President Donald Trump gave an excellent speech in Normandy, France honoring the 75th anniversary of D-Day. He hit the right tone as he underscored the importance of alliances, honored veterans and displayed sensitivity and compassion for those veterans of the landing who were in attendance. The visuals of the American and French presidents together were impactful.
For a couple of hours, especially during his nearly 30-minute remarks, the president was presidential. He received widespread applause, as he should. Even CNN’s Jim Acosta and MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough, no friends of the president, praised the D-Day speech.
It didn’t last. Within hours, on the same day, the president reverted to his usual bombastic attacks on his critics and those who disagree with him.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi set him off when she reportedly said on June 4 that she wanted to see him in prison. Trump then, with the American Cemetery in Normandy as a backdrop, called her a “nasty, vindictive, horrible person,” as well as “a disgrace” and not talented. She apparently gets under his skin. But then so does virtually everyone who disagrees with him, whether on his worldview, his trade policies, his temperament or his intelligence.
Pelosi wasn’t enough. In the same setting he decided to go after Robert Mueller — a highly decorated Marine Corps combat officer — with the graves of fallen American veterans behind him. The president earlier called Mueller “disgraced and discredited,” now added that he “made a fool of himself” in public comments (not testimony) on the Mueller Report.
We know the president is a counter-puncher. We know he’s crass. We know he wants to shake up Washington, and apparently the world. We also know the economy is strong – for now. We know he’s been tough on China, maybe on Russia, and certainly on allies. We know his style of negotiation is to attack, to threaten, to embarrass – largely without results so far. We also know he’s been able to seat conservative judges and cut regulations.
But we also know that the president has a powerful authoritarian bent. He admires dictators. He demonizes the judiciary, the media, the Federal Reserve and he keeps an iron clamp on administration agencies. He uses the military for domestic, political purposes. He uses executive orders to get around Congress.
He’s not alone. Other presidents have abused power. Nixon certainly comes to mind. President Obama used executive orders liberally. He pushed Congress to pass the Affordable Care Act with no Republican support. And he went after leakers and reporters aggressively, raising concerns about freedom of the press. Other presidents have abused the office.
Thinking of the president’s comments to Fox News -- with the American Cemetery in the background -- following his D-Day speech, one might be reminded of the saying “strong men don’t bully.” They are empathetic, they have compassion, they debate positions based on facts, and they do not play the victim. Instead they share, they comfort, they bring people together – and they remain in control of their emotions. Most importantly, they don’t put their own interests ahead of all others.
Consider Trump’s signature on the D-Day proclamation signed by 16 world leaders. Fifteen signed at the bottom. Trump’s iconic signature is at the top where he thinks it belongs. It says a lot about a man who puts himself ahead of all others.
I write this as the son of World War II veteran who enlisted in the National Guard in 1939, fought across Europe starting in Normandy, became executive officer of an engineer combat battalion in the 3rd Army, a man with few harsh words and respect for all. I write it as a person who visited Normandy with family three years ago and felt the emotion that comes from standing among heroes who put nation, and the well-being of democracy, ahead of self. And I write it as a life-long Republican and a Vietnam-era veteran.
Nancy Pelosi might get her wish someday. Regardless, it is very clear that the president is neither willing nor capable of promoting democratic values, of preserving hard-earned alliances and promoting and protecting the freedoms for which WWII veterans fought. Unfortunately, none of this will matter until and unless either Republican leaders decide to take back the Republican Party, which appears unlikely, or the president is defeated in 2020.
Carl Gustin is a Gloucester resident and retired executive who writes occasionally on national, regional and local issues.