrants, a sharp drop off from the nearly 700,000 we had been admitting annually only two decades prior. But the identity of those immigrants should be of note, as Daniel J. Tichenor writes in Dividing Lines, “By design, the vast majority of these cherished immigration slots were reserved for northern and western Europeans.”
Although it was a policy in the 1920s, a full century later Trump was openly asking why the U.S. couldn’t admit more immigrants “from Norway” as opposed to Haiti, El Salvador, and Africa. Trump’s obvious racism has ultimately been a guiding light for his views on immigration, and although it has parallels in American history, it is far removed from the language and policies of presidents in the modern era.
“Very Fine People on Both Sides”
One of the most remarkable things about Trump’s term has been his incredibly stable approval rating. For most of his presidency, Trump has consistently been at around 42%, and only fluctuates a few notches north or south of that point. That has largely been true across all four years of his time in office, with two exceptions: The passing of the tax bill in December of 2017, and his comments following the clash between white supremacists and counter-protestors in Charlottesville, Virginia, only a few months prior in August of 2017. Both times Trump’s approval rating cratered to 36%.
The Unite the Right rally was advertised for months as a gathering for and by white supremacists. The now infamous event in August of 2017 was actually one of a number of rallies in Charlottesville organized by white supremacists that year, as they continually protested against the removal of a Robert E. Lee statue in one of the City’s parks.
Although the Tiki-Torch rally where the attendees shouted “Blood and soil” and “Jews will not replace us” became noteworthy in August of 2017 (as it was held the night before the main rally), the first one was actually held in May of 2017. Both were organized by white supremacist Richard Spencer, who is still dealing with legal disputes stemming from his activities that summer. Another rally was held in June of 2017 (also organized by Spencer), and it all culminated with the major rally on August 12, 2017.
In other words, the intentions and goals of the protestors had been clear for months. Organizers (and billed speakers) of the Unite the Right rally included Spencer; Neo-Nazis Jason Kessler, Baked Alaska, and Mike Enoch; the now-indicted Christopher Cantwell (a.k.a. The Crying Nazi); and white nationalist August Sol Invictus. To put it simply, not “very fine people.”
Trump’s comments were shocking not because Trump himself had said them; after all, this was the President who — as shown above — announced his candidacy using bigoted tropes against immigrants. But Americans were shocked at the time because in 2017 there was still some hope that Trump would eventually “grow” into the presidency. As he held a press conference and tried to draw an equivalence between white supremacists who had just murdered someone in the streets of Charlottesville and those who opposed the Neo-Nazis, it became clear that Trump was not going to magically become “presidential.”
An argument began to arise years after Trump made the comments (and weirdly not in the immediate aftermath of the event) that he actually condemned Neo-Nazis and was simply referring to people who were protesting against the removal of Lee’s statue when he made his “very fine” comments.
However, as Jane Coaston makes clear in her definitive piece on the rally, there is no argument that those protesting the monument contained any “very fine people:”
In short, Unite the Right was organized not by individuals who, in Trump’s words, “felt very strongly about the monument to Robert E. Lee,” but by ardent white supremacists and white nationalists.
On multiple occasions before Unite the Right, attendees stated that the Confederate memorial that was supposedly their purpose was actually the least of their concerns. We have their statements, their videos, their posters, and their words.
We also have the transcript and video of how Trump responded. He did, indeed, refer to the people who attended Unite the Right, people who were likely well aware of and supportive of its messaging, as “very fine people,” and he downplayed the tiki torch parade as “people protesting very quietly.”
Unite the Right was a horrific event in our nation’s recent history — and to come to terms with it requires doing so in good faith and honesty, something the president and his defenders appear unwilling to do.
Even if you don’t want to take in all of Coaston’s thorough and persuasive debunking, any argument made in Trump’s defense falls flat. It might sound reasonable to say that Trump obviously had no idea who was at the rally, and just saw people who were supporting him. Given Trump’s vulnerability to any form of flattery, it is tempting to say that he saw people who liked him and, in turn, decided that he liked them. He has largely done the same thing recently with the likes of Qanon and the Proud Boys.
But that actually makes things worse: What Trump is then showing us — and it is something he has shown us throughout his presidency — is that there is no person, group, or organization too low or evil for him to support so long as he sees some sort of support in return. As evidenced by Charlottesville, that includes racists and Neo-Nazis.
America obviously has a long and terrible history on race relations, stemming all the way back to the founding of the country. And given that we are only 55 years removed from the horrors of Jim Crow, it is not surprising that we still see some politicians engaging in the same politics that dominated the Dixiecrat states for much of the 20th Century. But Trump is obviously different: In the wake of Charlottesville it would have been unthinkable for a President Mitt Romney or even a President Ted Cruz to utter the same words as Trump did that August. It is the sort of thing even Nixon would only say behind closed doors. An American president in the 21st Century should not be confused with George Wallace.
Yet, with Trump, it was something he felt comfortable saying out in the open, and that comfortableness has extended to other places throughout his presidency.
When it comes to corruption and the Trump Administration, it’s hard to know where to begin. You could start at the number of people in his close circle who have been indicted: Paul Manafort; Rick Gates; Roger Stone; Michael Flynn; Steve Bannon; George Papadopolous; and Michael Cohen (who has since joined #TheResistance). You could even expand that circle into Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, two of Rudy Giuliani’s partners in the Ukraine Scandal. But some of the worst elements of Trump’s corruption are the things that have resulted in no actual indictments.
David Fahrenthold is a reporter for the Washington Post who has meticulously kept tabs on Trump’s “pattern of self-enrichment” throughout his presidency. To put it simply: Whenever Trump leaves Washington, he has a penchant for staying at Trump Organization properties, which the U.S. government (and taxpayers) must pay for its accommodations. This arrangement also extends to Trump’s children, who all receive Secret Service protection and stay at the family business’s hotels and resorts. For example, the Secret Service must pay Trump’s country club in New Jersey $17,000 a month for its services whenever he feels like having a golf outing (which, as we now know, is more frequent than any other president in history). All in all, the final bill for taxpayers will be north of $2.5 million, just for Trump’s stays at his own properties.
There is ongoing litigation about Trump using the Presidency to enrich himself, either by him doing it directly or through foreign dignitaries looking to get on his good side. But it would be criminal (get it?) to limit Trump’s corruption to only the financial issues surrounding him and his family. And in terms of his actions as President, there are two specific crimes that should be at the forefront of any historical ranking of his Presidency: Obstruction of justice and extortion.
Robert Mueller was appointed as a special counsel on May 17, 2017, just over a week after Trump fired FBI director James Comey. Mueller’s investigation would ultimately consume much of the Trump Presidency for roughly two years. Mueller was tasked with investigating the Russian government’s interference in the 2016 election; any coordination between the Trump Campaign (and individuals associated with it) and the Russians; and any other crimes that arose from their investigation. Mueller’s report ultimately identified two crimes committed by the Russians: A “hack-and-leak” scandal, where they illegally gained access to the email accounts of the Democratic National Committee and John Podesta and disseminated those materials through Wikileaks and the Internet persona “Guccifer 2.0,” the latter of which was a product of the Russian government itself.
The second crime was interference through social media, which included the Russians setting up fake Facebook pages and targeting portions of the electorate, either by confusing Boomers or depressing black turnout. While Mueller found that there was “no evidence” that the Trump Campaign coordinated with Russian social media interference, he did find coordination between Trump’s team and the Russians in regard to the hack and leak scandal, as Trump’s team was repeatedly in contact with Wikileaks, to the point of organizing press conferences around a “drop” of Podesta’s emails.
However, Mueller ultimately determined that this coordination did not rise to the level of a crime. In a separate investigation, the Senate was able to provide more detail about this “collusion,” since they were not limited — as Mueller was — to only discuss criminal activities. The limitations of Mueller’s report are evident in the way he framed his conclusions about a new crime he came across during the course of his investigation: Obstruction of justice. Mueller ultimately stated that if his team could have determined that Trump had not committed obstruction of justice, “we would have said so.” To state the obvious, Mueller and his team did not say so.
Mueller’s point-man on the Manafort portion of the investigation was Andrew Weissman, who documents in his book Where Law Ends the constant “specter” of Trump firing Mueller, and how it affected the investigation:
Repeatedly during our twenty-two months in operation, we would reach some critical juncture in our investigation only to have Aaron [Zelby] say that we could not take a particular action because it risked aggravating the president beyond some undefined breaking point: that it might either upset our endless negotiations with the Justice Department and the White House…or anger him to such an extent that he’d lash out and fire us.
Perhaps the worst thing to admit about Trump’s obstruction of justice is that it was ultimately successful: He did not cooperate with Mueller’s investigation; sought to subvert it at every turn; attempted to fire Mueller multiple times; and when his lackeys — who could be indicted, unlike him — refused to cooperate, he ultimately rewarded them with blanket pardons at the very end of his presidency.
The lesson that Trump took from the Mueller Report wasn’t to temper his worst impulses, but instead to turn the dial up to eleven: Less than two months after Mueller released his report, Trump again attempted to solicit foreign interference in an American election, this time from the Ukrainians. Trump’s actions ultimately led to his impeachment by the House, and a bipartisan vote of “guilty” in the Senate (thanks to Mitt Romney), but not even coming close to the threshold for his removal.
The Ukraine Scandal and Trump’s resulting impeachment were unlike the other two impeachments in American history. While the narrative on Andrew Johnson’s impeachment is now changing, Bill Clinton’s is similarly seen as a partisan event, as it had its origin in a clearly abusive investigation that turned up real impropriety and a (likely illegal, but certainly obstructive) attempt to cover it up. But that is mostly where the similarities end: Donald Trump was accused of not only committing an actual abusive and impeachable act, but also real crimes. From Just Security, which wrote the definitive piece on the Ukraine Scandal:
Not only was Trump’s funding hold illegal, but the White House was aware of this fact. DoD official Laura Cooper testified that when the hold was first announced at an interagency meeting, “immediately deputies began to raise concerns about how this could be done in a legal fashion.” At a July 31 meeting that included staff from the White House, Cooper advised the group that the only legal means for withholding the funding was through a rescission notice or reprogramming action, both of which would require congressional notification. The Trump White House never took either action.
Watergate is a scandal so widely known that the habit of attaching -gate to every new scandal (Bridgegate, Gamergate, etc.) has even made its way over to Italy, where -poli (Italian for “ville” but often translated as “gate”) is now affixed to the end of words. Watergate was a scandal that led to many of the reforms the American public now enjoys, many of which are “norms” more than they are actual hard rules or laws. But prior to Watergate, the actual greatest scandal in history was the Teapot Dome Scandal, which did lead to genuine legal reform; it is the origin point for Congress’s ability to acquire a person’s tax returns.
The Ukraine Scandal is an episode that really has no other equal in history: It is so cavalierly and obviously criminal that part of what makes it unique is also what makes Trump unique. Many of the laws and norms that are etched into American democracy are based on the assumption that the person given the immense power of the presidency will wield it with responsibility and dignity. Trump has, instead, used the office to enrich himself, shield himself from accountability, and increase his own power.
To call COVID-19 a “global pandemic” is somewhat redundant: By its own definition, a pandemic is global. But COVID-19 is a different pandemic in America than it is in other parts of the world. America — a country that is much less densely populated than other places in the West, such as Europe — currently has the world’s 14th highest death rate. It has handled the pandemic worse than highly advanced sister-countries, such as France, but it also has a higher death rate than countries that are decades behind America in healthcare advances, like Iraq and Palestine.
Lawrence Wright has the definitive piece on the Coronavirus Pandemic and the Trump Administration’s response. It is simply wrong to state that the nearly 400,000 deaths (at the time of this writing) were inevitable or unavoidable:
In October, 2019, the first Global Health Security Index appeared, a sober report of a world largely unprepared to deal with a pandemic. “Unfortunately, political will for accelerating health security is caught in a perpetual cycle of panic and neglect,” the authors observed. “No country is fully prepared.” Yet one country stood above all others in terms of readiness: the United States.
During the transition to the Trump Administration, the Obama White House handed off a sixty-nine-page document called the Playbook for Early Response to High-Consequence Emerging Infectious Disease Threats and Biological Incidents. A meticulous guide for combatting a “pathogen of pandemic potential,” it contains a directory of government resources to consult the moment things start going haywire. […] The Trump Administration jettisoned the Obama playbook (emphasis added).
There had already been an alarming spike in new cases around the world and the virus was spreading across the Middle East. It was becoming apparent that the administration had botched the rollout of testing to track the virus at home, and a smaller-scale surveillance program intended to piggyback on a federal flu tracking system had also been stillborn.
In Washington, the president was not worried, predicting that by April, “when it gets a little warmer, it miraculously goes away.” His White House had yet to ask Congress for additional funding to prepare for the potential cost of wide-scale infection across the country, and health care providers were growing increasingly nervous about the availability of masks, ventilators and other equipment.
From the Washington Post:
[Secretary of Health and Human services, Alex Azar, drafted a] supplemental request for more than $4 billion, a sum that OMB officials and others at the White House greeted as an outrage. Azar arrived at the White House that day for a tense meeting in the Situation Room that erupted in a shouting match, according to three people familiar with the incident. […]
White House officials relented to a degree weeks later as the feared coronavirus surge in the United States began to materialize. The OMB team whittled Azar’s demands down to $2.5 billion, money that would be available only in the current fiscal year. Congress ignored that figure, approving an $8 billion supplemental bill that Trump signed into law March 6.
But again, delays proved costly. The disputes meant that the United States missed a narrow window to stockpile ventilators, masks and other protective gear before the administration was bidding against many other desperate nations, and state officials fed up with federal failures began scouring for supplies themselves.
The Times recently documented Trump’s final months dealing with the pandemic as President, which included everything from pining after Mexico’s low-testing rates (“we only have the most cases because we test the most”), to his continued refusal to substantively endorse mask-wearing. As his Campaign came to a close, he repeatedly bemoaned the heavy focus on COVID-19, by both the Biden Campaign and the media.
Studies have shown that had the United States taken the early measures that were put in place by Germany, somewhere between 70% to 90% of COVID-19 deaths could have been avoided. It’s not that Trump was just unprepared to deal with such a major crisis, it is that he is fundamentally incapable of doing so at his core.
My actual goal here had been to disabuse the notion that Trump was the “worst” president that we’d ever had, because historically there were evil men who occupied the office and did things that modern society would consider unthinkable. But the more I wrote, the more I realized that the worst abuses of the Trump Administration are not only bad by our current moral standards, but by historical standards as well. To argue that Trump will not be the worst president of all time is to also assume that we will make some lurch backwards towards the Buchanans and Pierce’s of the past.
Sean Wilentz, a history professor at Harvard, has made a similar argument, but did so early on and made a prediction that Trump’s behavior would never change because he himself is incapable of change:
What do these bad presidents’ first years tell us about Mr. Trump? Some performed reasonably well at first, only to slide into disaster later. Might Mr. Trump grow in the job, making us forget his rookie-season bumbling? Or should we expect more of the same through 2020?
I expect the latter. Mr. Trump’s first year has been an unremitting parade of disgraces that have demeaned him as well as the dignity of his office, and he has shown that this is exactly how he believes he should govern.
The point is almost too on-the-nose, but Wilentz also makes a point to go through Trump’s “innovations” as president:
Most important, he is the first president to fail to defend the nation from an attack on our democracy by a hostile foreign power — and to resist the investigation of that attack. He is the first to enrich his private interests, and those of his family, directly and openly.
He is the first president to denounce the press not simply as unfair but as “the enemy of the American people.” He is the first to threaten his defeated political opponent with imprisonment. He is the first to have denigrated friendly countries and allies as well as a whole continent with racist vulgarities.
History will ultimately be the judge of President Trump, and while the historical assessments of presidents do change over time (see: Andrew Jackson and Ulysses S. Grant), it is hard to see what bright spots in Trump’s tenure could cause us to overlook the darkness his Administration perpetrated.
Even now, Trump is “innovating” in a way that many predicted: He is the first president in American history to refuse to concede an election he clearly lost by a clear margin and is dragging American democracy (and the Republican Party) down with him. With a little over two weeks until the inauguration of his rival, Trump provided us with a sequel to his extortion attempts with Ukraine and implicitly threatened Georgia’s Secretary of State if he did not give the election to the Trump Campaign.
This, coupled with his inability to manage one of the country’s greatest crises in a hundred years; his hostility to American values; his racism; and his corruption all cause one to reach only one conclusion: Donald Trump has to currently be considered the worst president to occupy the Office. History can be complicated in its judgment, but it is safe to say that America is not going to return to the values of the 19th Century, when the country experienced a cluster of terrible presidents (but also arguably its best). President Trump will have to be viewed in the context of its time: The most powerful and advanced nation on earth in the midst of substantive (though uneven) progress, and he tried to drag it backwards.