After he won what he erroneously described as an Electoral College “landslide,” Donald Trump explained away his failure to attract the support of most voters by conjuring “millions of people who voted illegally” ‑ a massive fraud that somehow went completely undetected by election officials throughout the country.
A few days after taking office, Trump revived that fantastical claim, setting a pattern for the excuse-making and blame-shifting that would mark the first year of his presidency. Here are some of the highlights.
Smooth talk. A hasty, half-baked executive order that Trump issued on Jan. 27 immediately blocked entry by travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries, including legal permanent residents of the United States and people who had already received visas. Despite the ensuing chaos as hundreds of people were detained at airports around the country, Trump insisted that “we had a very smooth rollout of the travel ban,” blaming any problems on the judges who blocked its enforcement.
Who’s the boss? After the first travel ban got bogged down in the courts, Trump issued a revised version that was designed to be more legally defensible. Then he acted as if he had nothing to do with the executive order he had signed, tweeting, “The Justice Dept. should have stayed with the original Travel Ban, not the watered down, politically correct version.”
Secretarial oversight. “It is so pathetic that the Dems have still not approved my full Cabinet,” Trump complained on March 3. At that point, the White House still had not sent the Republican-controlled Senate the nomination paperwork for the two Cabinet jobs that remained vacant.
Tax dodge. After making an issue of his tax returns by repeatedly promising to release them but never actually doing so, Trump blamed the news media for creating a phony controversy. “Nobody cares about my tax return except for the reporters,” he said on May 4, contradicting polls finding that most Americans think he should make the information public.
Comey cover. When Trump fired FBI Director James Comey in May, the White House said he did so at the recommendation of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who argued that Comey deserved to be sacked because he had treated Hillary Clinton unfairly while investigating her email practices as secretary of state. Trump, who had long complained that Comey went too easy on Clinton, later admitted the Rosenstein memo was nothing more than window dressing for a decision he had already made.
“They lost Ryan.” After a Navy SEAL, William Ryan Owens, was killed during a raid in Yemen on Jan. 29, Trump made it clear that his role as commander in chief did not mean he bore any responsibility for the operation. “This was a mission that was started before I got here,” Trump said on Fox News a month later. “This was something that…they wanted to do. They came to see me, and they explained what they wanted to do, the generals, who are very respected….and they lost Ryan.”
“They have decision-making ability.” Even after Trump had been on the job more than eight months, he was not prepared to accept responsibility for military mishaps on his watch. He emphasized that he did “not specifically” authorize an October 4 mission in Niger that ended with four American soldiers dead, because “my generals and my military, they have decision-making ability.”
Careless condolence. When Trump called the widow of Sgt. La David Johnson, one of the soldiers killed in Niger, his awkward attempt at condolences, which included a statement to the effect that Johnson “knew what he signed up for,” offended her. Instead of apologizing, Trump blamed the controversy on a congresswoman who was present during the call and accurately reported the widow’s reaction.
Trump is hardly the first president to blame other people for his failures, but he does so more promiscuously and preposterously than any of his recent predecessors. I’d say these episodes reveal a man who seems constitutionally incapable of accepting responsibility, but even that sounds like an excuse.
Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason magazine.