It’s hard to keep up with President Donald Trump’s scandals. One day he’s covering up taxpayer-funded travel expenses for his family. The next, he’s stealing money for his border wall. The next, he’s being implicated by an accomplice in the extortion of Ukraine. But one horror is right out in the open: Trump is a remorseless advocate of crimes against humanity. His latest threats against Iran, Iraq, and Syria are a reminder that he’s as ruthless as any foreign dictator. He’s just more constrained.
Trump admires tyrants and defends their atrocities. He has excused North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un’s mass executions (“Yeah, but so have a lot of other people”) and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s murders of journalists and dissidents (“At least he’s a leader”). As a presidential candidate, Trump shrugged off the gravity of using chemical weapons. “Saddam Hussein throws a little gas, everyone goes crazy,” he joked.
At home, Trump has encouraged religious persecution and political violence. He called for a ban on Muslims entering the United States (he later imposed a modified version of the ban) and for collective punishment of Muslims who live here. As a candidate, Trump urged his supporters to “knock the crap out of” protesters. In 2018, at a political rally, he praised a Republican congressman for criminally assaulting a reporter. “Any guy that can do a body slam,” said Trump, “he’s my guy.”
Trump has long advocated war crimes. He has endorsed torture not just for information, but because our enemies “deserve it.” As a candidate, he proposed that for the sake of “retribution,” the United States should “take out” the families of terrorists. Wives and children were legitimate targets, he argued, because by killing them, we could deter terrorists who “care more about their families than they care about themselves.” Two months ago, he intervened in legal and military proceedings to thwart punishment of three American servicemen who had been indicted for or convicted of atrocities. Then he deployed the men in his reelection campaign.
Trump agrees with past presidents that we and our terrorist adversaries have played by “two [different] sets of rules.” But unlike his predecessors, he takes no pride in America’s higher standards. He sees them as a needless impediment, defended by “weak” and “stupid” people. In 2016, Trump complained that ISIS was “cutting off the heads of Christians and drowning them in cages, and yet we are too politically correct to respond in kind.” Torture laws should be relaxed, he argued, “so that we can better compete with a vicious group of animals.” “You have to play the game the way they’re playing the game,” he explained.
Some presidents have caused pain through recklessness or indifference. Trump inflicts pain on purpose. To deter migration from Latin America, his administration separated migrant parents from their children. Trump argued that the separation was a “disincentive.” Too many people, he explained, were “coming up because they’re not going to be separated from their children.” Later, he used the same sadistic logic to force a migration in Syria. He boasted that by facilitating Turkey’s invasion of that country, he had precipitated the “pain and suffering” necessary to compel Syrian Kurds “to leave.”
In Africa and the Middle East, Trump proudly advocates plunder. In October, he said the United States should have taken Iraq’s oil to make sure we were “paid back” for the costs of our occupation of that country. In Syria, he stationed U.S. forces at oil fields, explaining that he viewed those fields as a revenue stream. (“$45 million a month? Keep the oil.”) He proposed a business arrangement to exploit Syria’s oil: “What I intend to do, perhaps, is make a deal with an ExxonMobil or one of our great companies to go in there and do it properly.” Last Friday, in a Fox News interview, the president repeated that he cared only about the oil. “I left troops to take the oil,” he told Laura Ingraham. “The only troops I have are taking the oil.”
Two weeks ago, the United States killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani in a drone strike.
To deter retaliation, Trump threatened to bomb Iran’s cultural sites—an explicit war crime. “If Iran strikes any Americans, or American assets,” he tweeted, “we have targeted 52 Iranian sites … some at a very high level & important to Iran & the Iranian culture, and those targets, and Iran itself, WILL BE HIT VERY FAST AND VERY HARD.” In an exchange with reporters, Trump dismissed legal objections to his threat. “They’re allowed to kill our people. They’re allowed to torture and maim our people,” he fumed. “And we’re not allowed to touch their cultural site? It doesn’t work that way.”
Iraq’s Parliament, furious that Trump had killed Soleimani on its soil and without its consent, voted to expel American troops. But Trump refused to comply unless Iraq paid ransom. “We have a very extraordinarily expensive air base that’s there,” he told reporters. “We’re not leaving unless they pay us back for it.” He threatened to “charge them [the Iraqis] sanctions like they’ve never seen before.” Later, Trump told Ingraham that Iraq would also “have to pay us for embassies.” When she asked him how he planned to extract the payment, Trump replied, “We have $35 billion of their money right now sitting in an account. And I think they’ll agree to pay. … Otherwise, we’ll stay there.”
Trump views the military as a mercenary force he can send around the world for hire. A Very Stable Genius, the new book by Philip Rucker and Carol Leonnig of the Washington Post, describes a White House meeting at which Trump said American troop deployments should yield a profit. Trump told Ingraham he’s doing exactly that: “We’re sending more [troops] to Saudi Arabia, and Saudi Arabia’s paying us for it.” He recounted his business pitch to the Saudis: “You want more troops? I’m going to send them to you, but you’ve got to pay us.” And he proudly reported that the Saudis had accepted the deal. “They’re paying us,” he told Ingraham. “They’ve already deposited $1 billion in the bank.”
Trump’s amorality—his complete indifference to rules against theft, abuse, exploitation, and killing—is a public relations problem for his apologists. They struggle to cover it up. First they softened his Muslim ban to a “travel ban” on certain majority-Muslim countries. Then they concocted non-sadistic rationales for his family-separation policy. Last week, after Trump threatened Iran’s cultural sites, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo assured the public that Trump would obey the law. Pompeo also whitewashed Trump’s threats against Iraq, insisting that American troops were in that country to protect its “sovereignty.” Mark Esper, the secretary of defense, claimed that when Trump spoke of Saudi Arabia paying for U.S. troop deployments, “What the president is referring to is burden sharing.”
But Trump refuses to be silenced. Hours after Pompeo promised that the president wouldn’t target Iran’s cultural sites, Trump repeated that he would. Later, Trump stiff-armed Ingraham’s attempts to clean up his language about stealing Syrian oil. “I left troops to take the oil,” he told her. She tried to correct him: “We’re not taking the oil. They’re protecting the facilities.” Trump shrugged off this reformulation. “Well, maybe we will, maybe we won’t,” he said. “Maybe we should take it. But we have the oil.”
Having an evil president doesn’t make the United States evil. We have a lot to be proud of: a culture of freedom, a strong constitution, vigorous courts, democratic accountability, and laws that protect minorities and human rights. On balance, we’ve been a force for good in the world. But Trump’s election and his persistent approval from more than 40 percent of Americans are a reminder that nothing in our national character protects us from becoming a rapacious, authoritarian country. What protects us are institutions that stop us from doing our worst.
Thanks to Magda Werkmeister and Daijing Xu for research assistance.