The Importance of Executive Character

President John Adams. (Wikimedia Commons)

President John Adams. (Wikimedia Commons)

The head of the executive office today spoke of exoneration when the redacted version of the Mueller report was released on April 18, 2019. President Trump repeatedly framed the ensuing investigation as a “witch hunt.” This was in reference to the special counsel mandate by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein which opened up the investigation on possible Russian collusion with the Trump campaign and was spearheaded by Robert Swan Mueller III. As terrible as it is that President Trump and his cronies point toward the investigation and its effect on the reputation of his administration, it should be remembered that it was Trump’s firing of then-FBI Director James Comey, who was investigating links between Trump associates and Russian officials, that prompted the Mueller probe in the first place.

In the weeks following the release of the Mueller report, partisan discourse on the validity of the investigation has fragmented along ideological lines. Both sides previously sought full transparency, but later Republicans voted against its full disclosure. With testimony from Attorney General William Barr in front of both the House and Senate Judiciary Committees looming on the horizon, one can only speculate what might happen amidst the political climate brought on by the findings of the report and what it means for the country moving forward.

Controversy has plagued the presidency throughout United States history. The president need only look toward the past to see how history molded the office he now occupies and how it endured times of strife. History looks at how choices and their consequences slowly unveil toward the present. As Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Jon Meachem said: ”..there’s a utility to looking backward, not as a how-to guide for how to fix the problems of today but in a diagnostic sense that, in fact, if we understand the complexity of the past, it at least creates a sense of perspective and ability to weigh with relative severities of the crises that present themselves to us.” Knowledge of how predecessors acted under similar circumstances could help Trump on what to do or not to do once a problem presents itself. Sadly, this president has repeatedly shown a lack of understanding for historical lessons and he risks repeating easily avoidable mistakes.

Perhaps one figure who has held the office before can help ground the ramifications of the Mueller report on the Trump administration. One who lived during a more tumultuous time and whose posterity now sees him as a towering figure on the examples of character in the presidency.

The first occupant of the White House, John Adams, experienced his fair share of controversy when he signed the Alien and Sedition Acts to curb criticism toward the Federalist-controlled government by the newly formed Democratic-Republican Party. It was one of the earliest attempts at limiting the First Amendment, which a Democratic-Republican minority argued was in direct violation of the Constitution. This came to be defined as one of the biggest mistakes of his early presidency. Yet to allow a mistake to define a president is to assume the man who holds that office is incapable of being mistaken. The circumstances at the time, the gravity of the situation the country was in, sabotage of the government by foreign spies and the possibility of a  war with France, merited a response as haphazard as what the Adams administration provided. Context, therefore, should be accounted for, and with such immense pressure to do what was best for the country, President Adams made a critical mistake. This would later cost him a subsequent presidential term.

What this brief entry into presidential history shows is the level of difficulty one has to overcome and how far-reaching the ramifications are for actions done haphazardly. When foreign forces threaten the legitimacy of the current government, as was the rationale for the start of the special counsel investigation, having a reaction of quick self-exoneration will not help alleviate doubt. In Adams’ case, even months of arbitration within Congress and within his own circle did not help the fallout.

Adams’ mistake was going after the media for criticizing his actions. Though it is true that Trump never went so far as to sign into law a statute like Adams did, his response to news outlets is arguably more sinister. He attacks the legitimacy of the news media by pitting his own made-up stories against the truth of what actually happened. Where Adams tried to limit what was being said about his administration, Trump doubts the legitimacy of the content itself. It is the type of work that seeks to embolden the spread of misinformation for political gain at the cost of the truth. Since Trump has shown himself to be a pathological liar, is there any merit to his claim of exoneration when the report itself clearly says otherwise?

President Adams, despite his flaws, was the first occupant of the White House who did not take in slaves during his presidency. This practice would later on continue when his son, John Quincy Adams, was elected as the sixth president. John Quincy Adams would be another towering figure in the presidency, largely due to his father. Trump’s greatest achievements so far have primarily stemmed from economic triumphs that, given his tendency to look favorably toward his own shortcomings, could be interpreted as self-adulation, a far cry to the early challenges the country faced in the past given the economic and political state at the time.

What these events show is the value of acting thoughtfully. How one acts in the face of challenge dictates how one is remembered in posterity. The Mueller report’s findings don’t matter as much as how it is being received by the people. A breach of trust has been made ever since Trump alluded to a Russian connection during his campaign. While the report found no collusion between foreign entities, it found something else that is more deeply disconcerting. Partisan polarization came out as the winner among a group of people so wholly convinced that the enemy was the political other. They were willing to consort with an actual adversarial power in order to win. And here lies the foundation of the issue where patriotism is concerned and where character mattered fundamentally.

John Adams was a stout patriot who served his country and its people. No one questioned his allegiance to any foreign entity even amidst the turmoil at the end of his presidency. His main priority was in avoiding a war with France to honor Washington’s policy of neutrality, and he lived up to it at the cost of a second term. Trump, on the other hand, flirts with a power that seeks to undo the country he has sworn to protect. His campaign looked at the national opposition party and saw nothing but enemies. They then looked at Putin and saw a partner. This is the heart of the betrayal. It is an example that sets this administration apart from all past administrations: it associated with a foreign power to get elected. And it worked.

During John Adams’ stay at the newly constructed White House, he addressed a letter to his wife, Abigail Adams, famously containing a sentiment for future presidents. Franklin Roosevelt thought so highly of the letter that he had it carved into the wooden mantle piece of the state dining room. Harry Truman, when he was rebuilding the White House, insisted that it remain where it is today. When John F. Kennedy was president, he had the inscription carved into the mantle piece in marble.

“I pray heaven to bestow the best of blessing on this house and all that shall hereafter inhabit it. May none but honest and wise men ever rule under this roof.”

This essential trait, this invisible something that Adams possessed and Trump arguably does not, is character. From the language Trump uses to the actions accompanying them, there is a stark difference between these two presidents.

But if Adams’ achievements and correspondence through work and his personal life are anything to go by, his towering figure still stands as one of the most capable and qualified presences to ever hold the presidency. And if letter writing in the late nineteenth century is analogous to tweets in the twenty-first century, Adams’ hope of having wise men occupy the White House has all but vanished, only to be replaced by a man whose honesty is equated with stating whatever is on his mind. Whether that is to the benefit of the people of this country or to himself is up to interpretation.