Tuesday, September 4, 2018

All the President's Mess

Amphora painting of Odysseus blinding Polyphemus, Eleusis Museum, via Wikipedia.

That's the thing. It strikes me Woodward is like the little man in the forest in a Grimm story. Each brother in turn runs into him and he asks them to share their sandwich and pot of beer and rewards them with a magical object or a bag of gold pieces hidden in the tree stump; but the last brother who's rude and refuses gets a curse instead and henceforward every time he opens his mouth a frog leaps out of it, or something like that. Woodward's just responding to what he gets, and for the first time in 40 years he looks like he's done something.

The good news (and as you can tell from the title,  Fear, there's not a lot of it) is that Trump isn't president, as I've said. He's not authorized to speak for the White House. Kelly and Conway and the rest of the household retainers made huge and successful efforts to keep Trump from talking to Woodward until after the manuscript was submitted, because that would have been too embarrassing to bear, but a pretty accurate picture of the White House is emerging from the Wapo excerpts, and Trump isn't effectively in it, although he makes plenty of trouble trying to make decisions on the few matters that sort of interest him and sometimes getting away with it. But he doesn't know enough about what's going on, or care enough about it, except for the hopeless desire for protection against the Mueller investigation, to impose his will on it in general, and there's been what Woodward calls an "administrative coup d'état", where the staffers work as clearly as they can and Trump howls from the East Wing:
Priebus dubbed the presidential bedroom, where Trump obsessively watched cable news and tweeted, “the devil’s workshop” and said early mornings and Sunday evenings, when the president often set off tweetstorms, were “the witching hour.”
I love the corroboration here of so much I've imagined, just because everybody's character demanded it; the way Trump will make an insane demand and they'll pretend they're going to execute it knowing he'll have forgotten about it before too long, like that time he ordered them to assassinate Bashar al-Assad:
After Syrian President Bashar al-Assad launched a chemical attack on civilians in April 2017, Trump called Mattis and said he wanted to assassinate the dictator. “Let’s fucking kill him! Let’s go in. Let’s kill the fucking lot of them,” Trump said, according to Woodward.
Mattis told the president that he would get right on it. But after hanging up the phone, he told a senior aide: “We’re not going to do any of that. We’re going to be much more measured.” The national security team developed options for the more conventional airstrike that Trump ultimately ordered.
Or the time he was pulling out of the United States–Korea Free Trade Agreement:
Cohn, a Wall Street veteran, tried to tamp down Trump’s strident nationalism regarding trade. According to Woodward, Cohn “stole a letter off Trump’s desk” that the president was intending to sign to formally withdraw the United States from a trade agreement with South Korea. Cohn later told an associate that he removed the letter to protect national security and that Trump did not notice that it was missing.
And that's good news, because at least power is largely in the hands of people who are not insane, at least in the foreign affairs department; Mattis is a nasty reactionary but he doesn't want to be responsible for a war and he'll stop it. On trade it's a lot iffier, because Trump's idea, that import taxes are sort of like a real warmaking that you can use for beating your enemies, like South Korea and Canada, into submission, is overwhelmingly present to him as the thing that presidents do, as the way you make "deals", and he can't keep off it, especially since Mattis won't let him do any real war. Also the trade policy shop includes somebody, Peter Navarro, who's pretty much as crazy as he is, though less incapable of reading or paying attention, and who seems to win in in-house battles with Kudlow and Ross with depressing frequency.

Because the bad news is that nobody's president, and that's not how we need it, especially in the domestic arena, where purely evil people like Ryan Zinke and Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III are in charge, working their will independent of any direction from above. In a better world somebody would just take over, maybe from out of the rival power center in Congress: Nancy Pelosi if she was Speaker is fully prepared to do it, and I imagine some of her rivals are too (not old Steny Hoyer, though, please)—she could be, as I've said she was in 2006-10, a kind of prime minister, only then she was a French-style prime minister in a relatively strong presidency and now she'd be an English-style potent prime minister in an Empire, and it would be a good thing for everybody.

Steve is noting, as you'd expect, that nothing in Woodward's book is going to shake the adoration of Trump's followers, or the slimy devotion of his lieutenants, including all the wormtails in the GOP congressional leadership. John Kelly is already out denying that he ever called Trump an "idiot", quoting the statement he issued on the subject last time it was raised back at the end of April (not May, as Kelly says)

And Huckabee Sanders and Mattis, who presumably also didn't serve as Woodward's sources, are backing him up.

But what I think matters isn't the effect it might have on the audience for the show, or on Trumpworld directly—it will make folks even more paranoid and likely to flee than they were before, and it may make journalists' jobs harder. What's hitting me is what we should understand, which is in the first place that these stories are true, and better sourced than Michael Wolff's (though Wolff is a much better and more engaging writer than wooden-tongue Bob), and that has certain implications:

  • It's really as crazy as it looks, and it's really unsustainable, not just because they're such goofballs, but because power doesn't just sit around in pieces like that: it gravitates, and it tends in a particular direction;
  • Republicans aren't going to be able to pick it up; even if they don't lose in November, even if the Mueller investigation fails to turn up a crime story, the party will just keep staggering like the blinded Cyclops in the Odyssey—they've bet every cent they had on Trump, they've put all their eggs in that improbable basket, and they won't recover, at least McConnell and Ryan won't, and nobody who's been in the White House will, and I don't know who else there is, but it's easier to to see an actual military coup than any of those people taking control of the mess, and
  • really, Democrats are what's available.

It doesn't matter, it matters less every day, what the Trump Base thinks, as long as Trump and his minions remain unable to exercise power coherently, and they will remain that way as long as they're there. The Base is shrinking into complete irrelevance. It doesn't matter what Woodward's book says to the Trump voters at all. It matters what the book is telling us: that this gang is as inept and incompetent as they look, and they can be knocked down.

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