Donald Trump’s train wreck

Hisham Melhem
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Donald Trump’s train slicing through time at breakneck speed was finally derailed after 18 dizzying months of a wild ride, when the supposedly unstoppable force met the only immovable object in its path; the American judicial system, at the heart of which the constitution, one of the most important political documents in history. The custodians of the constitution who wear black robes are the only people who scare trump and are not afraid of him. The decision by the Federal Appeals Court of the Ninth Circuit in California rejecting president Trump’s bid to re-impose his travel ban on refugees and visitors from seven majority Muslim states, goes much beyond the case at hand, dealing a blow to a president who wants to act like an autocrat not subjected to constitutional checks and accountability. The three-judge panel unanimously rejected the government’s claim that the “president’s decisions about immigration policy, particularly when motivated by national security concerns are unreviewable, even if those actions potentially contravene constitutional rights and protections”. The ruling continues’ “there is no precedent to support this claimed unreviewability, which runs contrary to the fundamental structure of our constitutional democracy. And then the sweeping blow to Trump’s lèse–majesté kind of behavior reminding him that no one is above the constitution “It is beyond question, that the federal judiciary retains the authority to adjudicate constitutional challenges to executive action”.

Much has been written about the other aspects of the case, such as the government’s failure to show “evidence” that anyone from the suspect countries –Iraq, Syria, Iran, Libya, Yemen Somalia and Sudan – had been involved in conducting terrorist attacks in the U.S. in recent years. And speculations continue to swirl regarding the options the president and his team will peruse to prevail, ranging from dragging the case to the Supreme Court, or going back to the drawing board to craft another executive order after vetting it with serious lawyers. But to me the most important aspect in this confrontation was that the threat Trump represented to the constitution, as shown by his actions, attitudes, schemes ,words and his tendency to work in the dark with few co-conspirators, has been thwarted at least for now.


When President Trump began governing by issuing decrees (Executive Orders, EO) without proper legal vetting and without analyzing their impact, few believed that the Republican congress which was with few exceptions thoroughly intimidated, would check Trump’s political orgy. Some Republican leaders like Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell and speaker of the House of Representatives Paul Ryan are willing to tolerate the president’s offenses as long as they don’t interfere with the implementation of their domestic agenda; gutting the Affordable Care Act, (Obamacare) cutting taxes, and rolling back regulations. With congress unwilling or unable to check the excesses of the president, the judiciary and the media were seen as the only forces capable of reigning in Trump’s runaway train. Of course the president knows that , hence his relentless campaign to delegitimize the judiciary and to undermine the media’s credibility by claiming that every objective news story, including opinion polls that are not to his liking as “fake news”. In Trump’s nation, unpleasant facts should be replaced by “alternative facts”.

A week from hell

President Trump continued to trample upon the principle of the separation of powers and elevated his aggressive attacks on the judiciary to the point of disparaging the whole court system as “political”. He declared the deliberation between the three panel judges on the United States Court of Appeal for the Ninth Circuit and his own Justice Department lawyers as “disgraceful” even before a ruling was issued. And once again Trump blamed the judiciary for putting the security of the country “at risk”. This scorched earth attack on the judiciary embarrassed and forced his own nominee for the Supreme Court judge Neil Gorsuch to express his dismay over these attacks on the “brothers or sisters of the robe” as he told Republican Senator Ben Sasse. In his private discussions with the Senators who will be voting on his nomination he called Trump’s criticism of independent judges as “demoralizing” and “disheartening”. He confirmed that he made these comments through a spokesperson, and he allowed the senators to inform the media of his views, and yet President Trump continued to claim that the senators misquoted Judge Gorsuch on purpose.

Trump began his third week with a bizarre and gratuitous assault on the media, accusing it of deliberately minimizing coverage of the threat posed by the Islamic State (ISIS), claiming that major terror attacks in the U.S. and Europe were not covered sufficiently, without offering any evidence. The president made these claims during his first visit to the headquarters for U.S. Central Command. After he mentioned the attacks in Paris and Nice, he said “it's gotten to a point where it's not even being reported. And in many cases, the very, very dishonest press doesn't want to report it. They have their reasons and you understand that." Later on the White House issued a list of 78 terrorist attacks saying that they were underreported. It turned out that there was saturation coverage of the major attacks.

President Trump continued to trample upon the principle of the separation of powers and elevated his aggressive attacks on the judiciary to the point of disparaging the whole court system as “political”.

Hisham Melhem

On Tuesday, Trump continued his assault on facts telling a group from the National Sheriffs Association “the murder rate in our country is the highest it’s been in 47 years.” And once again he blamed the news media for not highlighting this fact. Except that the president’s facts” were not true, and the crime rate is almost at its lowest point in 35 years. In the 1970s and 1980s the crime rate was almost 10% per 100,000 residents, today it is, 4.9 homicides per 100,000 residents.

On Wednesday president Trump lashed out at Nordstrom, the well-known department store chain for dropping his daughter Ivanka’s clothing and accessories line, violating federal conflict-of-interest laws and once again blurring the lines between his family’s businesses and his duties as president. In a morning tweet, the president acted as if his daughter is a helpless juvenile under attack; “My daughter Ivanka has been treated so unfairly by @Nordstrom. She is a great person -- always pushing me to do the right thing! Terrible!” Later the episode became political vaudeville when the White House spokesperson Sean Spicer claimed during the official daily briefing that Nordstrom attacked Ivanka and president Trump “has every right to stand up for his family and applaud their business activities, their success”. The president’s reaction was chilling, and sent a strong message to every company dealing with his family’s business, that if they cross his children they will feel the sting of his tweets.

This week The Washington Post published a major expose of National Security Advisor retired General Michael Flynn’s secret contacts with Russian ambassador to Washington during the transition period. The Post’s report based on 9 current and former officials shows that Flynn privately discussed U.S. sanctions against Russia with that country’s ambassador to the United States Sergey Kislyak, contrary to public denials by Flynn and vice president Mike Pence. These communications are clearly inappropriate and potentially illegal. General Flynn is believed to have told the Russian ambassador that the sanctions just imposed in late December by the Obama administration will be reviewed, after president-elect Trump’s inauguration. The Post reported that Flynn on Wednesday emphatically denied that he had discussed sanctions with ambassador Kislyak, but on Thursday Flynn through his spokesman, backed away from his initial denial, saying” he couldn’t be certain that the topic never came up.” These communications between Flynn and Kislyak by phone and in person began before the elections and continued during the transition. The contacts were monitored by U.S. Intelligence agencies. General Flynn is in hot water because the FBI is continuing to investigate his contact with the Russian ambassador, and now with vice president Pence, who appeared in the past on television programs denying that Flynn had discussed sanctions with the Russian ambassador, because Flynn assured him so. Already senior Democratic leaders in congress are calling for Flynn’s resignation, and many national security experts don’t expect him to stay in his position for long. The Flynn scandal like most of president Trump’s travails is self-inflicted. But this is so far the story of the Trump’s presidency.


Hisham Melhem is a columnist and analyst for Al Arabiya News Channel in Washington, DC. Melhem has interviewed many American and international public figures, including Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, among others. He is also the correspondent for Annahar, the leading Lebanese daily. For four years he hosted "Across the Ocean," a weekly current affairs program on U.S.-Arab relations for Al Arabiya. Follow him on Twitter : @hisham_melhem

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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