Jules Witcover: Will U.S. remain beacon of freedom, opportunity?
WASHINGTON — With Congress in disarray under an erratic and chaotic president who deeply divides the country, and with its two major parties at loggerheads over immigration law, American politics may have hit a new low of pessimism, bitterness and despair.
Should upwards of a million “Dreamers” be deported because they were brought to this country as children by their undocumented immigrant parents? And at the same time, should that wall across our southern border be built at a cost of $80 billion to keep out millions more illegal Mexicans and others from Central America?
What about the melting-pot that supposedly made America great before Donald Trump got the idea of making it greater? Lady Liberty stands at the symbolic gate in New York Harbor still raising her torch as American politicians fight over continuing her relevance.
Trump managed to sum up the argument last week with his gutter slander of Haiti and others in Africa as “s—hole countries” whose minions still hope to come here. His words enraged not only American racial and ethnic minorities but also millions abroad. This nation’s admired reputation as a welcoming haven to all seeking a better and more peaceful life was soiled by Trump’s ugly and thoughtless slur.
In another of his self-aggrandizing boasts, he continues to insist not only that the border wall will be built to keep “raping” Mexicans out, but he will “make them pay for it,” though perhaps not directly. His White House chief of staff, John F. Kelly, suggested to members of Congress the other day that Mexico will somehow be obliged to ante up, one way or another.
What the president accomplished with his demeaning identification of unwanted immigrants was to make clear that the basis of his rejection was racial, refuting his own preposterous contention to reporters that he is “the least racist person you’ve ever interviewed.”
This is a country whose citizens pride themselves in being part of an open society of immigrants enriching itself through its racial and ethnic diversity. Trump’s latest remarks suggest he simply does not understand or realize what in America’s origins made her great, and has kept her so since the first Europeans arrived here more than five centuries ago.
As Trump embarks on his second year in the Oval Office, he boasts of his solitary legislative achievement, the highly controversial tax reform bill. But it and other words and actions have stirred deep apprehension over the quality of his leadership, and indeed over his fitness to hold the office at all.
He has made repeated efforts to persuade his countrymen and women that there has not been, and is not, any “collusion” between himself, his family or his presidential campaign or presidency and the Russians. Yet the investigation of Special Counsel Robert Mueller into possible involvement in the meddling in the 2016 election goes on.
Despite hopeful expectations within the Trump political circle that the inquiry will soon be completed, it continues methodically as more Trump campaign and administration figures are summoned to testify, either voluntarily or under subpoena with possible penalty of perjury for lying.
Not only the Mueller investigation but also similar inquiries of House and Senate Intelligence Committees are continuing to cast shadows of suspicion over the president, his 2016 campaign and his administration. Each group is generally seen as looking for evidence of obstruction of justice or lesser behavior that could imperil Trump’s presidency in the year or years ahead.
It could well be his firing of FBI Director James Comey for declining to let former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn off the hook in prosecution for lying about his involvement with the Russians, about which Flynn has already pleaded guilty.
More recently, speculation has grown over alleged money laundering in the campaign or for personal gain by former campaign manager Paul Manafort and a chief aide, to which they have pleaded not guilty.
Of greater importance, however, may be the damage inflicted by the whole matter on America’s image and reputation as a beacon to the rest of the world and as a refuge for seeking refuge, regardless of race or religious creed.
Jules Witcover’s latest book is “The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power,” published by Smithsonian Books.