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President Revenge

“When he gets attacked, he’s going to hit back… He’s not going to sit back and be attacked by the liberal media, Hollywood, elites -- and when they hit him, he’s going to hit back.” — Sarah Huckabee Sanders, June 29, 2017

Among his critics, the usual response to the President’s Twitter posts is to say that they are undignified. Not rising to the level of the office of the presidency.

This is missing the point. Dignity in politics has been dead for quite some time now. The last shred of it, in my view, vanished in the second presidential debate, when Donald Trump brought in several women who have accused Bill Clinton of sexual assault. Others might counter another example, but it doesn’t matter. We can all agree that politics is a disgrace right now.

More to the point is the statement by Ms. Sanders, which obviously represents the opinion of the President himself. His wife repeated the sentiment in almost the exact same words on the exact same day. Hit the President, she said, and he will back "10 times harder."

Consider for a moment what this means. It means that the President’s political policy — in fact, the clearest political policy we have from him since “I will build a wall” — is revenge. His announced plan for handling political adversity isn’t to produce more thoughtful legislation, or to become a more magnetic leader. It isn’t to champion peace or ethics or equality or to lead bipartisan compromise. It’s to knock the crap out of anyone who tries to lay a glove on him.

Revenge. That’s it. That’s what his dialog with the press is all about. Don’t you dare say anything I don’t like or I will slap the skin off your face.

His defenders will probably use the more-sinned-against-than-sinning argument, but here is the problem with that: He is the President. Although his behavior in office suggests that he thinks the Oval Office is his own personal property and pleasure palace, this is not the case. There were 44 presidents before him, and there will be, God willing, many more presidents after.

He didn’t create the office. He didn’t win it in a contest. He didn’t earn it as the last man standing on a reality television show. The presidency is not his to do with as he sees fit. The powers of the presidency belong to the people. It is defined in the Constitution, the first three words of which are "We the people." A president acts on behalf of the people, exercising powers that the people confer upon him. Powers that can be revoked at any time. He no more owns the Oval Office than I owned the public park bench I sat on the other day.

The point is this — since the powers of the office are not his, and he has no right to use those resources to settle personal scores. His "hit and I will hit back harder" mantra is an illegitimate and illegal use of the office.

Indeed, why is he spending any time at all tweeting out personal attacks? The reason most past presidents have been restrained in their public remarks is that they understood this. While Barack Obama may have been upset by the birthers, he didn’t spend time on the clock raging about it. Ronald Reagan got pretty harsh treatment about his age and supposed memory lapses and he shrugged it off. There are certainly examples of presidents who have settled political scores on the job. But there is a big difference between political conflicts, which are part of the job, and personal conflicts, which are not. Chris Christie is about to be unemployed for exactly this reason.

When you are the President, you don’t get to use the office to get even for perceived insults, even if they are unfair. It isn’t about dignity. It is about using the resources of your office on behalf of the people, not on your own behalf, as if the Oval Office were a newly acquired wing of Trump Tower.

Some would defend him by saying Twitter is not a public resource. Bull. He has millions of followers because he is President. And when he says something outrageous, his press secretary and many other government officials find themselves having to defend what he said. As Ms. Sanders did, on the public dime. Or as the First Lady did, through her own spokesperson, another public employee.

If the President wants to settle personal scores, he needs to quit his job. Then he can attack whomever he wants. But if he wants to engage in personal attacks out of his office, he is abusing his powers.

So, you ask, is the President just supposed to take it on the chin? Actually, yes. A big part of being President is knowing when to keep your mouth shut. When you are President, you speak for the American people or you don’t speak at all. This isn’t too much to ask of someone who could, with unguarded words, trigger a war.

Revenge is not acceptable public policy.

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