BY SHASHI MALLA
Last week, Washington and the American nation were badly shaken up by indiscretions and revelations within the White House and the administration in general, the likes of which were bizarre and abnormal to say the least. Some even spoke of a silent coup against President Trump.
First, there was the new book “Fear” by Bob Woodword, veteran journalist and associate editor of “The Washington Post” – and, of course, of “The Pentagon Papers” fame, which ultimately brought down President Richard Nixon. According to “The New York Times” [which received an advanced copy of the book before publication this Tuesday], Woodward in his sober and blunt book, pulls back the curtain on a White house in chaos and utter turbulence. It is in fact a road map of ‘crazytown’. Even during the primaries and the main campaign, Trump had already revealed his true self, and from Day 1 of his improbable, outrageous and utterly corrupt presidency, it was clear that things were bad and could only get worse. What Woodward has done is to update the sorry details and force the American public at large to confront them.
It is clear that Donald J. Trump, like Dr Faustus [vide Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the greatest German writer of all time] had made a pact with the devil. Not for nothing, does former chief of staff, Reince Priebus, call the presidential bedroom, where Trump normally tweets, “the devil’s workshop”. He designates early mornings and Sunday nights, when Trump is at loose ends, “the witching hour”. Woodward vividly quotes Priebus on the pandemonium of the Trump White House decision-making: “When you put a snake and a rat and a falcon and a rabbit and a shark and a seal in a zoo without walls, things start getting nasty and bloody. That’s what happens.”
Among the other primary sources for this book are also Gary D. Cohn, Trump’s former chief economic adviser, and Rob Porter, Trump’s former staff secretary. There are scary scenes in the book when Cohn and Porter conspire to keep certain documents out of Trump’s reach. One of these would have pulled out the US from a major trade agreement with South Korea. Another would have withdrawn the US from the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA/which is being re-negotiated currently). These actions by the president’s closest lieutenants are not only extraordinary; they are unheard of in the annals of the country.
Woodward vividly comments on these momentous and consequential proceedings: “The reality was that the United States in 2017 was tethered to the words and actions of an emotionally overwrought, mercurial and unpredictable leader. Members of his staff had joined to purposefully block some of what they believed were the president’s most dangerous impulses. It was a nervous breakdown of the executive power of the most powerful country in the world”. The book’s title is from a quote Trump delivered in a 2016 interview with “The Washington Post”: “Real power is – I don’t even want to use the word – fear.” In retrospect, is Trump fearful of the exercise of the awesome American executive power, or had his subordinates become terrified that he had become unhinged and posed a grave threat to the very national interests that were at stake? Right from the start of Trump’s candidacy, his ‘natural condition’ was crystal clear to all the leaders of the Republican Party. Some were critical, but all temporized in taking any decisive action – even the vaunted Senator John McCain of Arizona [who was given an emotional, profound and splendid funeral fit for a king sometime back].
It is most unbecoming that in Trump’s court backstabbing is the order of the day. Mostly, Trump insults his underlings. He said to Porter about Priebus: “He’s like a rat. He just scurries around. You don’t even have to pay attention to him.” He calls Attorney General Jeff Sessions, in Porter’s presence, “mentally retarded” and mocks his accent. He is alleged to have also mocked Indian PM Narendra Modi. This is a major character deficiency of Trump’s. He considers himself supreme, while belittling others – with no regard for their personal worth. He has done this even with his peers, like Canadian PM Justin Trudeau. Thus, according to the Scriptures: “Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall”.
John F. Kelly, the President’s chief of staff (and retired four-star Marine general) is quoted as saying about the president in a closed-door staff meeting: “He’s an idiot. It’s pointless to try to convince him of anything. He’s gone off the rails. We’re in crazytown.” Defence Secretary James Mattis, also a retired four-star Marine general, said of Trump that he had the understanding of a fifth grader.
If Woodward’s book was not enough, “The New York Times” took the rare step of publishing an anonymous Op-Ed essay by a “senior official” in the Trump administration (but whose identity is known to the newspaper) discrediting the chief executive en masse. This secret patriot wrote that his/her boss was unaware of a colossal dilemma, namely “that many of the senior officials in his own administration are working diligently from within to frustrate parts of his agenda and his worst inclinations.” This has added insult to injury, and left Trump fuming.
The incognito writer claimed that there was a “quiet resistance” among some of Trump’s own advisers who have secretly and deliberately tried to obstruct from the inside what one official called his “reckless decisions”. The Op-Ed article only corroborates what Woodward wrote in his book and what former administration aides have also written and said.
The larger and more pertinent question is whether a cabal acting clandestinely [critics would say insidiously] within the White House and/or the wider administration can undermine a ‘legitimately’ elected president. Questions of political ethics, personal morals and above all, constitutional law arise. If the disgruntled person(s) are not in step with the president, would it not have been the honorable way out to (collectively) resign, call a press conference to openly point out Trump’s failings, possibly testify before Congress and garner support to remove him from office? From Trump’s point of view, the so-called ‘resistance’ was tantamount to treason and even more treacherous than the ‘deep state’ of the bureaucracy and political establishment.
Trump, of course, reacted with scorn and disbelief. He condemned what he called the “gutless editorial” by the unnamed official, and he dismissed Woodward’s book as “a total piece of fiction” and “totally discredited”. For the nth time he held the ‘fake’ and ‘dishonest’ news media [‘the enemy of the people’] responsible for the accounts and the attempts to discredit and destroy his presidency.
If this was his impression, he is right, but for the wrong reasons. Unlike honest politicians and great leaders (like President Harry S. Truman), Trump lacks the courage to say: ‘the buck stops here’. And so the “impetuous, adversarial, petty and ineffective” governing style (the Op-Ed) has caught up with him and the gutless and spineless Congressional Republicans. It is even said that the Republican Party has made a Faustian bargain with Trump.
As a result, “America is facing a deeply dysfunctional president and a crisis of governance with no parallel in modern history, apart, perhaps, from the paranoid final days of the Nixon administration” (CNN). As the Germans would say, Trump (of German origin on his father’s side) acutely lacks ‘sitzfleisch’ [literal translation: ‘sitting meat’, but signifying the capacity to focus long enough to complete a demanding project or finish whatever work needs to be done].
All over the country, the Democrats are experiencing an upsurge of support and are poised to win control of the House of Representatives in the mid-term Congressional elections, less than two months away. The situation is different in the Senate elections where only some (former) Republican seats and very many more (former) Democratic seats are to be contested. There is, therefore, only a narrow path to victory.
As former President Barack Obama incisively said, it is a chance to restore some sanity in the body politic in a consequential moment of American history.
The writer can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org