But it would be a mistake to remember Trump only for all the vitriol he spewed from the White House and on Twitter. Just as important were the long and never-explained silences and reluctant and insufficient acknowledgment of important issues.
In fact, on a range of issues that called for presidential leadership, Trump routinely spoke and acted in his own interests rather than the country’s.
That reticence extended to other parts of the world.
When a US-based journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, was murdered and dismembered in Turkey as part of a Saudi Arabian plot, Trump waited days to issue a statement
that primarily supported Saudi Arabia and its relationship with America. CIA officials assessed
that the operation could not have happened without the knowledge of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, but Trump failed to hold him responsible. Bin Salman denied any involvement.
And the administration is now looking for ways to immunize bin Salman from any criminal liability in another incident, which could also shield him
from being held responsible for the death of Khashoggi.
When American Otto Warmbier was brought back to the US — near death, after imprisonment and apparent torture in North Korea — Trump condemned the regime and offered words of comfort to the young man’s parents. (Warmbier died shortly after his return.) But when
he met North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un in 2019, Trump said, “He tells me that he didn’t know about it and I will take him at his word.” He added that Kim “felt badly about it. He felt very badly.”
And during a 2018 meeting with his friend, President Xi Jinping of China, he avoided discussing
the concentration camps holding Uyghur Muslims in China, according to an account from John Bolton, Trump’s former national security adviser, in Bolton’s 2020 book. Trump told Axios
he had not retaliated against Chinese Communist Party officials or companies about the camps then, so as not to upset a trade deal he was working on with Beijing. (Last June, on the heels of the Bolton book release, Trump signed a bill
condemning China for its human rights abuses against the Uyghur Muslim population.)
At Mar-a-Lago, earlier in 2018 (according to a recording obtained by CNN), Trump “praised China’s President Xi Jinping
for recently consolidating power and extending his potential tenure, musing he wouldn’t mind making such a maneuver himself.” Maybe he was joking.
Such blind-eye avoidance — or outright silence — can be explained in part by Trump’s love of authoritarian power. His lust for that kind of authority here at home and admiration for those leaders allowed him to tacitly endorse their behavior by saying nothing at all.
But it was not only what he remained silent about around the world. During the worst pandemic in 100 years, the President failed to properly, publicly grieve or honor those who have died. Except for acknowledging the death of a few of his rich friends, he didn’t utter the names of everyday Americans who died of the deadly virus.
He rarely spoke the names of frontline workers, doctors, nurses, grocery clerks — those who put their lives on the line every day while he withheld information from the American public. Where was he for their funerals — even virtually? In fact, in May he ludicrously described the spiraling numbers of cases
in the United States as a “badge of honor” because it meant the US was testing more people.
As Bob Woodward’s book details, Trump never spoke publicly in the early days of the pandemic about how serious the virus was. He told Woodward
that he downplayed this because he didn’t want to create panic. Early on in the crisis, he held daily — often self-serving and misleading — coronavirus task force briefings
for the cameras (before suspending them in the spring).
He also found it difficult
to regularly speak out for, or even model, the kind of behavior that would have saved tens of thousands of lives: simply putting on a mask. And he was silent about his own health, never fully explaining an emergency visit to the hospital or revealing a full readout of his bout with the coronavirus.
During a year of racial tension the likes of which the country had not seen since the brutal beating in 1991 of Rodney King in Los Angeles, the President focused on law and order, criticizing those who took to the streets in protest as thugs and criminals and downplaying
the risk police misconduct can pose to Black people
There was no speech about the underlying issues of systemic racism in America. There were no appearances at funerals or memorial services for unarmed Black people who lost their lives at the hands of police.
Although we don’t know the motivation of the Nashville bomber who wreaked havoc on Christmas Day, nearly a week has passed without a single public mention of this horrific act from Trump. (He did have plenty to say when it came to domestic terrorism in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017: Recall his comments that there were good people from both sides, despite the presence of neo-Nazis and White nationalists.)
His silence extended to the growing crisis of hunger in America and the millions of Americans who are out of work and desperately trying to make ends meet and put food on the table. Instead, we’ve heard about the record stock market numbers and how the economy would take off like a rocket post-Covid (something he said he deserved credit for). Only now is he is belatedly calling for raising stimulus payments to Americans to $2,000.
All this silence represents a loss for the White House of both moral and political influence here and around the world. While many have been disgusted by the President’s crude and ignorant tweets and statements over the past four years, many have also been shocked and hurt by what he’s chosen to be silent about.
And those silences will leave a stain just as damaging to America’s reputation as any ignorant tweet.