Statement of Senator Patrick Leahy on President Trump, the Press, and Putin

President Trump’s Executive Order banning Muslims from 7 countries, none of which was a source of terrorists who have carried out attacks in this country, was un-American, arbitrary, inhumane, and it will likely spur an increase in violence targeting Americans.  I will have plenty more to say about it and other reckless actions by this White House in the days and weeks ahead. 

In the meantime, I want to say a few words about the bizarre back and forth between the Trump Administration and the news media regarding attendance at the inauguration and who is telling the truth and who is not. 

One might think that with all that is happening in the country and the world, and the rush by the President to sign Executive Orders that would dramatically affect the rights, and the priorities, of millions of Americans, the question of how many people were at the inauguration would not generate such controversy.  But it turns out that this is about much more than that, as it goes to the heart of the role of a free press in this country and whether the American people can have confidence that the President is telling the truth. 

We already knew that candidate and now President Trump is prone to bragging and making wildly unrealistic promises and inaccurate claims, many of which he later disavows.  He frequently ignores or misstates basic facts and refuses to correct those falsehoods.  So it was no surprise when he predicted that the crowd at his inauguration would be “an unbelievable, perhaps record-setting turnout.” 

It was also no surprise, as usually happens at inaugurations and large public demonstrations, that high elevation photographs were used to estimate the number of participants.  To anyone who attended both the Obama and Trump inaugurations it was obvious that the number of people at President Obama’s inauguration was far larger than at President Trump’s inauguration, as photographs clearly showed. 

President Trump, however, insisted the photographs were fabricated.  The morning after the inauguration he said he could see from the stage on the West Front of the Capitol that there were “a million” or “a million and a half” people on the Mall.  When reports clearly showed only a fraction of that, he accused news organizations of lying, calling them “among the most dishonest human beings on Earth,” and warned that they would regret it. 

Later that day the President’s spokesman, Sean Spicer, also accused the press of lying.  He said the photographs were deceptive, and he insisted that President Trump’s inauguration was “the most watched ever.”  That, of course, was a clever distortion of what the President actually said.  President Trump was unmistakably talking about the number of people who were actually present on the Mall when he was sworn in, which seems to matter more to him than it does to anyone else.  Mr. Spicer expanded that number by an indeterminable amount to include anyone who had watched anywhere in the world on a cell phone, television, or other electronic device.

A day later, Mr. Spicer berated the press for being unfair by reporting on this.  Perhaps he had forgotten that it was President Trump who initiated the whole thing by publicly promising something that did not happen, and then falsely accusing the press of lying, as did Mr. Spicer, after being proven wrong. 

Mr. Spicer also may have forgotten that shortly after President Obama was inaugurated, the Senate Majority Leader announced that the Republicans’ number one priority was to prevent him from being elected to a second term.  Failing that, they spent eight years trying to obstruct, sabotage, and discredit everything President Obama tried to do.  During much of that time, Donald Trump carried on an utterly false campaign accusing President Obama of lying about his birthplace. 

Two days later, and without citing any evidence – because no evidence exists – President Trump resurrected his false claim that that he lost the popular vote because 3 to 5 million “illegal immigrants” voted.  Mr. Spicer echoed this same claim, citing unnamed “studies.”  This, of course, is patently false and absurd, but one can assume that it will be repeated by Republicans to justify more onerous, discriminatory voter suppression voting requirements which have been a crusade of theirs, particularly in areas with large minority populations that traditionally vote Democratic.

To add insult to injury, Kellyanne Conway, the President’s Counselor, announced that President Trump will not be releasing his tax returns.  This after candidate Trump repeatedly promised to do so once a routine audit is completed, and he even said he looked forward to doing that.  Ms. Conway – who also came up with the phrase “alternative facts” – claimed that the fact that Mr. Trump won the election is proof that no one cared about his tax returns. 

There are at least two big problems with that.  First, it is the only way the American people can know what President Trump’s assets are, what conflicts of interest may exist, whether he has been telling the truth about what he owns, and whether he is working for the American people or to enrich himself and his family.  The polls indicate that today between 60 and 74 percent of the American people want President Trump to release his tax returns, including 49 percent of his own supporters.   

A few days later, Stephen Bannon, the White House strategist, said the media should “keep its mouth shut and just listen for a while”.  Ignoring that democracy is impossible without a free press, Bannon called the media the “opposition party . . . that [does not] understand this country”.  

There is an even more disturbing aspect to this.  Besides denigrating the press, candidate and now President Trump has attacked Muslims, the CIA, Mexico, Meryl Streep, the cast of “Hamilton,” Congressman John Lewis, politicians, undocumented migrants, or whoever else he thinks of at any particular moment, for meddling in the election or for any other reason, with one glaring exception:  Vladimir Putin, one of the world’s worst gangsters.

Despite credible evidence that the Russian Government, at Putin’s direction, actively sought to sway the outcome of the U.S. election in favor of Donald Trump, candidate and now President Trump has repeatedly expressed admiration for Mr. Putin. 

Think about what this means.  The unanimous conclusion of U.S. intelligence agencies is that Vladimir Putin, a former KGB agent, ordered a cyberattack on our electoral system in favor of one candidate over another.  Russia’s goals “were to undermine public faith in the U.S. democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency.”

Can you imagine what the response would be from the Republican leadership if the tables were turned?  They would have threatened to shut down the government until a new election was held.  And if that failed, they would have demanded that an independent commission be established to investigate Russia’s cyberattacks.  Such a commission is, in fact, what Senator Durbin, I and others have called for and what the Republican leaders, who should care no less about the integrity of our democracy, have summarily rejected. 

What was candidate and President Trump’s response to Russia’s acts to undermine our democracy?  He continued to praise Vladimir Putin.  

This should concern every American, because for years Vladimir Putin has engaged in a systematic campaign to weaken the alliances and norms that the United States and our democratic allies have painstakingly built over the course of more than seven decades, for our national security and for global stability.  Putin would like nothing more than to discredit our democracy, weaken NATO, fracture the European Union, and in doing so deflect criticism at home and abroad of the repression and rampant corruption that have become the hallmarks of his iron-fisted rule.

While Mr. Spicer blithely spoke of the United States and Russia teaming up against ISIS, Russia has used its military power in Syria for one overriding purpose: to ensure the survival of Bashar al Assad’s government, one of Russia’s staunchest and most brutal allies.

We have learned that President Trump is also an admirer of Egyptian President al-Sisi and Philippine President Duterte, two populist leaders who have abused their authority to silence their critics and trample on the rights of their citizens.  If allying ourselves with the likes of Presidents Putin, al Sisi, and Duterte, bringing back black CIA detention sites and so-called “enhanced interrogation” – commonly known as torture – and declaring entire nationalities of men, women and children fleeing war and devastation as ineligible for resettlement in this country is what the future looks like, we should think long and hard about what it will mean for our reputation as the oldest democracy and leader of the free world.

Mr. President, I have made a career of working across the aisle, and with Republican and Democratic presidents, on legislation to help solve the country’s problems.  I hope to be able to continue doing so, as I learned early on that bipartisanship is the only way the Congress can succeed.  I have voted to confirm several of President Trump’s Cabinet nominees.  I expect to vote for others, and there are several I expect to vote against. 

I have never believed that we should keep doing things a certain way just because it is the way we have always done them, or that the government cannot be made more efficient and more accountable to the people.  Of course it can be. 

But in times like this, each of us should rededicate ourselves to defending the things that made this country great in the first place, because ours is a great country, and a good country.   I believe that above all it was, and must continue to be, the integrity of our democratic system, our free, fair and transparent elections and the checks and balances of our three equal branches of government bolstered by a free press, and our commitment to uphold the fundamental rights of all Americans. 

Donald Trump was not elected President to weaken any of that, and we in Congress have a responsibility to do our best to prevent it from happening. 

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