Sen. Ben Cardin used one of the oldest saws in politics to lay out an imperative for the coming Trump era. “It cannot be business as usual,” Cardin said.
He was talking primarily about Russia, but his statement stands on its own. Under the 45th president, it cannot be business as usual for the media, for Congress or for any citizen who values our liberties. We are in for a very dangerous national ride.
Cardin, a Maryland Democrat who is one of the least partisan voices in Congress, spoke at the opening of Senate hearings on Trump’s nomination of Rex Tillerson — a man with close ties to Vladimir Putin — for secretary of state. The hearing began against the backdrop of shocking allegations that Russian intelligence services have compromising material on Trump’s personal life and finances.
Let it be said that the word “allegations” is key. A lot of what has been released has not been verified. It could turn out to be a mixture of truth and enough that’s not true to allow Trump to push it all aside, as he did at his news conference on Wednesday. “It’s all fake news,” he said. “It’s phony stuff. It didn’t happen.”
But given Trump’s relentless public praise for Putin and the derision he has directed at those who mistrust Russia and its intentions, the accusations need to be dealt with seriously and investigated meticulously. If we have learned nothing else, we know the new standard for presidential statements must be: “Mistrust and verify.”
And so much else in Trump’s often nasty encounter with reporters was, quite simply, petrifying. He slid toward admitting the hacking of the Democratic National Committee was Russia’s work — “I think it was Russia.” But he
laid more blame on the Democrats for doing “a very poor job” of defending themselves against hacking than he did on Russia, and praised the hackers for the fruits of their theft: “Look at what was learned from that hacking.”
And he continued to hug Putin close. “If Putin likes Donald Trump,” he said, “I consider that an asset, not a liability.”
So although it was not his intention, Trump brought home the importance of the central forward-looking theme of President Obama’s moving farewell address in Chicago on Tuesday night. At heart, Obama’s speech was a warning and a plea: an alert about the dangers our democracy confronts, and a call for Americans to be active and vigilant in protecting our liberties.
“Our Constitution is a remarkable, beautiful gift,” Obama declared. “But it’s really just a piece of parchment. It has no power on its own. We, the people, give it power. We, the people, give it meaning — with our participation, and with the choices that we make and the alliances that we forge.
“Whether or not we stand up for our freedoms, whether or not we respect and enforce the rule of law, that’s up to us,” he continued. “America is no fragile thing. But the gains of our long journey to freedom are not assured.”
That last line was ominous, and so were Obama’s other warnings — that “Democracy can buckle when it gives in to fear.”
And Obama presented the country with this marching order: “We must guard against a weakening of the values that make us who we are.”
Obama never mentioned Trump by name. Alas for us all, he didn’t have to.