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Trump’s refusal to take responsibility is a deep moral failure

If Trump won't take responsibility for a grieving widow's loss, what will he take responsibility for?

President Donald Trump Speaks At Heritage Foundation Meeting Martin H. Simon - Pool/Getty Images
Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

President Trump doesn’t take responsibility. For anything.

He didn't take responsibility for the death of Sgt. La David Johnson, a Green Beret killed during a counterterror operation on the border between Niger and Mali earlier this month. After going nearly two weeks without calling Johnson's loved ones, Trump told his pregnant widow, Myeshia Johnson, that her late husband "knew what he signed up for" — placing responsibility for his death not on Trump, his commander in chief, or the rest of the government, but on Sgt. Johnson himself, for choosing to serve.

When a Congress member who overheard the exchange publicized it, Trump denied it ever happened. Except Johnson's mother, who was also there, confirmed it did. Trump refused to even take responsibility for his own callous failure to take responsibility.

And this was hardly the first time.

Trump didn’t take responsibility for the death of Army Specialist Etienne Murphy in Syria in May. Murphy’s mother, Sheila Murphy, told the Associated Press that she still has not heard from Trump, despite writing the president to tell him "some days I don't want to live." Trump did take the time to call the parents of Army 1st. Lt. Weston Lee. Murphy was black; Lee was white.

Trump didn’t take responsibility right after taking office, when a botched special operations raid in Yemen left a Navy SEAL and several civilians dead without any actionable intelligence to show for it. He took to Fox News to assert that the mission “started before I got here” and to blame “the generals” who “lost [Sr. Chief Petty Officer] Ryan [Owens].”

He didn’t take responsibility for the safety of the country after a judge struck down his initial “travel ban” targeting some Muslim-majority countries, tweeting, “If something happens blame him and court system.”

Just this past Monday, he refused to take responsibility for his failure to enact significant legislation on health care or taxes so far. "We're not getting the job done. And I'm not going to blame myself, I'll be honest," he said at a Cabinet meeting. "They're not getting the job done," he continued, referring to Republicans in Congress.

On Tuesday, he refused to take responsibility for the effects of his executive actions to destabilize Obamacare, insisting on Twitter, “Any increase in ObamaCare premiums is the fault of the Democrats for giving us a ‘product’ that never had a chance of working.”

And on. And on. And on.

Trump is incapable of processing the idea that he might have failed

There is a tendency when discussing Trump to exaggerate the beneficence and decency of past presidents to make the contrast starker. So let’s be clear: Trump is hardly the first American leader to fail to take responsibility, or to take too long to do so.

It took nearly four years for President George W. Bush to concede that the war in Iraq was failing, fire Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and attempt a new strategy. Even then, he never forthrightly admitted that a war that killed nearly 270,000 people for no clear end was a mistake. President Bill Clinton did not admit that he contributed to the rise in mass incarceration until 14 years after he left office.

And taking responsibility for your actions, especially belatedly, is of somewhat limited value if those actions were mistakes and are not followed up with effective corrective action.

But it’s an important first step. “The buck stops here” is a cliché for a reason. And for presidents still in office, that attitude can lead to actual progress. President Obama, by his own admission, failed badly during the rollout of Obamacare in fall 2013, more grievously due to the failures of But he took responsibility and fixed it, launching an unprecedented number of outside programmers and tech specialists to overhaul the site and get it in working order. "I take full responsibility for making sure it gets fixed ASAP,” Obama said at the time. And so he did.

Here are a few other things Obama took responsibility for while in office:

What’s telling is that this included instances when Obama did not believe he made a mistake. As he said at the time, he had no reason to think the al-Qaeda compound targeted in 2015 had innocent hostages in it when he ordered the attack. His expression of sorrow at the Syrian government’s butchery was not followed by regret over his decision not to send ground troops or launch airstrikes against Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

You can view this as hollow, as a failure to actually change in response to mistakes. But taking responsibility sometimes means bearing the weight of negative consequences of actions that you, nonetheless, do not regret. The horrors of Aleppo did not change Obama’s determination that further intervention against Assad would have done more harm than good (a conclusion shared by researchers the US Holocaust Museum commissioned to look at that decision). The deaths of the hostages did not mean the raid was not the right decision at the time.

But even if an action is, all told, still justifiable, its costs should weigh on the actor. He should feel the gravity of his role in what happened, and take seriously the human toll, even if his mind does not change in response.

Nowhere is this more important than in military affairs. Franklin Roosevelt needn’t have regretted D-Day to take responsibility for, and feel the weight of, the 2,500 Americans killed during the Normandy landings. When presidents and commentators talk about the sacred and solemn duty of honoring wounded and dead soldiers, they’re not just speaking in clichés. They’re making a statement about the kind of moral psychology you must have to make regular decisions about death and war without growing emotionally calloused and inhumane.

Trump has been very clear that he lacks that psychology, that kind of reverence and appreciation for the gravity of his actions. He cannot hold in his head at the same time the idea that he was right to have troops in Niger and that some of those troops died, and that he owes it to their families and the nation to understand and grieve that loss. He definitely appears incapable of considering that the mission itself might have been a mistake, that he himself may have screwed up.

And if he can’t consider the possibility that he caused pain when he’s sending troops out to fight and die, how could he consider it when he’s making regulations that could cost people their health insurance? Or their clean air and water?

A prominent American businessman once tweeted that leadership means “Whatever happens, you're responsible. If it doesn't happen, you're responsible.”

Failing to remember that isn’t just cruel to the people and families who wind up hurt. It’s dangerous to everyone the president’s actions affect.