Friday, August 4, 2017

Acts of Defiance

Colombian Amazon, via Lugares Colombianos.

Funny detail about the extent to which General Kelly is moving to take control over the president:

(Should have been "told".)

The official explanation is that Kelly wants to control the quality of the information the president gets—less Breitbart and more Daily Briefing, which sounds like an absolutely good enough idea in its own right, but it also seems like a serious power play in more ways than one. First, it's an effort to stop Trump from making screaming phone calls, or presumably at least some of the tweets—an effort to control him, in respect to behaviors other minders haven't been able to temper. Then, it's a way of limiting the influence of certain staffers, like Bannon, who have long gotten attention from Trump in this way, with the inflammatory clipping (I took a detailed look at one case, the time Trump "found out" that Obama had had his "wires tapped" in Trump Tower, in March). And lastly it's a way of taking charge of the president's own inclinations, like putting him on a diet, infantilizing him, or treating him as an invalid (as Mrs. Wilson did to Woodrow after his 1919 stroke—he really was an invalid, of course, but Trump really is infantile in important respects).

If you're thinking in terms of the traditional coup here, it's tempting to see Kelly assuming this much control over the management of the White House, alongside General Mattis for the military and General McMaster for security issues in the White House, as a kind of junta in the formation process. It's interesting in that light how Kelly has asserted a kind of patronage role over the attorney general, calling Sessions on his first day on the job to promise him Trump wouldn't fire him, in spite of the imperial "disappointment" Sessions has caused the boss by (sort of) following the recusal rules instead of acting as his prince's personal agent (Trump can't understand that if Sessions hadn't recused himself nothing he said or did in he Russia matter would have been regarded as legitimate; of course his constituents at Fox & Friends and Hannity and a controlled West Virginia rally audience would have asserted its legitimacy, so he wouldn't have cared, or even found out).

I've been talking about the concept of a military coup ever since New Year's Eve; generally a "soft" one, where nobody and particularly the president himself is necessarily even informed that it's taken place, which I thought might be constitutionally intolerable but still the most hopeful way of avoiding human disaster in a Trump presidency. Naturally, elements of the Trumpist right seem to have taken the coup idea up in a big negative way, as the dastardly project of the elites to prevent Trump from Making America Great Again, focusing less on the military than on the "deep state" (which seems to mean the civil service), or the CIA, or some vague conspiracy of liberals carried on in the imaginary future, which is so much easier to report on than the present (Kurt Schlichter via Roy).

At the moment, I'm thinking back (to around 2014) to a different and maybe more broadly interesting set of ideas, about the nature of power in a political system—that the distribution of power in a constitutional government isn't as firmly fixed as the constitution makes it look, but flows around to some extent depending on the ambitions and abilities of the principles. As exemplified by the Obama administration, when the Republican Congress had become wholly unable to exercise its functions, and the presidency found itself obliged to step in in this and that issue, to howls of "Imperial Presidency!" from people like Ross Douthat.

Right now, the crucial thing is that Donald Trump and his lieutenants are really incapable of exercising power in any systematic way, and really not even all that interested in it—what they care about above all is how they look on Fox, which doesn't require them to do anything at all, since Fox is going to admire them more or less no matter what, blaming malevolent conspiracies and backstabbings for whatever the administration is unable to accomplish. They aren't even trying: an interesting case that just came up is how the Department of Homeland Security hasn't started examining how much land they need to acquire to build that wall on the Mexican border, or how much it would cost (TPM). The administration isn't interested in building a wall; they're only interested in shouting about it and working up the emotions of the increasingly small minority that supports the president.

The coup-like behavior of Trump's generals is just one aspect of the way power is flowing from the superfices of his group to the greater depths of other parts of government; possibly more significant is Congress, which has been tiptoeing toward independence from the president in some remarkable ways, more in spite of McConnell and Ryan than under them: writing that bill imposing sanctions on Russia, Iran, and North Korea in such a way as to circumscribe presidential power; setting up bipartisan groups to work on repairing the function of the sabotage-damaged Affordable Care Act; responding to the White House proposal on immigration with undisguised contempt; and now working on measures to protect special counsel Robert Mueller from any Trumpian attempts to get rid of him and his investigation. They have begun to understand that Trump's not able to stop them; he's the weakest president since Harding.

Even the Secret Service is getting into the act:
The Secret Service is no longer leasing space in President Donald Trump’s eponymous tower in Manhattan, according to the Trump Organization.
The Washington Post reported, citing two unnamed sources familiar with the discussions, that the Secret Service left its Midtown digs in Trump Tower after a dispute over the terms of its lease, in particular the price and “other conditions.”
Since then, according to the report, the Secret Service relocated its command post to a trailer on the sidewalk below.
The First Grifter, charging top Midtown East rates to the noble guys assigned to protecting his life (theoretically; of course he won't personally visit his apartment at all, afraid of demonstrators) and property, and thus converting their duty into his personal profit, went too far. The ethics office can't stop him from doing it, but the service itself can!

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