Can We Forgive the President?


In light of all that has been said, the thought that I could write something fresh about the election seems improbable. In light of all that is at stake, the thought that I could write about anything else seems silly. I don’t know whether this threads the needle, but in light of all the President has done, my mind wanders elsewhere and I wonder whether I can forgive him.

He has always struck me as a small, pitiful man who tries in vain to mask his weakness with childish tantrums and pompous struts. A person who cannot survive without the adulation of strangers is truly alone in the world. I feel sorry for him. Yet I do not for a moment minimize the harm he has caused or the hatred he has unleashed. His policies are cruel beyond words, his leadership imperils democracy, and his greed is matched only by his narcissism. Nor do I discount the difference between him and his many followers. Kyle Rittenhouse, the Illinois teenager charged with killing two people at a protest in Wisconsin, is not remotely comparable to Donald Trump. The radical cleric who inspires violence is vastly more culpable than the deluded young man who heeds his call.

From all he has done, many people believe the next sentence writes itself: He is a bad man. They do not say he has done evil things, but that he is—to his core and in his essence—evil.

This is the step I cannot take. I have spent the whole of a long career representing the people that others call monsters. I have defended men and women on death row for decades. I have represented prisoners at Guantanamo since the first group arrived in February 2002. I represent Abu Zubaydah, the man for whose torture the Bush administration cooked up the infamous torture memo, and who was subjected to all the so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques.” The CIA says its torturers water-boarded my client more than 80 times in a single month. They locked him in a coffin for days and crammed him for hours in a box that would fit under your chair. They hung him from hooks in the ceiling, doused him with cold water, and kept him awake for 11 consecutive days. They described one of his many tortures with the laughably euphemistic expression, “rectal rehydration.”

All because they believed he was a bad man.

The burden of my entire career has been to prove that which, in a civilized world, would require no proof. There are no monsters. They haunt our imagination but do not walk the earth. We conjure them so that we might allow ourselves to be seduced by the most destructive temptation in human existence: the impulse to demonize, to transform a person or group into a monster onto whom we fasten our grievances, and in whose extermination we pin our hopes. Because the monster is not real, it takes limitless forms. Today it is the Mexican. Yesterday it was the Muslim. Once it was the Jew; signs suggest it may be again. The monster is eternally among us.

Every time a new monster appears, patriots announce his arrival in the same tired warnings. This time is different. This demon is like none that came before. People like me, who waste their lives standing with monsters, have learned to recognize these warnings. We know the suffering they portend and the fury they inspire. And when the mob gathers and the pitchforks are handed out, we have only one defense. It was our defense to slavery, to Jim Crow, and to the Holocaust. It is the defense to every genocide in every country in every age: There is no them, there is only us.

Our defense rarely succeeds. The appeal of demonization is simply too strong. The evidence of our failure is everywhere. It is at the border, where children are stripped from their mothers’ arms and locked in cages. It is in secret prisons, where men are strapped to inclined boards and brought within sight of death by water poured up their nose and down their throat. It is on the gurneys, where people are injected with poisons that paralyze their face but do not prevent their pain. We know we fail by the heads that turn away as we speak, refusing to see our clients as fragile, weak, decent, damaged, and awful, like all of us. I have seen too much demonization to accept it.

Do not warn me of false comparisons. I know full well that no one is talking about boiling the President in oil. No one is saying he should be executed or water-boarded. But I recognize the language of demonization when I hear it, and refuse to speak it. Nor am I persuaded by classroom hypotheticals that invite me to forgive Hitler. A philosophy that does not recognize the difference between Donald Trump and Adolph Hitler is not worth defending.

Instead, I accept as true for him what is true for every monster I have represented. There is no them, there is only us. Ultimately, I do not know him, as others do not know my clients. I do not understand the trauma he has endured (and from what we know, he seems deeply traumatized from a very early age), and cannot fathom the apparently bottomless depth of his emotional frailty and psychological insecurity. But I cannot demonize him without accepting the demonization of my clients. He is a pitiful man. But a man who is frail and weak deserves our compassion, not our scorn. No decent human being can spit on the wretched and call it right.

And in the absence of demonization, there is forgiveness. It is an admission of personal ignorance and a faith in shared humanity. It is a plea to understand the incomprehensible. I can forgive him because he is human, and to deny him the possibility of forgiveness is to deny his humanity. Only a monster cannot be forgiven.

To me, it makes no difference that the President scorns my forgiveness or snarls at the suggestion that he has done wrong. What do you expect from a man with the emotional maturity of a child? It doesn’t matter whether he atones, apologizes, or admits wrongdoing. Forgiveness is about me and what I cannot know, but also what I know to be true about all of us. It is not about him.

Forgiveness is not the same as absolution. If in the fullness of time, we learn that the President cheated on his taxes, I would not shed a tear if he were lawfully convicted and punished. At least as I conceive it, a person who commits a crime is not a monster, and forgiveness does not preclude a just punishment.

But do not expect me to join in the swelling chorus that demonizes him. I do not know him. I know only some of what he has done. I can forgive the rest.

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