The following editorial appeared in the Chicago Tribune on Saturday, March 18:
The great question of Donald Trump's rise to the presidency was whether he could pull off the slick political move known as "the pivot." Specifically, could he as a candidate win followers with hyperpartisan language, but once in office downshift to an inclusive, effective style of governance?
We had serious doubts from the start. Plenty of people had doubts, given Trump's impetuous temperament, his lack of political experience and his campaign trail success making big promises and incendiary comments. Still, we hoped at some point Trump would make adjustments because otherwise he would hit roadblocks to leadership that could damage the country.
A surprising additional risk to Trump's presidency is a subtle variation on the above: that regardless of attempts at moderation, his actions in the White House would never escape the shadow of his insurgent candidacy. Even when he tries to throttle back, he will be judged by the most outrageous, irresponsible things he said before winning the nomination or election. So good luck with that pivot.
This is where Trump finds himself, at least temporarily: Two federal judges have put holds on Trump's second attempt at banning travel to the U.S. by citizens from a group of Muslim-majority countries. They have done so by using his own words against him. The president's first sloppily written executive order on immigration, signed days after he took office, was blocked by the courts on constitutional grounds. He tried again using a narrower approach, but the replacement has been rejected for the same problem: It looks like the U.S. government is discriminating against a broad group of people based on their religion, in violation of the First Amendment.
District Judge Derrick Watson in Hawaii issued a temporary restraining order Wednesday, followed by District Judge Theodore Chuang in Maryland. Both judges attacked the executive order in part by analyzing intent: They found Trump's actions were based on the motive of targeting Muslims, and they reached their conclusions by examining the record of what he and others connected to him had said.
Government lawyers argued that presidents have wide latitude to take actions to keep the country safe. When ruling on constitutional issues, they said, courts should stick to the facts and not attempt to look into the hearts of decision-makers. But these two judges weren't having it. Watson said he didn't need to peer into the "veiled psyche" of the Trump administration; he could quote from a December 2015 press release by Trump's campaign, which said: "Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States." Chuang also ruled that Trump's actions can't be divorced from the record. "Simply because a decision maker made the statements during a campaign does not wipe them from the 'reasonable memory' of a 'reasonable observer.'"
The legal fight could head to the Supreme Court. Dissenting judges at the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which heard the first immigration ban case, agreed with the government that motive shouldn't be a deciding factor in a ruling, as long as there is a legitimate reason for the action. They have a point. Certainly, a peculiar aspect to the twin rulings is the credence they place on campaign promises. Every politician modulates, fudges and - yes - pivots along the campaign trail. Sometimes candidates just say dumb things. Should they be held accountable forever for all that? No. Voters can distinguish rhetorical wheat from chaff.
The issue with Trump, though, isn't that he is being held to an unfair standard of accountability for cagey or foolish campaign utterances. It's that he used reckless, offensive language targeting Muslims as a candidate, and then as president proposed drastic immigration action targeting that same group of people. This makes him responsible for the legal mess. Even if the order ultimately is upheld by the courts, the delay in implementation - and any risk to national security - is a direct result of Trump's ugly talk.
Here is the trouble with Trump: He never cared as a candidate that what he told voters could follow him to the White House, and he still hasn't learned the art of responsible discourse. He remains captive to his hot-headed temperament. When he claimed after his inauguration that the election was marred by fraud, and later accused President Barack Obama of wiretapping Trump Tower, he wasn't just playing to his political base. He was attacking the fabric of American democracy and governance.
Whatever happens with this immigration ban, Trump should accept the warning these two judges have delivered: Words matter. Insult betrays intent. Subtlety and nuance are critical tools. Trump will be held accountable for everything he says, so he had better find a place of equilibrium in leadership. The success of his presidency is at stake.