Wednesday 16 January 2019

Trump succeeding in having power without responsibility

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Martina Devlin

Martina Devlin

'Mr President, that's not appropriate," protested the CNN reporter trying to put a question to the pugnacious president-elect, as they engaged in a far-from-presidential shouting match during a news conference.

The suspicion is we'll be hearing variations on that criticism again and again during the Trump presidency: inappropriate doesn't begin to describe the entrepreneur's instincts.

Hopes of Mr Trump rising to the responsibilities of public office once the campaign battlegrounds lay behind him were dashed by that encounter earlier this week. No wonder an attempt to mobilise a mass movement of opposition to his presidency is under way. The extraordinary sight of protest rallies is expected when he is sworn in as the 45th president of the United States on Friday.

Coincidentally, a Republican politician wants the law changed to make it a felony to participate in demonstrations causing what he calls "economic terrorism".

Senator Doug Ericksen is planning to introduce a bill that would allow felony prosecution of protesters disrupting economic activity, for example by blocking traffic. Even if it fails - and the likelihood is it won't be passed - the bill exposes the regressive nature of this divisive presidency.

Meanwhile, Mr Trump is intent on creating his own reality: a truth-twisting, responsibility averse, fact-free space. One where the soundtrack is adulation from his personal cohort of fanboys and fangirls. Did you hear them cheer his boorishness at that news conference, when he dismissed CNN as "fake news"?

Presidents don't stuff news conferences with their devotees - that's message control reminiscent of George Orwell's '1984'. But in the Trump universe, you're either a Donaldite or the enemy. No middle ground.

Corruption allegations look almost inevitable during this presidency, with the potential for conflict of interest between his office and the Trump Organisation. As President Trump, he needs to show that none of his decisions is taken to benefit his companies. That requires clear blue sea between the Trump Organisation (or Trump Disorganisation, as 'The Economist' magazine calls it) and the president-elect.

The organisation has $3.5bn (€3.3bn) of assets and $600m (€564m) of debt, according to Bloomberg. Its interests range from property to hotels to golf courses, including Doonbeg, Co Clare. His brand name is plastered across a dizzying array of products, from chandeliers to bedding to bottled water to spectacles.

He even has brand-name aftershave: "Success by Trump captures the spirit of the driven man." Many of these assets would have no value without Mr Trump.

To fulfil the moral imperative (there is no legal imperative for a president under US law, oddly enough), he is currently moving all of his assets into one holding company, with sons Donald junior and Eric in charge. But to convince as a separation of business and government dealings, the Trump Organisation should be run by an independent board and management. This is not happening. His sons are not independent of him. Inevitably, he will be aware of their decisions.

However, polls indicate that many Americans are remarkably stoical about the possibility of Mr Trump taking actions to benefit his businesses. The electorate seems not to care.

Mr Trump's campaign tapped into the fears of poor, uneducated, often rural whites who responded to his calls for tighter immigration controls and to job promises. Yet he has hired a crew of right-wing billionaires to help him run the country, so it's difficult to see how the interests of the economically deprived will be served. (The top 1pc of earners belongs almost exclusively to the Republican Party).

He still hasn't released his tax returns, incidentally, and pledges on tax cuts and increases to military spending may be mutually exclusive.

That's an issue for the US, but an element in his speech earlier this week could pose a threat to Ireland. He said pharma companies were selling a lot in the US but making their products outside, and should be enticed back. Ireland take note.

We have 30,000 people working in that industry, and 60pc of pharma companies here are American. Expansions which might have happened here could be relocated to the US. Amazon met Mr Trump recently - and announced 100,000 jobs in the US. He has persuaded car companies to cancel planned expansion in Mexico in favour of the US, promising tax incentives.

Another concern is the question mark hovering over media freedom under a Trump presidency. In Ireland, the dominance of media ownership by Denis O'Brien causes anxiety in a number of quarters. In Mr Trump's case, it's not about ownership but about favour: he seeks to control what is written or said about him by withholding or granting access.

En route, this has introduced the public to a new word, 'kompromat': a dossier with compromising material. The CNN spat happened after it ran a story saying that both he and President Barack Obama were briefed about Russia allegedly having "compromising personal and financial information" on Mr Trump.

The president-elect dismissed it as a witch hunt, and refused to allow CNN's Jim Acosta to ask a question. When he persisted, as his job requires him to do, incoming White House press secretary Sean Spicer threatened to throw him out.

The media must fight this.

Mr Acosta's fellow reporters could have walked out, for example - instead, they shrugged and proceeded with their own questions.

Such behaviour from Mr Trump can't be unexpected - during his campaign, he banned the 'Des Moines Register', an Iowa morning daily, after it printed a critical editorial, and proceeded to impose further bans elsewhere when he disliked coverage.

As you reap, you sow - the US media has a duty to formulate a collective response. Not least because Mr Trump will wield enormous power and needs to be held to account.

Power minus responsibility would be an appalling sight to behold.

Already, public discourse is sinking far below civilised levels under his lead, with ad hominem attacks deemed acceptable - such as when he sneered at another reporter with a physical disability.

Meryl Streep eloquently called Mr Trump on that bullying act of mockery at the Golden Globes, and he responded by sneering at her.

Come what may, as of Friday, Mr Trump is US president. Incidentally, there was a search engine spike on 'how to impeach a president' as soon as he won the election.

Just saying.

Irish Independent

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