The White House Crack-Up
WASHINGTON, DC – On both sides of the White House fence, near-nervous breakdowns abound. The White House staff is said to be in a state of near collapse – bouncing from one presidential crisis to another, trying all the while to hide from a screaming president. On the other side of the White House fence, much of Washington watches the disintegration of a presidency, and even Democrats aren’t taking much joy in it. A president seemingly out of control makes any thoughtful citizen uneasy at best.
Reliable reports emanating from the White House indicate that the president spends much of his day watching television news and raging at what he sees (with one exception: Fox News) and at aides for allowing such reports to happen. Aides try to avoid bringing him bad news for fear of being yelled at.
The appointment of special counsel Robert Mueller by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein (who had his own reputation to rescue) won’t do much for President Donald Trump’s mood. Mueller, a widely respected former FBI director, will keep alive for some time the investigation into whether Trump’s campaign or political associates colluded with Russia in its effort to elect Trump. It is a question that clearly drives Trump to distraction – and he dare not try to fire Mueller. But if, as Rosenstein’s announcement said, Mueller is limited to investigating “federal crimes,” broader issues will escape examination. There are impeachable offenses that aren’t crimes.
Indeed, the latest bout of turmoil began with Trump’s sudden firing on May 9 of FBI director James Comey. That move startled so many people in and out of the White House because it seemed to come out of nowhere, and there was no good explanation for it.
The first official rationale for Comey’s dismissal lasted all of two days. Trump’s aides claimed that he was acting on a memo from Rosenstein, who set forth his deep concerns over how Comey had handled the inquiry into Hillary Clinton’s maintenance of a private email server. But then Trump himself told NBC’s Lester Holt that he’d fired Comey because of “this Russia thing.”
In this rare snippet of honesty – that he had hoped firing Comey would head off an investigation into collusion – Trump may have admitted to obstruction of justice. Such obstruction was one of the charges pending against Richard Nixon when he resigned, rather than face certain impeachment in the House and conviction by the Senate. Trump’s stunning miscalculations – the naive belief that he could kill off the investigation, or that the Democrats would welcome his act because they were still angry at Comey for how he had treated Clinton – provided insight into his appalling judgment.
Adding to a possible obstruction charge was the staggering revelation on Tuesday of this week that, in mid-February, on the day after Trump fired his national security adviser, Michael Flynn, he asked Comey to call off the FBI’s investigation of Flynn. (The criteria for impeachment on grounds of obstruction are not exactly the same as they are under criminal law.) From the moment he fired Flynn, Trump has behaved as if he fears that Flynn has incriminating information that he might be able to trade to avoid punishment for improperly accepting and failing to disclose payments from the governments of Russia and Turkey.
Another form of trouble for Trump had already come on Monday afternoon, when the Washington Post reported that he had disclosed highly classified information provided by a US ally (Israel, it turned out) to two senior Russian officials. That Oval Office meeting, held at the behest of Russian President Vladimir Putin, included the Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, and Russia’s ambassador to the US, Sergey Kislyak (whose telephone conversations with Flynn led to Flynn’s downfall in February). While Trump’s disclosure may not have been illegal – the president is entitled to declassify just about anything – it violated crucial intelligence-sharing norms.
What all of this means for Trump’s longevity in office is now the most hotly debated topic in Washington. Even before these latest troubling stories broke, a large number of congressional Republicans viewed Trump as a threat to the country and their party. And while Republican leaders, thinking that tax cuts take priority, are not ready to say aloud that they would be happy to see Trump gone, they have begun to make their discomfort with him somewhat more apparent.
So far, Trump’s political base – representing about 35% of eligible voters – has stuck with him, despite the scandals and the mess the Republicans and he have made of their agenda, particularly the repeal of former President Barack Obama’s signature health-care reform. Trump has already lost the independents who supported him in the election, and if he doesn’t deliver on his promises – and cannot persuade his supporters that this failure is the Democrats’ fault – that base may begin to erode.
Talk of impeachment has become ubiquitous, but impeachment shouldn’t be attempted – and cannot be politically viable – unless it has a bipartisan basis rooted in the center of the two parties, as was the case with Nixon. The president could also be forced to leave office under the 25th Amendment to the Constitution, which provides for the removal of a president deemed incapable of fulfilling the duties of office. But that amendment, oddly, calls for the vice president to initiate such a proceeding – an unlikely scenario – and that such a move have the backing of a majority of the cabinet or the Congress.
At times Trump looks miserable in the job, leading some to think he might just go back to New York City. But he often expresses great pride, and a certain wonder, that he won, and he likes the amenities of the job. Also, he keeps telling us that he’s not a quitter.
Elizabeth Drew is a regular contributor to The New York Review of Books and the author, most recently, of Washington Journal: Reporting Watergate and Richard Nixon’s Downfall.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2017.
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