By Eric Black | 08/28/17
Even amid the chaos and lunacy of the Trump moment, former Senator, former Vice President, lifelong Minnesotan Walter Mondale is usually an oasis of calm analysis and abiding confidence in the American experiment.
So I was a bit alarmed last week to discover, after Trump’s diatribe in Phoenix — which moved me from “horrified” to “scared” about where Trumpism heading – that Mondale felt the same. We had spoken briefly by phone and commiserated about the speech, and he told me he was reeling from it, that watching it was “one of the worst hours of my life.”
Note to Trump: When you are alarming even Walter Mondale, you need to tone it down and figure out how to do this very big, hard job that you somehow got yourself hired to do. Please.
I have always benefited from Mondale’s perspective, and I asked him the next day if we could have an on-the-record interview about how he sees Trump, Trumpism and the Trump moment. The quotes below are lightly edited for clarity and flow.
‘Public officers have to be confronted with the truth’
I began by asking him what he found so disturbing about Trump’s Phoenix speech.
To just think that our great country has sunk to this level. After reading your piece, I thought that what you wrote was being felt and expressed and repeated all over the country. That speech didn’t end when he finished it. It’s been rattling around in people’s minds and still is.
When I pointed out that Trump had given a much calmer more rational-seeming speech the following day, he replied:
Yes, true. But he didn’t say in the second speech: ‘Look, I gave a bad speech yesterday. It wasn’t what I meant. I ask you to forget that speech and let’s gather together as a country.’ That would have been all right.
But instead, he leaves those two conflicting versions out there of what he’s thinking, and people are bound to be influenced by it. And I think the first speech is what he means.
The second speech, he’s reading it off the teleprompter and in a way that leaves it unclear whether he believes what he is saying or even whether he read it before he gave it.
A leader has to be held responsible for the result of what he says. The result of what he’s been saying is that our whole nation believes that he was supporting white extremism. Didn’t have anything bad to say about Nazis. That sort of thing. If he didn’t mean it, he should have corrected it in a way that makes it clear what he means. But that isn’t what happened.
[Trump] has an appalling record for using lies or near lies to draw outrageous conclusions and that’s what he did there. We can’t accept that. This nation has to be based on truth and facts. And our public officers have got to be measured against a standard of what’s necessary for a healthy America.
Mondale went to the Senate during the administration of Lyndon Johnson and has known all recent presidents (Trump excluded), especially Jimmy Carter, of course, whom Mondale served under as vice president. I asked him how the current incumbent was different from the others he has known. His reply was about the importance of truth and freedom of the press:
Every previous president I’ve known has had the qualities of intelligence, curiosity, ability to speak clearly and be understood. And adherence to truthfulness.
Sure, sometimes they wiggle on the edges [of truthfulness], but over these years, we expected to hear the facts from our presidents, even if we might disagree with how they interpret them.
Ronald Reagan was my opponent [Mondale ran against Reagan in 1984]. But most of the time when he addressed the nation, he was still trying to deal with the truth as he saw it, even though I often disagreed with where he wanted to lead the nation.
Jimmy Carter sure tried to do it, to tell the truth as he saw it. And even those who disagreed would say that we were trying to do that. I was a senator and knew the rest of the senators, agreed with some more than others, but we believed that we could discuss things based on facts that stood up on a fundamental level of truth. That’s what I have come to expect from our leaders.
If we ever break that fundamental commitment, so that dishonesty and the rest are acceptable, I really worry about where we go next.
We have a president who doesn’t care about the facts. That’s new and very dangerous. Shocking, I would say.
And freedom of the press is a fundamental constitutional right in America. That right is a very sacred and essential part of the American system. The reason for that — and I was in public life for 50 years — is that our public officers have to be confronted with the truth, they have to know what the truth is, and their comments are part of the public process.
‘I don’t want to win this way’
I asked Mondale how he assesses President Trump’s grasp of his duties, and how the role of a president fits into the larger constitutional picture, and whether Trump was able to do the things necessary to advance his agenda, such as working with the Congress. His answer started with a one word sentence.
According to the papers, he and the majority leader barely speak. He goes to a state with two prominent senators [referring to the Phoenix speech and Trump’s treatment during it of Republican Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake] and he won’t say their names. And they don’t show up.
He’s in a fight with several [Republican] members of the Congress and there’s no sense of direction at all. I think a lot of [Republicans] feel that he’s hurting them. Where’s our budget? The basic things you need to get the elements of governance in place. Never seen anything even close to this before.”
He’s smashing any coherent argument about what his own party stands for. It’s practically impossible to get anything done.
… When I was vice president, I spent a lot of my time up on [Capitol] Hill, sitting with members of Congress and explaining the things we wanted to do. The president personally did so, and I too, did a lot of work with people on the Hill. If you want to get anything substantial done you’ve gotta spend months, maybe years in some areas, to make it happen.
When [Pres. Trump] attacked the Republican leadership the other day and demanded that they pass all these things right now, all history should tell him that that’s not the way it works. His idea is that government should do what he tells it to do, but that’s not the way it works.
I asked Mondale whether found it somewhat of a relief — considering some of the things that candidate Trump promised to do — that he wasn’t actually getting much of it done.
I don’t want to win this way. I’d rather have an honest fight between the adversaries, under the rules on both sides, and see how it comes out.
‘You’re right to be scared’
I asked whether Mondale had any thoughts about how this story ends. Does he take seriously the idea that Trump could be impeached or removed under the 25th Amendment (which requires a finding the president is so impaired to be unable to continue in office)?
I see more and more people are suggesting that he may be unstable, he maybe can’t perform the duties of his office. My guess is that we’re a long way from seeing anything like that happen. What might happen is that Trump might just quit.
I don’t know the man, so I shouldn’t pretend to know what he might do. But he’s been quoted as saying this job is so tough that people are asking him why he puts up with it. He’s been quoted as saying that the White house is a dump. And he looks like a very lonesome, unsettled man. He’s not close to the party. He’s not close to the Congress. I’m not predicting it, but what might happen is he’ll just quit and go home.
As for impeachment, while Republicans control both chambers, the pressure against that is just too difficult. Time could change that.
I lived through the Nixon period. A couple of years out from the impeachment period, you never heard a word about it. But eventually you started hearing voices from Republicans, like Barry Goldwater, telling him he’d better just go home. And he resigned. But Nixon was a brilliant man.
I said that I hadn’t been able to figure out what Trumpian qualities that I would call “brilliant.” Mondale interjected:
I’ll answer your question. You can’t find it, because it’s not there. I follow this guy as closely as I can and nothing rings true. He’s got some people there, mostly generals, who are maybe stable and strong that seem to be providing some stability but, boy, the rest of it is just a mess.
How bad could things get? I asked Mondale whether, in the aftermath of the Phoenix speech, he had noted former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper’s statement on CNN after the Phoenix speech that he, Clapper, who is also a retired Air Force lieutenant general, was concerned about the possibility that Trump might authorize a nuclear attack somewhere in the world. Mondale said he had seen Clapper’s statement.
[Clapper] has been at the very top of security structure. He said he was worried about that.
When Nixon was starting to lose it, some of the key national security people in his administration organized a deal to block him from doing anything crazy. I don’t have any idea whether any of those conversations are going now, but my guess is, If he keeps this up, security officials in his administration might have an informal understanding about getting together if there’s a crisis and talk things over.
To use nukes is not just another form of warfare. It’s existential. It can wipe out parts of the earth. It’s a cataclysmic event. It’s not just okay to do. And during some of the talk around North Korea, I thought there was some loose talk there about using nukes.
I reminded Mondale that Clapper was particularly concerned because the nature of the system is to be able, in a crisis, to quickly launch missiles once the president has ordered that it be done. (Mondale, by the way, as vice president, had access to the nuclear codes on a standby basis, in case something should happen to the president.) He replied:
Yes, with the urgency of nuclear weapons, if a disaster should ever happen, it’s all the more important for a president to be able to act swiftly. So, yes, I think the rules provide now, to launch very soon after the president gives the order. But, if you’ve got a crazy president, I’ve got to assume that they will do whatever they can to slow things down.
I asked whether Mondale recalled that during the campaign, Trump had wondered aloud what was the point of having nukes if you can’t ever use them. I said that had kept me awake at night.
And now he’s president and you still can’t sleep. And now you’d like to get under the bed. You’re right to be scared. You’ve gotta be scared. I don’t know why you wouldn’t be scared.
‘I don’t think … Democrats are blameless’
Trump, whose conduct in office has moved even Mondale to scared, did, nonetheless win the support of 63 million voters. He did win the election, according to our system. And so I asked Mondale what this fact did to his underlying confidence in the American system and the American electorate’s ability to make choices about whom to trust with the power to lead the country.
I still have utter belief in that. It’s the only system that works. I think a bad mistake was made by millions of voters this last time in voting for him. But back when they voted for him, they could tell themselves that he doesn’t really mean all those things he says, that he’ll settle down and be presidential, that it’ll straighten out and be stable.
If you read the polls now, you hear that millions of people who voted for Trump are thinking they might have made a mistake. And those numbers go up every week. The number of Trump supporters is dropping to levels that you couldn’t have imagined so early in his term. I don’t know where it’s gonna go. More and more Republicans say they don’t like him, I read that he’s troubled by it. But about 70 percent of Republicans still say they support him.
There’s also a lot of disappointment in Hillary. I know Hillary. I love her. We’re dear friends. But she was not a very effective candidate. She seemed too centered on the bureaucracy of the campaign. So I don’t think that we Democrats are blameless in this.
In any event, I don’t think we should be condemning the public. This is the same public that voted for Obama twice. I don’t think they’re bigots. I think that there was a lot of uncertainty and doubt among Americans, especially white Americans, some of whom feel they’ve been left behind.
I know what I did. I voted for Hillary. That’s what I did. And Minnesota did, by a narrow margin, but we did it.
A fundamental restructuring of the American system?
At this point, I did confess that my confidence in the electorate was badly shaken. I wouldn’t say that I had an idealized view of how smart and informed and thoughtful an average member of the electorate might be. But I had at least a sentimental attachment to the idea embodied in the old Frank Capra films. That you can dazzle people and snow people and get away with some lying to the people within certain boundaries, but that if you go too far, the electorate wakes up and realizes that its being lied to.
But last year was kind of a blow to that belief. I saw people who were constantly being lied to by Trump, about who he was and what he has done in his life and what he was going to do for the country. But he had a knack for selling them lies and playing on bad instincts, and mobilizing their grievances and encouraging them to ignore anything positive going on in their lives or in the country.
And he activated the worst instincts in a lot of people. He got them to let down their common sense and accept a lot of lies, that they should have seen were lies, but that they accepted because they liked the way it felt, to maximize their grudges and minimize their blessings.
The Capraesque moment when they wake up and realize they’re being swindled never arrived. At the risk of sounding like a condescending jerk, they let themselves and their country down by electing an egomaniacal fraud.
Yet Mondale wouldn’t give an inch in his belief in the collective wisdom of the people — or perhaps it was the belief that anything that isn’t based on the consent of the governed, however its obtained, will always be worse than whatever is based on it. He wasn’t ready to quit on the basic system, nor the belief in the wisdom of regular people, at least in the long run, even if they just made a big mistake.
Yes, it is very troubling. But most Americans don’t agree with his [Trump’s] description of the problem. There have always been some people who would go off in their own hard-line, sticking with their imperiled leader long after it’s reasonable to go elsewhere. That is not new in American public life.
But this guy, in what he does and how he does it, and how he disregards the truth — his utter ignorance about what powers and stature a president has and how a president should conduct himself. And lacking respect for crucial, sacred elements of the American system.
Checks and balances, for example. Power is distributed. You, as president, have some power. In fact you’re very powerful. But you’re not a dictator here. You don’t get to run the country however you see fit. There are other powers that have to be respected. Members of Congress, for example, have a lot of power. You may be able to convince them to do certain things but if you can’t convince them, they don’t have to go along with you, even the if you are the president.
The press. What would we do if we didn’t have a free press reporting, digging, analyzing, questioning, putting our public leaders to the test? Where would we be without that? It sure scares me.
It is potentially tragic, if these tendencies that we see turn out to be a fundamental restructuring of the American system.
Lastly, I asked Mondale what he made of the special independent counsel investigation of Trump, led by former FBI Director Robert Mueller, starting with possible collusion with Russia during the election and possibly spreading into other areas:
I have a high regard for Mueller. He’s a highly respected bipartisan law enforcement leader with a rich background of superb administration of his legal responsibilities. I think we’re very fortunate that this tough question of what may or may not have happened between Trump and the Russians will be handled by a person of his stature.
I don’t know what they’re finding. I look at the degree and intensity of their work and the way Trump seems to be so unsettled about this issue. If it were minor or inconsequential he wouldn’t keep bringing it up. But he does [bring it up] all the time. He’s very unhappy with senators because he thinks they should be doing more to help him with Mueller. So where do you go when you see an intense preoccupation by him about the risks of this effort?
He clearly has an idea that the president is in charge of everything. It’s not true, but he’s acting on that misinformation all the time.
Veteran journalist Eric Black writes Eric Black Ink for MinnPost. His latest award is from the Society of Professional Journalists, which in May 2017 announced he’d won the national Sigma Delta Chi Award for online column writing.