John Dean: Trump's Break With Tradition Is Un-American

President Donald Trump with Flynn. Carlos Barria/reuters

This article first appeared on the Verdict site.

It is difficult to know what to make of Donald Trump's presidency less than three months into it.

I have watched the JFK, LBJ, Nixon, Carter, Reagan, Bush I, Clinton, Bush II and Obama White House operations in their formative days, and Trump is way behind them all in getting his staff together and programs launched.

Within the first 60 days, most prior presidents have formed their full staffs and commenced pushing their primary programs. Trump has not done so.

Just as during his presidential campaign, as during the transition period from his election to inauguration, Trump appears disinclined to follow practices and rules that have guided so many other presidents.

Initially, I thought launching of his presidency was like many of Trump's activities, and he was not following traditions just to be contrarian. But the closer I have looked at his infant presidency, the more apparent it is that he simply does not know what he is doing, nor do most of those around him. It appears he and his aides have little knowledge of past presidencies.

Much of the blundering of his presidency, like that of his campaign and presidential transition, is the result of sheer ignorance. Unlike his predecessors who had some knowledge of the presidency, Trump had almost none.

Unlike predecessors who appreciated they did not understand the ways of Washington, so they hired people who did, Trump may have so little understanding of the presidency that he does not appreciate how difficult a job it can be, so he is simply winging it.

As long as there are no real national or international emergencies, this should not create any dangers to others. Although it will make it even more difficult for Trump & Co. to make real accomplishments.

When the public realizes that all his executive orders are little more than press releases and photo opportunities to give the appearance of action, they will understand he has been busy pretending he is accomplishing the work of the people, when that is not what has been happening.

In short, the launch of the Trump presidency is so far behind the norm that it can be considered another norm that Trump has ignored or broken. Norms are the unwritten rules and practices that not only make the American presidency function smoothly, regardless of who is president or their party affiliation, but norms are essential to democracy.

Norms make democracy work through informal understandings, unwritten rules, that keep the processes operating properly, and they run a broad spectrum of government. The fact that they are not laws does not make them less important, rather many of them represent common sense practices and courtesy about government, which have developed and evolved over countless decades. For example, it is a norm that presidents deliver the State of the Union speech to a joint session of Congress, which invites the diplomatic corps, leaders of the military services and members of the Supreme Court.

Before President Woodrow Wilson, presidents sent their message to Congress, but since Wilson the norm has been for the president to personally deliver it. (Trump has not broken this norm yet.)

Related: John Dean: The divide at the heart of the White House spells disaster

As one scholar pointed out, while the rule of law is the foundation of a democracy, "norms are the glue that holds society together." Norms are said to "define who we are, and engender trust." Norms are both simple and complex.

Fox News commentator Charles Krauthammer, who is critical of Trump's norm breaking, points out: "It takes decades, [sometimes] centuries, to develop ingrained norms of political restraint and self-control. But they can be undone in short order by a demagogue feeding a vengeful populism." Trump has broken the norm of self-control with his tweeting.

Trump ignored or broke more norms during his presidential campaign than I have bothered to count (from claiming the election was rigged if he lost to announcing he would jail Hillary Clinton when he won), but he did not stop when he won.

The erosion of fundamental political norms that have occurred since he became president on January 20, 2017, is startling. Dartmouth professor of political science Nyhan Brendan notes it is not just one or two important norms that Trump has violated, rather norm after norm after norm. As the professor notes, "Each [norm] violation is not necessarily the end of American democracy, but the accretion of these can add up to something significant."

Related: John Dean: Trump's suicidal war with the press

Let's look at a sampling of Trump's norm breaking since taking office:

  • After promising to make his tax returns public if elected president, Trump has refused to do so. All presidents since Nixon have made their taxes public to assure the public they have no conflicts of interest.
  • All modern presidents have openly arranged their private affairs to avoid conflicts of interest. Trump has claimed he has resolved his conflicts but refuses to allow any verification.
  • Before Trump, no president has requested the United States military display their hardware like is done in Russia and China. Trump wanted such a display at his inauguration parade, and when it could not be arranged, Trump said he wanted to have such parades around the country as his presidency proceeded. This is not only outside all modern presidential norms. It's the stuff of third-world dictators.
  • Trump claims, with no evidence, that he lost the popular vote by 3,000,000 votes because of illegal voting, and falsely claimed the largest crowd attended his inauguration, without supporting evidence.
  • He ignored the long-standing norm against presidential nepotism, hiring (without pay) his son-in-law Jarred Kushner and daughter Ivanka.
  • Trump's lying about matters small and large is unequaled for any president and is unending.
  • Trump is the first president to ever embrace conspicuous conspiracy theories, which range from the insidious to the bizarre. He recently embraced many of the conspiracy theories he discussed during the campaign as president, including that his primary opponent Ted Cruz's father was involved in the assassination of President Kennedy, which is blatantly false.
  • He is the first president to reject the U.S government's intelligence communities finding, after they reported the Russian's hacked the election to help Trump win and hurt Hillary Clinton, a finding embraced by 17 federal intelligence agencies. He is literally at war with federal intelligence agencies, which could be a major national security problem
  • Trump attacked federal judges who ruled unconstitutional his hastily written and issued executive order banning Muslims from the United States and said he would blame the federal judiciary if a terrorist attack occurred. This is an unprecedented attack by a president against a co-equal branch of government.
  • He has continued as president an unrelenting attack on the mainstream news media, labeling them "enemies of the American people."
  • Trump has openly defamed his predecessor with a baseless accusation that President Barack Obama wiretapped him during the final month of the campaign. This is a felony charge, and when all the federal intelligence agencies stated it was untrue, Trump then falsely claimed it was British intelligence (an insult against an agency with whom the U.S. intelligence agency works closely).
  • Finally, Trump has broken the norm of preparing himself to deal with foreign leaders, and made a fool of himself, and embarrassed the country, with his buffoonery.

This list of norms broken is far from complete but rather amazing since I could recall it off the top of my head, for his behavior is so outrageous it appears un-American. It is certainly beyond simply being unorthodox, because ignorance at this level is neither tolerable nor excusable.

John W. Dean was a counsel to President Richard Nixon.