Feb 13th 2018

Trump’s Battered Presidency

WASHINGTON, DC – It’s gotten to the point where one might almost feel sorry for Donald Trump. While that “almost” reflects a gap too wide for Trump’s opponents to bridge, it can be said that February has, thus far, been cruel to the US president, though he clearly is no innocent victim.

During the first full week of the month, Trump’s White House faced more trouble than befalls most presidencies in a couple of months, or longer. The Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped 1,000 points twice, wiping out all the gains that the bull market had racked up for the year so far. No one knew when the markets would steady themselves or whether Trump’s vaunted tax cuts, among other policies, were fueling fears of economic over-heating and higher interest rates.

Trump had made things worse for himself by doing what his predecessors in the Oval Office had wisely avoided. He regularly took credit for stock-market gains. The supposed great businessman had forgotten that what goes up eventually comes down.

Also that week, Congress passed a two-year budget agreement. Ordinarily, a longer-term and bipartisan deal would be good news; but the deal was estimated to guarantee a staggering $1 trillion annual budget deficit. The Republican Party, which had long claimed to be the party of fiscal responsibility, forfeited that identity. Congressional Democrats and Republicans were able to agree by giving each side essentially what it wanted in new spending – without budget cuts or tax increases to offset the impact on the deficit.

Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and Bill Clinton all presided over tax increases, with Clinton’s fiscal policy actually generating a budget surplus in the final years of his second term. But then along came George W. Bush, who argued that the surplus should be returned to the people. And so it was – and then some. From then on, raising taxes became anathema to the Republicans, and, in time, most of Bush’s “temporary” tax cuts became permanent.

Trump’s promise to cut taxes again is widely viewed as a major reason why Republican congressional leaders – and, most important, the party’s big donors – supported him in 2016 and continued to do so. But the members of Congress also became fearful of Trump’s “base,” which may represent only about a third of the electorate but is very strong in Republican congressional districts and could back a more right-leaning challenger in the party primary.

Republicans pretended that the tax cuts were aimed at the middle class, though they mostly helped the wealthy and business. Trump and his allies have been strenuously trying to talk the country into liking the tax cuts, which are front-loaded to help people before the 2018 midterm elections, in which the entire House of Representatives, a third of the Senate, and many governorships and state legislatures will be up for grabs. Republicans have been in a panic that they might lose both the House and the Senate, though the latter is less likely, given that many more Democratic than Republican incumbents must defend their seats. And much can happen by then to change the electoral equation.

As if all this weren’t enough, the Trump White House was suddenly hit with a wave of wife-beating charges. The Republican Party was already in trouble with women, and how Trump and his aides handled the situation was not helpful. Early in the week, it became known that two ex-wives of the little-known Rob Porter – whose anodyne job title, Staff Secretary, belied the importance of his job (getting the right papers to the president) – had told the FBI that Porter had been physically and emotionally violent with them during their (brief) marriages to him.

As a result, Porter had never received the full security clearance that his job required; even after a year, he had only “interim” clearance. It is unusual for uncertainty about the security fitness of a senior White House aide to last so long – as it also has in the case of Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who handles foreign-policy issues. The concern in such cases is that there may be information that could expose the official to blackmail. A Trump speechwriter also had to step down after complaints by his ex-wife.

The story grew worse when it became known that Trump’s chief of staff, John Kelly, and White House counsel Don McGahn had known about Porter’s situation for some time (McGahn had known for a year, and Kelly for at least several months), and had apparently taken no steps to prevent Porter from handling highly classified information. So a scandal about spousal abuse quickly morphed into one about possible security lapses.

The Trump presidency has featured an uncommonly long trail of aides forced to resign or fired for various reasons. Most experienced veterans of the executive branch weren’t drawn to work for Trump, and he and his circle of advisers blackballed anyone who had opposed him during the 2016 election. So the Trump presidency didn’t start with first-class personnel, and the staff hasn’t improved.

This is not surprising. Trump is known to be a very difficult person to work for: impetuous and intemperate, he routinely screams at his aides. People have risen and fallen in his estimation within a matter of days, and factions within the White House have feuded constantly.

Kelly, the retired four-star Marine general who in late July 2017 switched from Secretary of Homeland Security to White House chief of staff, has established some order in the West Wing. But he has foresworn trying to change Trump’s behavior – from his unpredictable but often consequential tweets, to calls made on a personal phone from his private quarters (so that Kelly couldn’t monitor or listen in).

Kelly, it turned out, was also almost as morally obtuse as his boss: he’d already displayed racial insensitivity, and when it came to domestic violence, he was clueless. He cared only that Porter had been doing a good job and was needed, so he put out a statement praising Porter to the skies and privately urged him to remain on the job.

But, as the media firestorm spread, Kelly changed his story and directed the White House staff to lie on his behalf – to assert that he had responded swiftly and negatively to the news about Porter’s former wives. Kelly’s fate today is uncertain.

And what about Trump, of whom at least a dozen women have complained of unwanted sexual advances (if not worse)? At the end of an eventful week, he set off a new firestorm, by speaking of his sympathy for Porter, and suggesting that women who make such complaints aren’t necessarily to be believed.


Elizabeth Drew is a contributing editor to The New Republic and the author, most recently, of Washington Journal: Reporting Watergate and Richard Nixon’s Downfall.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2018.
www.project-syndicate.org

 


This article is brought to you by Project Syndicate that is a not for profit organization.

Project Syndicate brings original, engaging, and thought-provoking commentaries by esteemed leaders and thinkers from around the world to readers everywhere. By offering incisive perspectives on our changing world from those who are shaping its economics, politics, science, and culture, Project Syndicate has created an unrivalled venue for informed public debate. Please see: www.project-syndicate.org.

Should you want to support Project Syndicate you can do it by using the PayPal icon below. Your donation is paid to Project Syndicate in full after PayPal has deducted its transaction fee. Facts & Arts neither receives information about your donation nor a commission.

 

 

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Oct 21st 2019
EXTRACT: "Were Israel to be attacked with the same precision and sophistication as the strike on Saudi Arabia, the Middle East would be plunged into war on a scale beyond anything it has experienced so far. Sadly (but happily for Russian President Vladimir Putin), that is the reality of a world in which the US has abandoned any pretense of global leadership."
Oct 20th 2019
EXTRACT: "Europe also stands to lose from Trump’s abandonment of the Kurds. If, in the ongoing chaos, the thousands of ISIS prisoners held by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces escape – as some already have – America’s estranged European allies will suffer. Yet Trump is unconcerned. “Well, they are going to be escaping to Europe, that’s where they want to go,” he remarked casually at a press conference. “They want to go back to their homes." "
Oct 15th 2019
EXTRACT: "Assuming the House ultimately votes to impeach Trump, the fact remains that there are far fewer votes in the Senate than will be needed to convict him and remove him from office. But the willingness of Congress – including the Senate – to continue tolerating his dangerous conduct in office, including threats to US national security, is now truly in question."
Oct 7th 2019
EXTRACT: "The problem didn't start with the election of Donald Trump. Nor did it begin with the Democrats launching an impeachment inquiry against Trump. This is a developing crisis that has been growing like a cancer within our polity for at least the past 25 years. Its main symptoms are a lack of civility in our political discourse, a "take no prisoners" mindset, and a denial of the very legitimacy of "the other side." Trump didn't create this crisis; he was the result of it.   When Newt Gingrich took the helm of Congress in 1995, unlike previous Republican leaders, he embarked on a campaign not only to obstruct the efforts of then President Clinton, but to destroy him. Congress launched a series of investigations accusing Clinton of everything from corruption to obstruction of justice – with hints of even more nefarious plots to assassinate those who might pose a problem to his presidency.  "
Oct 4th 2019
EXTRACT: "As the story spreads, it grows darker. Meanwhile, Trump is trying to learn the identity of the whistleblower (who is protected by law), which could expose that person to great danger. And he is accusing some people – including Adam Schiff, the chair of the House Intelligence Committee – of treason. My sense is that Trump fears the tough, focused Schiff. Trump has ominously noted that traitors used to be shot or hanged. And he hasn’t helped himself with members of either party by declaring, in one of his hundreds of febrile tweets, that forcing him from office could lead to a “civil war.” Trump has taken the United States somewhere it’s never been before. His presidency may not survive it."
Sep 24th 2019
EXTRACT: "But regardless of whether the Ukraine scandal remains front-page news, it will haunt the US intelligence community, which has been Trump’s bête noire since the day he took office. Trump has relentlessly attacked US intelligence agencies, cozied up to Russian President Vladimir Putin, and divulged secrets to foreign officials, potentially burning high-value sources. This behavior had already raised serious concerns about whether Trump can be trusted to receive sensitive intelligence at all. Now, intelligence leaders must ask themselves how far they are willing to go in toeing the White House line."
Sep 21st 2019
EXTRACT: "As Lobaczewski pointed out, pathological leaders tend to attract other people with psychological disorders. At the same time, empathetic and fair-minded people gradually fall away. They are either ostracised or step aside voluntarily, appalled by the growing pathology around them.......As a result, over time pathocracies become more entrenched and extreme. You can see this process in the Nazi takeover of the German government in the 1930s, when Germany moved from democracy to pathocracy in less than two years.......In the US, there has clearly been a movement towards pathocracy under Trump. As Lobaczewski’s theory predicts, the old guard of more moderate White House officials – the “adults in the room” – has fallen away. The president is now surrounded by individuals who share his authoritarian tendencies and lack of empathy and morality. Fortunately, to some extent, the democratic institutions of the US have managed to provide some push back."
Sep 16th 2019
EXTRACT: "If the Supreme Court does agree with the Divisional Court that the question is political rather than legal, it will take the UK constitution into quite peculiar territory. Prime ministers will be the new kings and queens. They will be free to suspend parliament at will, and for as long as they wish, without any judicial interference. Parliament will meet not out of constitutional necessity but in the service of the government’s interests – namely, to pass its legislation and to maintain appearances, rather than to hold it to account."
Sep 12th 2019
Extract: "The Republican Party has lashed its fate to an increasingly unhinged leader. Though three other presidential hopefuls for 2020 now stand in Trump’s way, none can defeat him. But they can damage his reelection effort, which is why the Republican Party has been scrapping some primaries and caucuses. How well Trump does in November next year may well depend on how his fragile ego withstands the coming months."
Sep 2nd 2019
EXTRACTS: "Most people think of revolutions as sudden earthquakes or volcanic eruptions that come without warning and sweep away an entire political system. But historians, political scientists, and even the odd politician know that the reality is very different: revolutions happen when systems hollow themselves out, or simply rot from within. Revolutionaries can then brush aside established norms of behavior, or even of truth, as trivialities that should not impede the popular will............ Only time will tell whether we are currently witnessing the hollowing out of British democracy. But Prime Minister Boris Johnson may well have crossed some invisible Rubicon by.......... Whatever happens now, British parliamentary democracy may never be the same again. It will certainly never again be the model that so many people around the world once admired."
Aug 29th 2019
EXTRACT: "Events such as prorogations and dissolutions happen when countries face difficult times. Therefore, because of the disastrous effects of Brexit: sterling in freefall; a recession looming on the horizon and Britain’s international standing at its lowest ebb since Suez, it is no surprise that the country is in this position now. The worrying thing is that using the monarchical power of prorogation does not solve problems – it has a history of turning them into frightening and often violent crises. There is a worrying relationship between the use of such powers and a complete breakdown in government."
Aug 28th 2019
EXTRACT: "Reminiscent of Don Quixote, Trump is tilting at windmills. His administration is flailing at antiquated perceptions of the Old China that only compound the problems it claims to be addressing. Financial markets are starting to get a sense that something is awry. So, too, is the Federal Reserve. Meanwhile, the global economy is fraying at the edges. The US has never been an oasis in such treacherous periods. I doubt if this time is any different. 
Aug 24th 2019
EXTRACT: "In fact, with firms in the US, Europe, China, and other parts of Asia having reined in capital expenditures, the global tech, manufacturing, and industrial sector is already in a recession. The only reason why that hasn’t yet translated into a global slump is that private consumption has remained strong. Should the price of imported goods rise further as a result of any of these negative supply shocks, real (inflation-adjusted) disposable household income growth would take a hit, as would consumer confidence, likely tipping the global economy into a recession."
Aug 21st 2019
EXTRACT: "Climate change is real, and it is a problem. According to the IPCC, the overall impact of global warming by the 2070s will be equivalent to a 0.2-2% loss in average income. That’s not the end of the world, but the same as a single economic recession, in a world that is much better off than today.  The risk is that outsized fear will take us down the wrong path in tackling global warming. Concerned activists want the world to abandon fossil fuels as quickly as possible. But it will mean slowing the growth that has lifted billions out of poverty and transformed the planet. That has a very real cost. "
Aug 20th 2019
EXTRACTS: "It is no exaggeration to say that Johnson has lied his way to the top, first in journalism and then in politics. His ascent owes everything to the growing xenophobia and English nationalism that many Conservatives now espouse................Johnson has chosen a government of like-minded anti-European nationalists. His principal adviser, Dominic Cummings, was described by David Cameron, Britain’s prime minister from 2010 to 2016, as a “career psychopath.” Cummings is, alongside Johnson, the most powerful figure in the new government; he is an unelected wrecker who earlier this year was ruled to be in contempt of parliament. Fittingly, if depressingly, he now is masterminding our departure from the EU with or without parliamentary approval."
Aug 19th 2019
EXTRACTS: "Back in May, a jury found Patrick Syring, a former State Department official, guilty of 14 counts of making threats against my life and my staff at the Arab American Institute. This week, a federal judge sentenced Syring to five years in prison to be followed by three years of court-ordered probation.................It gives me no pleasure to see this man going to jail for a long period, but it does provide us all with a sense of enormous relief. I've been threatened before. My wife, my children, and I have received death threats for the past 50 years – owing to my advocacy for Palestinian rights and the rights of the Arab American community. My office was fire-bombed and an Arab American colleague, whom I hired, was murdered. Two individuals who, in the past, made death threats against me and my children were convicted and sentenced to prison terms. But this case was different."
Aug 15th 2019
EXTRACT: "Gaslighting typically refers to intimate relationships. It’s a way of controlling someone by creating false narratives – for example, that they are irrational or crazy. If such lies are repeated constantly, victims may get confused and start believing there really is something wrong with them. Confusion, diversion, distraction and disinformation can similarly be used to gaslight an entire society. So how can you tell if you are being gaslighted, and how do you avoid it in the first place?"
Aug 14th 2019
EXTRACT: "Trump has once again painted himself into a corner. Since the latest massacres, he’s been at pains to present himself as a reasonable fellow who can get behind gun reform (and perhaps mollify suburban women, his most dangerous foes on this issue). But he’s also noticeably (and typically) anxious to maintain the loyalty of the rural voters who form an important part of his base. Trump has also taken the gamble of using racial politics and white supremacy as instruments for winning in 2020. When faced with the dilemma of trying to assuage suburban voters or keeping the base close, time after time his instinct has been to shore up the base. (That didn’t work very well in 2018.)"
Aug 5th 2019
Extracts: "it is impossible to model many of the most important risks. Global warming will produce major changes in hydrological cycles, with both more extreme rainfall and longer more severe droughts. This will have severe adverse effects on agriculture and livelihoods in specific locations, but climate models cannot tell us in advance precisely where regional effects will be most severe. Adverse initial effects in turn could produce self-reinforcing political instability and large-scale attempted migration........Achieving a zero-carbon economy will require a massive increase in global electricity use, from today’s 23,000 TW hours to as much as 90,000 TW hours by mid-century. Delivering this in a zero-carbon fashion will require enormous investments, but as the Energy Transitions Commission has shown, it is technically, physically, and economically feasible......Added up across all economic sectors, however, it’s clear that the total cost of decarbonizing the global economy cannot possibly exceed 1-2% of world GDP. In fact, the actual costs will almost certainly be far lower, because most such estimates cautiously ignore the possibility of fundamental technological breakthroughs, and maintain conservative estimates of how long and how fast cost reductions in key technologies will occur. In 2010, the International Energy Agency projected a 70% fall in solar photovoltaic equipment costs by 2030. It happened by 2017."
Jul 31st 2019
Extract: "I admire the US for its culture, entrepreneurialism, and universities, and I have many American friends. Furthermore, I know how grateful the rest of the world has to be for US leadership after World War II. Never before had a victorious power behaved so generously toward others, including the defeated. We owe so much to US policy in the second half of the twentieth century. But although I am no declinist regarding American economic, intellectual, and military power, the country’s soft power has certainly decreased, and its positive influence around the world has declined. The reason for this is simple: US President Donald Trump is a bad man surrounded by a bad team of incompetent and dangerous ideologues."