New York Governor Andrew Cuomo speaks during an event on July 8, 2015 in New York City.
Photo by Bryan Thomas/Getty

Targeting Cuomo, Trump makes a dubious claim to the patriotic high ground

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) spoke at a bill-signing event yesterday, and while trying to make an unscripted comment about Donald Trump’s signature phrase, the governor apparently went a little further than he intended.

“We’re not going to make America great again. It was never that great,” Cuomo said, generating some gasps in the audience. The New York Democrat quickly added that he was referring to American women being able to reach their full potential, and the governor’s office soon after issued a statement to clarify Cuomo’s perspective.

“Gov. Cuomo disagrees with the president,” his spokesperson said. “The governor believes America is great and that her full greatness will be fully realized when every man, woman, and child has full equality. America has not yet reached its maximum potential.”

Nevertheless, the president saw an opportunity to slam a potential 2020 rival.

President Donald Trump slammed Gov. Andrew Cuomo, D-N.Y., for having a “total meltdown” Wednesday after Cuomo said the U.S. “was never that great” in a dig at the commander-in-chief’s 2016 campaign slogan.

“ ‘WE’RE NOT GOING TO MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN, IT WAS NEVER THAT GREAT.’” Trump tweeted Wednesday night. “Can you believe this is the Governor of the Highest Taxed State in the U.S., Andrew Cuomo, having a total meltdown!”

At face value, this isn’t especially surprising. Cuomo’s choice of words made it easy for Republicans to target his patriotism, so Trump’s decision to pounce was probably predictable.

What may be less obvious, though, is why the president is mistaken to claim the patriotic high ground.

As regular readers know,  two weeks after taking office, Trump sat down for an interview in which he was reminded that Russian President Vladimir Putin is “a killer.” Trump replied, “There are a lot of killers. We’ve got a lot of killers. What, do you think our country’s so innocent?”

As we discussed at the time, Americans generally aren’t accustomed to hearing their president be quite this critical of the United States – out loud and in public. What’s more, the idea that the U.S. chief executive sees a moral equivalence between us and an autocratic thug came as a reminder that Trump doesn’t always hold his country in the highest regard.

Indeed, he hasn’t exactly been subtle on this point. In December 2015, then-candidate Trump was asked about Putin’s habit of invading countries and killing critics. “He’s running his country, and at least he’s a leader,” Trump replied, “unlike what we have in this country.” Reminded that Putin has been accused of ordering the murder of critics and journalists, Trump added, “Well, I think our country does plenty of killing also.”

In a July 2016 interview with the New York Times, the Republican went on to argue that the United States lacks the moral authority to lead, because we’re just not a good enough country to command respect abroad. “When the world looks at how bad the United States is, and then we go and talk about civil liberties, I don’t think we’re a very good messenger,” he said.

There’s never been a president, from either party, who’s been so cavalier about America lacking in credibility. Sentiments such as “When the world looks at how bad the United States is…” are usually heard from America’s opponents, not America’s president. The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg noted during the campaign that Barack Obama “has never spoken as negatively about America as Donald Trump has.”

This is also the president who explicitly rejected the idea of “America exceptionalism,” questioning aloud whether the United States really is “more outstanding” than other nations.

It stands to reason that Republicans are going to blast Cuomo, but Trump doesn’t seem to appreciate just how bad a messenger he is for this message.