An unnamed senior administration official claims there is a cabal of “resisters” in the White House working overtime to save the president from himself, or maybe just undermining him, depending on whom you believe. The president, for his part, turns ever more apoplectic, screaming not only about “witch hunts” but also “treason” as he hunts for disloyal leakers. On Capitol Hill, a confirmation hearing in a staid Senate office building is repeatedly interrupted by protesters shouting at the nominee and the senators; 70 people are arrested. Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s criminal investigation into the administration continues; a porn actress who received $130,000 in hush money from the president poses for Vogue and “packs them in” at a Portland, Maine, strip club. A new book by legendary reporter Bob Woodward reveals that even the White House chief of staff, John F. Kelly, calls President Trump an “idiot” who is “off the rails.” In one meeting, the book asserts, Kelly said what everyone must surely be thinking: “We’re in Crazytown.”
Yes, we are. And even by today’s Crazytown standards, this has been an extraordinary week in which a surreal picture emerged of a White House out of control, led (if that’s the word) by a volatile president whose behavior appalls and terrifies even his own top aides. On one level, nothing much was revealed that we didn’t already know. But this week the level of disarray and dysfunction was laid out for us once again in a stark, unvarnished and deeply depressing way.
The level of disarray and dysfunction was laid out for us once again in a stark, unvarnished and deeply depressing way.
As usual, some of this is just noise. It’s been a challenge since the beginning of this administration to separate the meaningful outrages that demand a response from the empty ones that should be ignored. Name-calling, gratuitous insults, expressions of late-night petulance, resentment and bitterness — much of Trump’s Twitter blasting doesn’t add up to much, or is designed to misdirect our attention to the wrong things.
But that shouldn’t obscure the fact that the president is a profoundly powerful man, the commander in chief of an enormous war-fighting force and an executive capable of unilaterally reversing the nation’s efforts to combat climate change or provide healthcare to its citizens. He has ripped families apart at the border, incarcerating young children; he has irritated countries as powerful as China and as closely allied as Canada; at home, he has fanned the flames of polarization and mistrust into sweeping wildfires. Arguably, he has sought to obstruct justice. If his own most trusted aides see him as a demagogue or a narcissist or an ignoramus or a bigot, surely we need to know that.
Our democracy is held together by venerable and resilient institutions: the rule of law, the electoral process, the free press, the courts, the loyal opposition. But Trump is testing them in ways they have not been tested for years. He has worked assiduously to undermine each of them — for instance, calling news reporters “enemies of the people” and attacking judges and judicial rulings and his own attorney general. He has also called for political opponents to be prosecuted and threatened voting rights with his now-disbanded sham commission on “election integrity.”
Still, these institutions seem likely to outlast him. Laws, we hope, are stronger than men; voters, in the aggregate, decide the fate of presidents. Our democratic system of government has survived a civil war, several impeachments and a Great Depression. And, most likely, it will survive Donald Trump.
For now, we could call on him to step back, calm down, hit the pause button and think about the needs of the country he has been given the authority to lead. But that seems unlikely to happen. We could call on Congress to play its constitutional role as a check on presidential power and misbehavior. But the Republican leaders who control the House and Senate have repeatedly failed to challenge Trump in any meaningful way, making them complicit. At the moment, it is left to the voters — oh, and the prosecutors — to defend the country from its president.