There are two very troubling things about Donald Trump’s tweeted threat to hold “the court system” responsible for future terrorist acts he claims his embattled travel ban might prevent. The first and worst, as my colleague Eric Levitz explains, is that such inflammatory charges endanger the independence of the judiciary, and with it the rule of law.
But on a political level, there is something else sinister about this sort of talk coming from the president of the United States: He is preemptively clearing himself and his administration of any responsibility for future terrorist acts its policies might fail to prevent — or even invite. As Jeet Heer notes:
[I]t’s…a candid admission about how [Trump] intends to play the politics of terrorism. If the U.S. is hit by a terrorist attack that can be connected to Islamic radicalism, Trump will blame his opponents, whether they be the courts, politicians, journalists, or whomever; the terrorist attack will be anyone’s fault but his own.
That much is very clear. Perhaps the larger challenge is how Trump opponents can safeguard themselves and the country from this sort of irresponsible blame-shifting, which could not only misrepresent the causes for terrorist acts, but justify steps by Trump that endanger our security even more and vitiate civil liberties even further.
Heer argues Democrats should respond with their own anticipatory arguments:
If Trump is prepared to blame judges and his political opponents for terrorism, the opposition has to be clear that the buck stops with him. Keeping Americans safe from terrorist attacks is one of the president’s primary responsibilities. If the executive orders he signs are overturned because they don’t meet constitutional mettle, that will be his fault, too, since it’s also the president’s responsibility to obey the Constitution. And if Trump’s policies — whether by ignoring white supremacist violence or inciting Islamic radicalism — lead to more terrorism, then he has to be held responsible for that as well.
Sure, Trump’s defenders may argue that is not fair to him. But they cannot have it both ways, blaming the 44th president for terrorist acts he had nothing to do with (as Trump did) while insulating the 45th from responsibility. The harder thing for Democrats may be resisting the temptation to “rally around the president” if his administration does succeed in provoking or failing to prevent or intercept future attacks. Whether or not you think George W. Bush bore any responsibility for 9/11, there is no question he exploited the atmosphere of post-attack solidarity to launch an unnecessary preemptive war against Iraq, and then argue mendaciously that it had made Americans safer. Does anyone doubt Donald Trump is capable of similar deceptions?