No one tests the conscience in quite the way Donald J. Trump does. Justice Department lawyers, diplomats, and intelligence officials are among those he has most famously put to the test. But the provocateur-in-chief challenges a much broader swath: most anyone whose calling requires making fair judgments on Trump and his administration.
Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg—whom, on February 25, Trump called on to recuse herself from all cases involving him—is a prime example. In an interview with the New York Times during the 2016 presidential campaign, Ginsburg said, “I can’t imagine what the country would be—with Donald Trump as our president.” It was a terrible thing for a Supreme Court justice to say, and she apologized.
Trump is still after her for it. But consider some context: this man running for president of the United States had built his campaign on appeals to loony conspiracy-mongers like Alex Jones of Infowars, who claimed on his show on the morning of 9/11, “Ninety-eight percent chance this was a government-orchestrated, controlled bombing.”
The historian Jill Lepore places this aspect of Trump in historical context in her book These Truths: A History of the United States. Lepore captures how alarming Trump’s rise is for a democracy that declares itself rooted in certain self-evident truths. Trump arrived in presidential politics with the aid of “truthers” and “birthers,” appearing on Jones’s radio show. Jones congratulated Trump on his phony claim that “thousands and thousands” of Muslims in New Jersey cheered the 9/11 attack. “Your reputation’s amazing,” Trump told Jones. “I will not let you down.”
There is a reason Ginsburg felt a need to speak out. And that top FBI officials decided they had to investigate the personal, political, and financial ties that Trump and members of his campaign team had to Russia at a time when its agents were manipulating a presidential election to Trump’s advantage. And that a “deep state” whistleblower exposed Trump’s attempts to push Ukraine into investigating Joe and Hunter Biden.
Time and again, Trump’s abnormal behavior forces the issue, which is, to paraphrase the Marx Brothers: Who are you going to believe, me or your own conscience?