AFTER A SHAKY beginning, and worse middle, 2017 ended relatively well for Donald Trump. His recently-installed chief of staff, General (retired) John Kelly, had brought a modicum of order to his feuding administration. After the foul-up of his tin-eared decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, his foreign policy was starting to win plaudits. As the year ended, Republicans in Congress sent the first significant legislative achievement of Trump’s presidency, a sweeping tax reform, to his desk. Perhaps his teething troubles were over? America’s economy looked strong. The stock market was soaring. Trump’s prospects in 2018 suddenly looked far brighter than they had been.
Two weeks into the New Year, that micro-burst of hope has gone out the window. Washington DC is once again roiled by Trump’s foul behaviour and the scandals he generates on an almost daily basis. As the first anniversary of his inauguration approached, on January 20th, two important new notes have emerged in the deep, national consternation Trump’s presidency has caused. First, a dismal, or horrified, recognition that Trump is not going to improve his behaviour or presidency. Emotional, indulged and temperamental, he appears incapable of self-reflection or change. Second, there is a growing suspicion, mostly though not exclusively among Trump’s political opponents, that the 45th president might be mad—or at least mentally unfit to discharge his duties as president. This has caused an increasingly serious debate about whether Trump could be removed in favour of his deputy, Mike Pence, via a constitutional tool designed to protect America from infirm or insane commander in chief. Recent polling suggest over half of Americans consider Trump’s mental state a matter of legitimate concern.
Trump has brought that humiliation squarely on himself. Re- acquainting himself with Twitter, after a Christmas golfing break in Florida, the president taunted North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un as follows: Kim ‘just stated that the “Nuclear Button is on his desk at all times”,’ he wrote, ‘Will someone from his depleted and food starved regime please inform him that I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!’ Perhaps not since Trump boasted of the size of his penis during a televised Republican primary debate had he behaved so crassly. But that was only for starters.
The following day, excerpts were released of Fire and Fury, a book on the Trump administration by Michael Wolff, a celebrity magazine writer, that immediately announced it as the most caustic and thorough takedown of any modern presidency. That includes the many literary postmortems of Richard Nixon’s ill-fated administration. Nixon was a duplicitous, scheming criminal— but clever, competent, a serious political figure. Wolff, on the back of over 200 interviews with Trump, his staff and former friends and colleagues, depicted the 45th president as a thin-skinned, ‘semi-literate’, incompetent imbecile. And that was not only the opinion of Wolff, who, amazingly, was given almost unfettered access to the White House after winning nodding support from Trump for his book project. It was also, he claimed, the opinion of almost all the president’s senior aides, who were united by nothing so much as a conviction that Trump was not up to the job of being president. For Steve Mnuchin and Reince Priebus, the Treasury Secretary and former White House chief of staff, Trump was an “idiot”. For Gary Cohn, his chief economic advisor, the president was “dumb as shit”. The better-mannered HR McMaster, the national security advisor, confined himself to viewing Trump as a “dope”.
Many of Wolff’s revelations were not entirely new. For example, given that Rex Tillerson, the secretary of state, was known to have referred to Trump as a “fucking moron”, it was not terribly surprising to learn that other presidential advisors felt similarly about their boss. Even so, the book became an overnight publishing sensation, sold out within hours of its release, and with a million extra copies on order. There were three reasons for this. First, Wolff did unearth some important new details. Chief among them was an on-record admission from the president’s erstwhile chief strategist and populist muse, Stephen Bannon, that a secretive meeting between Russian operatives, probably linked to the Kremlin, and Trump’s campaign team, including his eldest son, Donald Trump Jr, and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, was not, as the Trump team maintains, inconsequential. To the contrary, Bannon said it was “treasonous”, “unpatriotic” and “bad shit”. Wolff also suggested that Trump himself—again, contrary, to the Trump team’s indignant claims—likely met the Russians himself. This was explosive.
The 25th amendment was designed in the event that the president was incapacitated by an assassination attempt or unexpected health calamity. If Trump might seem a bit crazy, he is no crazier than he was before 63 million Americans elected to make him president
It was the first serious indication that Trump might himself be involved in the collusion that appears to have taken place between his campaign and the Russian hackers who sought to fix the election for him. That will be of interest to the president’s nemesis, Robert Mueller, a former FBI director who has been commissioned to investigate those claims. That, in turn, explains the self-defeating ferocity of Trump’s reaction to the Wolff exposé, which is the second reason for its Harry Potteresque success. The president denounced the book, threatened legal action against its publisher and the author, and released a statement in which he suggested Bannon was ‘insane’. This, the second reason for Fire and Fury’s phenomenal success, was the best marketing ploy Wolff could have hoped for. ‘Thank you Mr President!’ he tweeted saucily.
YET THE MAIN reason for Fire and Fury’s impact is how dramatically it lays out the sordid year-long nightmare that the Trump administration has been. Wolff depicts an administration riven with incompetence and petty feuding between courtiers vying desperately for an infantile president’s favour. America’s best newspapers, led by The New York Times and Washington Post, have been revealing much the same, in near daily scoops, leaked by one resentful White House faction or another. Yet many Americans have become inured to the relentless slew of scandals this has filled the media with. It becomes hard to remember them all. It is easy to wonder whether the media is not, as Trump claims, biased against him. Reading this litany of haplessness and scheming in book form—in the ripping, spicy narrative Wolff has made of it— changes that dynamic. The compound effect of the scandals, in book-form, is more cumulative than reductive. Wolff’s narrative is also plausible, despite a number of—relatively minor—inaccuracies that have already emerged in it. It chimed with the well- sourced press coverage. It also chimes with Trump’s subsequent behaviour.
The debate about whether Trump is mentally fit to be president preceded Fire and Fury, but it has been exacerbated by it. Responding to the furore on Twitter, Trump dubbed himself a ‘stable genius’, which many took to indicate the opposite. Democratic members of Congress have been briefed by psychologists on the issue, with a view to pondering whether this might provide an avenue for removing Trump. The 25th amendment to the US constitution seems to provide a means. It was introduced in 1967, at the height of the Cold War and in the wake of John F Kennedy’s assassination, to ensure America of a competent finger on the nuclear button at all times. The amendment allows a president to be removed in favour of his deputy, in the event that the vice president and a majority of the ‘principal officers of the executive departments’ consider him mentally or physically incapacitated.
There is a good deal of ambiguity about how this would actually work, however. The ‘principal officers’ are generally considered to be members of the president’s cabinet, though it is not legally clear whether that is right. The amendment has never been used, or even much considered before now, which makes its provisions unclear. But it looks less usable than those who doubt Trump’s sanity hope. Even if Trump’s cabinet were to gang up against him in this way, if the president disputed their decision to remove him, as Trump surely would, it would take a two-thirds majority in Congress to legitimise the heist. That is currently unthinkable; Trump has plenty of slavish apologists on Capitol Hill. Moreover, the argument for removing him on this basis is unconvincing. The 25th amendment was designed in the event that the president was incapacitated by an assassination attempt or unexpected health calamity. If Trump might seem a bit crazy, in his narcissism and apparent inability to understand basic policy, he is no crazier than he was before 63 million Americans elected to make him president. Trump, in short, is the crank Americans chose to send to the White House and sacking him by an elite stitch-up would be undemocratic and inflammatory.
Trump has so far walked a fine line between pressing Kim Jong-Un with threats of military action and suggesting an openness to fresh dialogue. It could go wrong, perhaps disastrously. But it is not as if previous administrations had fared any better with the pariah regime
The prospect of Mueller’s investigation leading to Trump’s removal is also remote. That is not because the special council has not dug up dirt on Trump’s operation. To the contrary, he has already made it look exceptionally mucky. Trump has lambasted the investigation as a witch-hunt; it has so far led to indictments against four of his former campaign advisors, including his former campaign chief, Paul Manafort, on gross money laundering charges, and his former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, on charges of lying to the FBI about his separate, secretive contacts with Russia’s ambassador to Washington DC. While it is impossible to second-guess Mueller (whose operation is unleaky by DC’s porous standards), the evidence that senior members of Trump’s campaign colluded, or attempted to collude, with Russian operatives on the basis of promises of assistance already seems strong.
It also seems likely Trump sought to obstruct the course of justice in an effort to protect himself from investigation. The main obstruction charge relates to his alleged request to his former FBI director, James Comey, not to investigate Flynn, and then his decision to sack Comey when he refused. This adds up to a disgraceful record; yet it is not clear that either the degree of collusion or obstruction so far alleged represents criminal activity. Trump’s and his advisor’s behaviour stinks; but it is not, for example necessarily illegal for a campaign team to talk with foreign spies, especially if its members can claim to have done so in ignorance of their true identity. Similarly, the fact that Trump, as president, had the power to sack Comey makes his alleged obstruction not obviously criminal. How much damage Mueller’s investigation does Trump is likely to rest on politics, not the law. If the Democrats take back the House of Representatives at the mid-term elections due in November, which currently looks likely, they will impeach Trump, even if Mueller provides them with no further grounds. That would mire the second half of Trump’s term in impeachment speculation and proceedings, yet probably not lead to his removal, which would require an additional two-thirds majority in the Senate, which would not be possible without the support of many Republican senators. That would only be imaginable if Trump has been accused of serious crimes by Mueller. It is, in short, much likelier than not that Trump will finish his term.
There is an argument, albeit not a popular one in Washington DC, that that is not such an appalling prospect after all. In his first year in office, Trump has debased the presidency with his boorishness and incompetence, offended American allies, especially in Europe, and transgressed many governing norms—that is, American democracy’s unwritten code of etiquette which decrees, for example, that presidential candidates should publish their tax returns, divest or at least plausibly separate themselves from their commercial interests and have a basic grasp of their own governing agenda, none of which Trump has done. Yet at the same time he has done little of the worst things he promised on the campaign trail. The fabled wall he promised to construct across America’s southern border has not been built and probably never will be. Last week, one of Trump’s lackeys suggested the president had recently “discovered” there was no need for a physical barrier from the Atlantic to the Pacific; he has instead asked Congress to provide $18 billion for a more modest structure. The Democrats and many Republicans on Capitol Hill have so far refused that request.
Nor has the Trump administration done almost any of the damage he promised to global trade. While talking up a few—mostly low-key and pro forma—trade squabbles with China and other countries, the administration has not abandoned the North American Free Trade Agreement or slapped 35 per cent tariffs on Chinese goods, as Trump formerly swore to. He may still be tempted by tariffs; the president’s protectionism is just about his only consistent political position over many years. Yet the protectionist Bannon’s fall from grace makes this less likely. Most of Trump’s surviving economic advisors hold liberal economic views and appear to have persuaded Trump that a trade war would be bad for the stock market, whose current heights he has come to view as an important vindication of his leadership.
The debate about whether Trump is mentally fit to be president preceded Fire and Fury, but it has been exacerbated by it. Responding to the furore on Twitter, Trump dubbed himself a ‘stable genius’, which many took to indicate the opposite
Trump’s foreign policy looks better than it might, too. The State Department is showing faint signs of recovering from the wilful neglect of Trump’s first year; some of its senior political positions are belatedly being filled, for example. The worst of Trump’s thuggish instincts are meanwhile being restrained by his respected national security team, led by the defense secretary, James Mattis—including on his most severe foreign problem, North Korea. Puerile Twitter talk aside, Trump has so far walked a fine line between pressing Kim Jong-Un with threats of military action and suggesting an openness to fresh dialogue. It could go wrong, perhaps disastrously. But it is not as if previous American administrations had fared any better with the pariah regime.
The trouble is, these reasons to avoid despair in the Trump administration, important though they are, tend to fade from view almost whenever Trump opens his mouth or reaches for his phone. Take his recent performance on immigration, perhaps the single most important issue during his election campaign. First, last week, the president mishandled a bipartisan meeting called to discuss the future of some 800,000 ‘Dreamers’ ( as illegal migrants who were brought to America as young children are known) whom his administration has, in effect, threatened to start deporting on March 5th. Having called television cameras into the White House meeting, Trump proceeded to embarrass himself by seeming to agree, variously and contradictorily, with everyone in the room—including liberal Democrats who want comprehensive immigration reform to legitimise the status of all illegal immigrants, and right-wing hawks who want to sling all of them out the country.
This displayed a tendency, long identified by the derisive Bannon, that appears to animate the president even more than his casual bigotry, political instincts or campaign pledges: Trump desperately wants to be liked. And the fact that most of America profoundly dislikes him (around 55 per cent of voters disapprove of Trump) seems genuinely amazing and maddening to him. The inevitable result of his hapless management of the immigration meeting was bafflement about his intentions across the political board and an uprising of anger among Trump’s right-wing supporters, for whom his promise to restrict immigration was the single main argument of his candidacy. “What was the point of running for president?” Tucker Carlson, who is normally one of Trump’s most reliable stooges on Fox News, asked him.
SCRAMBLING TO placate his supporters, Trump held a subsequent bipartisan meeting on the issue, this time behind closed doors, in which he questioned why America was taking immigrants from “shithole” countries, such as African ones and Haiti, and not more from “countries like Norway”. This was not merely loutish and probably racist, but also wrong-headed in almost every way. Immigrants from Africa tend to be much better educated and more successful than the average American. Norwegians, whose country is richer, safer, more equal and better governed than America, tend not to want to migrate the Atlantic these days. Still, Trump’s rude remarks appeared to mollify his aggrieved supporters. Carlson dismissed the President’s “shithole” comments as “something almost every person in America agrees with”. The president’s incendiary mismanagement of this issue, as much due to his emotional brittleness and cluelessness about the policy options in hand, has now made it even harder to resolve the Dreamers’ fate ahead of the March 5th deadline. Considering also that an impending budget negotiation has also been linked to it—because Democrats are demanding a resolution in favour of the Dreamers as the price of their support for the Republicans’ funding plans—this may lead to the federal government running out of money on January 20th, and, for a day or two, having to shut down non- essential departments.
What a way to run a country. No wonder America’s geostrategic rivals are eating into its global leadership. Indeed, this is the true cost of Trump’s presidency: an acceleration of his country’s decaying standards of governance and political dysfunction, which will in turn amplify America’s struggle to shore up its erstwhile hegemony. This appears inescapable. However much the president’s opponents may delight themselves in speculating about his mental health, Trump is probably going nowhere. And he is not going to moderate his behaviour. He appears incapable of it, which is why the tawdry daily scandals and intrigues will continue. Indeed, almost incredibly, a revelation last week that the president’s lawyer secretly paid $130,000 to a porn star who claimed to have had an affair with Trump the year after his marriage to the First Lady, Melania Trump, was only briefly a headline story. There is simply too much muck flowing out of the White House for any one scandal to hold attention for long. This appears almost to be Trump’s governing philosophy. It is the most distinctive feature of his effort to Make America Great Again.