The Trump Administration Has One Principle

There are no principles.

Republican president-elect Donald Trump and Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee, embrace during his election night event at the New York Hilton Midtown in the early morning hours of November 9, 2016 in New York City.
President-elect Donald Trump and GOP Chairman Reince Priebus embrace during Trump’s election night event at the New York Hilton Midtown on Nov. 9.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Donald Trump ran for president as a strongman who wouldn’t let rules get in his way. He explicitly advocated torture, plunder, targeting civilians for death, and banning Muslims from entering the United States. Now he’s the president-elect, and some people think the office will moderate him. But on matters of principle, there’s no sign that it has. Two weeks after his election, the men who will run his administration continue to reject moral and legal constraints. Like their boss, they never specify how far they’ll go—or where they’ll stop.

Last week, Carl Higbie, a Trump surrogate who represented a pro-Trump PAC during the campaign, argued on Fox News that a registry of Muslim noncitizens in the United States would be legal. As precedent, Higbie cited the treatment of Japanese noncitizens in the United States during World War II. Higbie said the internment of Japanese American citizens was wrong, and he suggested that a registry of Muslim visitors should be done on the basis of region or nationality. But he added that Trump should have wide latitude in fashioning such a program, on the grounds that noncitizens aren’t entitled to American constitutional protections. “The president needs to protect America first,” said Higbie. “And if that means having people that are not protected under our Constitution have some sort of registry … until we can identify the true threat and where it’s coming from, I support it.”

Higbie doesn’t speak for Trump. But on Sunday, he was backed up by Reince Priebus, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, who helped steer Trump’s campaign and will now serve as Trump’s chief of staff. Priebus, like Higbie, stipulated that screening of visitors or immigrants to the United States should be based on region or nationality, not religion. But he, too, resisted the call to draw boundaries. On Meet the Press, Chuck Todd asked Priebus if he could “rule out a registry for Muslims.” Priebus assured him, “We’re not going to have a registry based on a religion.” But beyond that, said Priebus, “I’m not going to rule out anything.”

An administration firmly committed to respecting other religions would rebuke anyone who smeared an entire faith, particularly if the smearer were under consideration for a senior post in the administration. But on This Week, when Martha Raddatz pressed Priebus about statements by incoming National Security Adviser Mike Flynn—that “fear of Muslims is rational” and that “Islam is a political ideology” that “hides behind being a religion”—Priebus defended these statements. Raddatz asked Priebus whether Flynn’s remarks were “in line with how President-elect Trump views Islam.” Priebus replied: “Well, I think so. I mean, look, phrasing can always be done differently. But clearly there are some aspects of that faith that are problematic.”

This is a big change from the Obama administration to the Trump administration: You’ll hear more sympathy for denunciations of Islam and less for the people being denounced. And while both Priebus and Higbie favor nationality rather than religion as the basis for restricting or monitoring immigrants, neither has said it would be unconstitutional to skip the proxy categories and target Muslims explicitly. As Higbie observed: “Trump has said, ‘Look, it’s a regional-based thing right now.’ ” In the future, who knows?

Priebus also declines to rule out waterboarding or other brutal interrogation measures. “Candidate Trump said he wanted to bring back waterboarding and worse,” Raddatz told Priebus. “His pick for CIA director, [Rep. Mike] Pompeo, has been a proponent of that as well. So will he ask his Republican-controlled Congress to pass a new law to get rid of the current law which bans waterboarding?” Instead of answering, Priebus effused about “the best and the brightest” who will lead the administration: “These folks, these smart people, along with President-elect Trump, will formulate that strategy, Martha. They will confer with generals in the field, and they will do everything they can to protect and secure our country here and abroad.” In other words: We’re keeping our options open.

Trump’s right-hand man, incoming Vice President Mike Pence, was blunter. On Face the Nation, he listened to a clip of Sen. John McCain declaring, “We will not waterboard. We will not torture.” John Dickerson asked Pence: “What’s your response to that?” Pence, the self-styled moralist, stiff-armed the senator’s scruples. “We’re going to have a president again who will never say what we will never do,” said Pence. “In President-elect Donald Trump, you have someone who believes that we shouldn’t be telling the enemy what our tactics or our strategies are.”

This is the cardinal rule of the Trump administration: There are no rules. Guidelines may be asserted for propaganda value, but they’re always expendable. It’s a regional-based thing right now. I’m not going to rule out anything. We’re going to have a president who will never say what we will never do.

Don’t cry later that these people didn’t warn you. They did.