If President Trump was a word cloud — a visual representation of the phrases he most often says (or tweets) — those depicted in large type to indicate frequency would include “fake,” “crooked,” “witch hunt,” “scam,” and, especially these days, “no quid pro quo.”
Unlikely to make the list is the word that has most vexed his presidency: oath. In the Trump administration, it’s the only four-letter word the president despises.
Sure, this nation’s 45th presidency began with Trump taking the oath of office, solemnly swearing "to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”
We know how that turned out.
Trump repeated every word read to him by Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, and meant not a single one of them. The many ways the president has violated that oath is what forced House Democrats to launch their widening impeachment inquiry.
Now he’s being thwarted by people who actually know what it means to take — and live by — an oath.
I’ve been thinking a lot of what it means to live by an oath since I saw a screening of Terrence Malick’s latest film, “A Hidden Life.” It’s based on the true story of Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian farmer conscripted into the German army during World War II. He reports to duty knowing he will not raise his hand and pledge allegiance to Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich, as he is required to do. He also knows this will garner the scorn of his neighbors, isolate his family in their rural village, and lead to his own imprisonment.
When a lawyer suggests Franz recite the words but disregard their meaning, that’s a hypocrisy his conscience and heart cannot abide.
I see Franz in Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, though of course the National Security Council’s Ukraine expert, a Purple Heart recipient, went to war while Jägerstätter did not. In his statement during a recent House impeachment hearing, he said, “The uniform I wear today is that of the United States Army. The members of our all-volunteer force are made up of a patchwork of people from all ethnicities, religions, and socio-economic backgrounds who come together under a common oath to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States of America. We do not serve any particular political party, we serve the nation."
Vindman was clear. He is oath-bound to his country. Not to Trump.
Richard Spencer, recently pushed out as Secretary of the Navy, also cited his oath in resisting Trump’s tweeted order to protect from further disciplinary action Chief Petty Officer Edward Gallagher. The NAVY Seal — and Fox News favorite —was acquitted of murder, but convicted of bringing discredit to the armed forces by posing with the dead body of a teenage prisoner in Iraq. Trump pardoned Gallagher.
“I cannot in good conscience obey an order that I believe violates the sacred oath I took,” Spencer wrote in his resignation letter.
Oath. There’s that word again.
That sense of duty is lost on this president — except when he expects such fidelity. A week into his presidency, Trump reportedly asked James Comey, then FBI director, for a pledge of loyalty. Comey declined and, months later, was fired. In an interview with Fox Business, Trump claimed he never made such a demand, but added, "I don’t think it would be a bad question to ask. I think loyalty to the country — loyalty to the US is important. You know, it depends on how you define loyalty . . . "
It’s obvious how Trump defines loyalty.
It begins and ends with his demands and desires. An oath to anything beyond that defies Trump’s narrow view of the world. Yet as the impeachment inquiry continues to consume his presidency, he may increasingly find that unyielding word on the lips of men and women with truths to tell, looming larger than any other in the Trump administration lexicon.