Shelter Island Reporter Editorial: Defending the indefensible

COURTESY PHOTOS Congressman Lee Zeldin, left, and President Donald Trump.
COURTESY PHOTOS Congressman Lee Zeldin, left, and President Donald Trump.

Congressman Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley), who represents the Island, revealed a lot about himself last week when he came to the defense of President Donald Trump’s racist and vulgar description of African countries and Haiti.

By now, we’ve all heard or read this comment more than a few times. We know what he said. It does not need to be repeated here. What’s astonishing in Mr. Zeldin’s defense of the president is that Mr. Trump is not a politically correct person, and thus the vulgarity and his description of a country in this hemisphere and an entire continent is really not that offensive.

To boil down Mr. Zeldin’s position, the president’s comment was not vulgar, racist, dismissive of millions of people or even in bad taste. It was just politically incorrect — something along the lines of calling a co-worker fat or stupid. But nothing more than that.

Mr. Trump’s trashing of these countries — and the people who come from them — has nothing to do with political correctness. Why Mr. Zeldin, who will presumably run for re-election this fall, felt the need to invent a justification like that is baffling.

He wanted to defend the president, as he did last month when he called for an investigation of leaks about the Russian probe now underway, which has already produced four criminal indictments, two of which resulted in guilty pleas.

In his defense of Mr. Trump, Mr. Zeldin showed what side of the political divide he’s on, and with whom he aligns himself. Last month, he attended a New York City fundraiser where Stephen Bannon was a featured guest.

Mr. Zeldin said he was honored by Mr. Bannon’s presence. Mr. Bannon has been fired from his top post in the White House and more recently from Breitbart News for on-the-record comments in Michael Wolff’s book “Fire and Fury.”

If Mr. Zeldin runs for re-election this fall, he will have to defend both his association with Mr. Bannon and his servile deference to the president, even in the case of something so egregious as Mr. Trump’s attack on Haiti and the African countries.

Recently, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, who is the GOP’s likely U.S. Senate candidate from Utah and who has called Mr. Trump a “con man, a fake, and a phony,” said his fellow Republicans need to put country ahead of party. Mr. Romney denounced comments Mr. Trump made last summer, after the swastika-loving, Tiki torch-carrying crowd shouting the Nazi phrase “blood and soil” descended on Charlottesville, Virginia.

More recently, in criticizing Mr. Trump for supporting Roy Moore in the Alabama Senate race, Mr. Romney said: “No vote, no majority is worth losing our honor, our integrity.”

Over the weekend, Republican Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona went several steps further, this time citing Mr. Trump’s habit of calling news he doesn’t like “fake.” Mr. Flake went on to compare the president to Joseph Stalin.

Mr. Zeldin doesn’t seem to grasp the fact that a CEO of virtually any significant American corporation would have been fired for saying what Mr. Trump said. It is alarming to read that no one in attendance at the White House meeting where Mr. Trump made this comment got up and left the room in protest.

By late in the weekend, Mr. Trump was denying he made the comment, even as two senators in attendance — one Democrat, one Republican — said he did.

While there have been Republican critics of the comment, the top leadership has sat on its hands and pretended they didn’t hear anything, some using that old lawyer dodge of “I can’t recall” when asked if they heard it. Sycophancy in politics is toxic.

Common decency is not a conservative or a liberal issue. Showing courage in the face of something so obviously wrong is not a conservative or liberal issue. It’s what we want from our leaders of both parties. Country is bigger than party.

Last week would have been a good time for our representative to defend American principles and ideals. Instead, he chose to defend the indefensible.