Ethics & Public Policy Center

The Malignant Cruelty of Donald Trump

Published in The Atlantic on May 26, 2020


“I’m asking you to intervene in this instance because the President of the United States has taken something that does not belong to him—the memory of my dead wife—and perverted it for perceived political gain.”

There may be a more damning thing that’s been said about an American president, but none immediately comes to mind.

This sentence is from a heartbreaking May 21 letter written by Timothy Klausutis to Jack Dorsey, the CEO of Twitter, asking Dorsey to delete a series of tweets by Donald Trump. Klausutis is the widower of Lori Kaye Klausutis, who died nearly 20 years ago. (Timothy Klausutis, who never remarried, still lives in the house he shared with his wife.) The autopsy conducted at the time of Lori’s death confirmed that it was an accident; she had fainted as the result of a heart condition, hitting her head on a desk. There’s not a thimble of evidence of foul play.

But here’s where things go from being tragic to being twisted.

When Lori Klausutis died, she worked for then–Republican Representative Joe Scarborough. Today, Scarborough is a fierce critic of the president from his perch at MSNBC, where he co-hosts Morning Joe. That is why the president has been peddling a cruel and baseless conspiracy theory that Scarborough had Klausutis murdered.

This is a topic most journalists are inherently reluctant to cover, given the danger that it will draw more attention to a vile lie. But with the president and his son, who between them have more than 85 million Twitter followers, sending out lunatic tweets and calling for “the opening of a Cold Case against Psycho Joe Scarborough,” human decency requires a response.

That Donald Trump would resort to conspiracy theories to attack his perceived enemies is hardly a revelation. After all, Trump employed a racist conspiracy theory against Barack Obama in the early part of this decade, which helped him gain political prominence in the Republican Party, and later claimed that President Obama had wiretapped his phones. During the 2016 primary, Trump linked Ted Cruz’s father, Rafael, to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and retweeted a supporter who claimed that Marco Rubio was ineligible to run, because his parents were not natural-born U.S. citizens. Trump suggested that the suicide of Vince Foster, a former aide to President Bill Clinton, and the death of former Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, were murders; that childhood vaccines cause autism; and that windmills cause cancer. He’s claimed that climate change is “a total and very expensive hoax” by China’s government, that a cybersecurity company framed Russia for election interference, that Ukraine was hiding Hillary Clinton’s missing emails and that voter fraud cost him the popular vote in 2016. (Business Insider provided a useful summary of more than two dozen of Trump’s conspiracy theories in October.)

Conspiracy theories have long been evidence of Trump’s twisted psychology. He has always traveled quite easily from the real world to the twilight zone, depending on which reality suits his needs at the moment. And when someone holds him accountable—when someone calls him out for his incompetence and ethical wrongdoing—conspiracy theories often become his weapon of choice. At such moments, conspiracy theories are fine, but conspiracy theories with the added element of cruelty are even better. Which brings us back to the heartbreaking letter from Timothy Klausutis.

Donald Trump doesn’t merely want to criticize his opponents; he takes a depraved delight in inflicting pain on others, even if there’s collateral damage in the process, as is the case with the Klausutis family. There’s something quite sick about it all.

There are a lot of human casualties that result from the cruelty of malignant narcissists like Donald Trump—casualties, if should be said, that his supporters in the Republican Party, on various pro-Trump websites and news outlets, and on talk radio are willing to tolerate or even defend. Their philosophy seems to be that you need to break a few eggs to make an omelet. If putting up with Trump’s indecency is the price of maintaining power, so be it. Will Trump’s white evangelical supporters—Franklin Graham, Jr., Robert Jeffress, Eric Metaxas, Mike Huckabee, Ralph Reed—defend his behavior as the perfect embodiment of the New Testament ethic, the credo of Jesus, the message from the Sermon on the Mount? “Blessed are the brutal, for they shall inherit the earth.”

Some people will argue that Trump’s promotion of this conspiracy theory is just his latest distraction, a shiny object to pull our focus away from the human and economic cost of COVID-19. Maybe. But I’m not at all convinced that this will help Trump politically.

Remember, Trump’s approval rating was often well under 50 percent even when the economy was doing well and America was at relative peace abroad. There’s plenty of evidence, including the 2018 midterm elections, that Trump’s dehumanizing tactics erode his support, especially among white suburban women. And I rather doubt that people will have forgotten Trump’s reckless handling of the pandemic by November; defaming the memory of a woman who died nearly two decades ago and causing renewed grief for her family isn’t likely to help him with most voters, either.

But whatever the political ramifications of this current lie being promulgated by the president, the rest of us need to name it, and to make Trump supporters own it. They are his, and he is theirs.

In his letter to Jack Dorsey, Timothy Klausutis wrote that his wife’s death in 2001 was “the single most painful thing that I have ever had to deal with in my 52 years and continues to haunt her parents and sister.” He added:

I have mourned my wife every day since her passing. I have tried to honor her memory and our marriage. As her husband, I feel that one of my marital obligations is to protect her memory as I would have protected her in life. There has been a constant barrage of falsehoods, half-truths, innuendo and conspiracy theories since the day she died. I realize that may sound like an exaggeration, unfortunately it is the verifiable truth. Because of this, I have struggled to move forward with my life.

And this:

The frequency, intensity, ugliness, and promulgation of these horrifying lies ever increases on the internet. These conspiracy theorists, including most recently the President of the United States, continue to spread their bile and misinformation on your platform disparaging the memory of my wife and our marriage.

Near the end of his letter to Dorsey, asking him to delete Trump’s tweets—which Dorsey has declined to do—Klausutis wrote:

I would also ask that you consider Lori’s niece and two nephews who will eventually come across this filth in the future. They have never met their Aunt and it pains me to think they would ever have to “learn” about her this way.

My wife deserves better.

There is a wickedness in our president that long ago corrupted him. It’s corrupted his party. And it’s in the process of corrupting our country, too.

He is a crimson stain on American decency. He needs to go.

Peter Wehner a contributing writer at The Atlantic, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, and Egan visiting professor at Duke University. He writes widely on political, cultural, religious, and national-security issues, and he is the author of The Death of Politics: How to Heal Our Frayed Republic After Trump.

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