We Are ALL Trump’s Hostages
- Unbelievable and unable to negotiate and hold his side of the bargain
- Increasingly isolated from and by his Senior Advisers
- Alienated by Congress
- Distressing moment for the president
- Signs are something major is about to happen
The Bob Woodward book has some astounding details — including evidenceof outright insubordination by senior officials — but in its essence, it’s just a much more reliable confirmation of the basic thrust of Michael Wolff’s picture of complete chaos and near-insanity in the cockpit of the world’s most powerful nation. The New York Times’ anonymous op-ed falls into the same camp. From the moment very early on when we learned about the content of the deranged conversation between the president and Malcolm Turnbull, then prime minister of Australia, we knew that people in the White House had leaked it, in both an astonishing betrayal of confidence, and a clear attempt to warn the country of the unique danger this unfit president poses. Almost all the excellent reporting of the last year and a half has also been fed by constant distress signals from within the White House, where grown-ups have had to contend with a psychologically disturbed, delusional, and hugely ignorant president, who has no capacity or willingness to learn.
We also know that the president is unfocused, inarticulate, prone to tantrums like a 5-year-old, incapable of reading a memo that doesn’t have big pictures or graphics on it, that he insults everyone, often explosively, as his mood fits, spends hours watching cable news, tweets like a distracted animal, and has lied and lied so much fact-checkers are close to exhaustion. And we know he is incapable of admitting a lie, issuing a correction, or adjusting to reality. We know he just makes things up all the time. We know all this because we have eyes and ears. You could see he was mentally unwell from his first day in office, when he made those surreal assertions about the size of his Inaugural crowd. (We now find out he actually had the photographs doctored subsequently to fit his own reality — that’s how deranged he is.) This emperor has had absolutely no clothes from the very beginning. The only thing in doubt all along has been the Republican Party’s complicity.
And that complicity remains. If anything, it is intensifying. As Jim Fallows constantly points out, any single Republican senator — Sasse, Corker, Collins, Graham, Paul, Murkowski — could check this president by voting against him, on any number of issues, including the protection of Robert Mueller’s investigation. Instead, they are now happily supporting a Supreme Court nominee whose deference to executive power is near-total, whose partisanship is profound, and who will reliably back Trump in any constitutional crisis the Supreme Court may find itself having to resolve in the near-future. In the looming conflict between Trump and the rule of law, the GOP has already told us whose side it is on. For good measure, it is now openly preparing to acquiesce in the appointment after the midterms of a new attorney general whose primary goal will be the complete politicization of the Justice Department, as an instrument for the president to punish his enemies, real and imagined, and, more importantly, to protect his criminal friends and allies. And in this situation, Kavanaugh won’t even commit on a president’s ability to pardon himself!Get unlimited access to Intelligencer and everything else New York.LEARN MORE »
The Times’ Mr. (or Ms.) Anonymous is part of that complicity, knowing full well what a nightmare this president is, and yet sticking with him for policy gains he prefers. For that, he is part of the problem rather than the solution. But, in his defense, he is in a very tough spot. The shrinking GOP base is more committed to this mad king than to any other Republican president at this point in his term. Almost every Republican senator knows that the president is profoundly unfit, a danger to the republic and the world, a madman child in charge of Crazytown … and does absolutely nothing at all.
“If left to his own accord, our country would look somewhat like Venezuela,” Senator Bob Corker said this week. “It shocks me, some of the things — as if you treat your friends in one way and your political enemies in another way. Most presidents understand their role is different than this one does. He’s remarkable in his lack of appreciation for democratic values and institutions. And I think that’s where some of the greatest damage is being done to this country.” If this is true — as it manifestly is — and Corker will nonetheless do nothing within his constitutional power to stop it, even though he’s fricking retiring this year and has nothing to lose, what is a patriotic public servant supposed to do?
If Anonymous quits, he will only empower the president’s worst anti-democratic instincts, and make way for someone else who will likely enable authoritarianism. If he stays, he is undermining the very democracy he is trying to protect, by conducting what is effectively a soft coup on behalf of the “steady state” and that part of the GOP that decisively lost to Trump in the primaries. It’s lose-lose, and some of the condemnations of the op-ed’s author seem blind to what is a real dilemma. If you know the president is amoral and dictatorial, there is a real and defensible case for staying. When a president reacts to a chemical attack in Syria by ordering the assassination of Assad and screaming “Let’s fucking kill him! Let’s go in! Let’s kill the fucking lot of them!” you can see why a patriot may want to restrain him from the inside, as Mattis reportedly did.
Unfortunately, there is no case for publicizing any of this anonymously in the New York Times. Far from helping his cause, Anonymous has undermined it. Worse, he has triggered this president — which was completely predictable — into exactly the kind of unhinged behavior Anonymous is so worried about. Maybe the op-ed was designed to buttress Woodward’s portrayal of a dangerous two-track administration. Maybe it was a way of salving his own conscience in the wake of McCain’s death. Maybe it was a misbegotten attempt to calm those of us horrified by what Trump is doing to the office and liberal democracy. But as a political act, it was indeed gutless as well as pointless.
Woodward’s Mattis quotes — particularly the defense secretary’s assessment of Trump’s intelligence as that of “a fifth- or sixth-grader” — will likely mean the end of Mattis as a stabilizing force in foreign and military policy. If Sessions and Kelly are also purged after the midterms, as seems likely, it will mean the last vestiges of adulthood will disappear from the administration, just as it nears its constitutional moment of truth in the inevitable showdown with the special counsel. It will also doubtless intensify the president’s paranoia and willingness to violate more democratic norms. And indeed Trump’s response has been deranged. “TREASON?” he tweeted. And: “If the GUTLESS anonymous person does indeed exist, the Times must, for National Security purposes, turn him/her over to government at once!” In his public comments on the matter, he went delusional again: “The poll numbers are through the roof!” More fatally, it will embolden Trump to ignore advice from those with experience in government, overrule his Cabinet members, and increase his already perilous reliance on his gut instincts, which bear a striking resemblance to Vladimir Putin’s.
Sometimes I think it’s useful to think of this presidency as a hostage-taking situation. We have a president holding liberal democracy hostage, empowered by a cult following. The goal is to get through this without killing any hostages, i.e., without irreparable breaches in our democratic system. Come at him too directly and you might provoke the very thing you are trying to avoid. Somehow, we have to get the nut job to put the gun down and let the hostages go, without giving in to any of his demands. From the moment Trump took office, we were in this emergency. All that we now know, in a way we didn’t, say, a year ago, is that the chances of a successful resolution are close to zero.