In more decorous times, when it was still shocking for a politician to have, say, an affair or an off-the-books nanny, Washington PR agencies offered an elegant four-part prescription for crisis management. Tell the truth. Say you’re sorry. Cut your losses. Lick your wounds.
It’s almost quaint to remember the quiet power of honesty, tactical prioritizing, apology and self-reflection.
Crisis management now is just one more thing Trump has remade in his own image. He addresses a gathering storm not with the tonic of truth but with the crystal meth of lying and hysteria.
On Tuesday, White House Counsel Pat A. Cipollone sent a howler of a letter to House Democrats on behalf of the president. It reads like a court order a child might draw up in red crayon: “I won’t eat my spinach because MOMMY YOU ARE SO UNFAIR.”
Cipollone’s embarrassing document blew past the rule of law toward monarchic decree as it announced that the White House wouldn’t stand for the impeachment inquiry in the House. It chiefly conveyed Hail Mary distress and Trumpian snideness. Plus, it was pocked with errors.
“As you know,” wrote Cipollone, “you have designed and implemented your inquiry in a matter that violates fundamental fairness and constitutionally mandated due process.” (Did he mean “in a manner”?)
Cipollone cast Trump as poor, beleaguered Josef K and his entirely self-made plight as a Kafkaesque horror. Trump’s been denied a proper trial, Cipollone contended. As you know, counselor, any impeachment inquiry is just that — an investigation that is a proper prelude to a trial in the Senate.
Once Cipollone tilted into absurdity by arguing that Trump is being denied due process (he certainly is not) and the whole administration can therefore defy subpoenas (they certainly cannot, on penalty of prison), he had nowhere to go but bolded words, scare quotes and italics. The impeachment process is unprecedented, unfair and never before in our history.
Kicking and screaming seems unlikely to sway the House Democrats who already have documentary evidence that Trump solicited political help from a foreign power. No wonder a majority of Americans, 51% according to a Fox News poll on Wednesday, now want Trump impeached and removed from office.
The question is not will the Democrats be intimidated by Trump’s grandstanding, but rather how will they enforce the Constitution’s mandate to oversee a rampaging executive branch.
How will they deal, for example, with Gordon Sondland, the real estate developer and Trump donor whom the president made U.S. ambassador to the European Union. Sondland was ostentatiously prevented from testifying before a House panel by Michael R. Pompeo’s State Department.
In the texts released so far, Sondland seems plenty complicit in the Trump-Zelensky affair, and he’s one of the figures at the center of the probe. It’s not surprising the White House might want him to stay silent. But it’s still marginally surprising that Republicans are willing to be held in contempt of Congress, over and over, to keep Trump’s crimes secret.
Meanwhile, the crude efforts to obstruct this by Trump’s men, from Cipollone to Pompeo to Atty. Gen. William Barr, look eminently civilized compared to what the president himself is doing. Though the shadiness of his interactions with Ukraine and Russia have been amply documented in transcript, text messages, a whistleblower complaint and the report issued by Robert S. Mueller III, Trump is still at it, like a down-and-out gambler groveling before dirty loan sharks.
Among the sharks is Recep Tayyip Erdogan, president of Turkey. Last weekend, Erdogan got Trump to withdraw troops, by un-American fiat, from the Syrian border so he could go after Kurds who have been our partners against Islamic State for the last five years. On Wednesday, with Trump’s green light, Turkey launched airstrikes. Even the president’s GOP lackeys in Congress expressed horror at this unilateral amplification of the Islamic State threat and betrayal of an ally.
Russian President Vladimir Putin must be enjoying Trump’s desperation more than anyone. When Trump as much as conditioned U.S. security assistance to Ukraine on the Ukrainian president’s willingness to harass Joe Biden, he was using U.S. foreign policy to weaken the defenses of a nation already in Russia’s crosshairs.
As icing on the cake, Trump’s loose-cannon factotum Rudolph W. Giuliani is spreading Kremlin-friendly lies that Ukraine — not Russia — hacked America’s 2016 election. And Tuesday, the president threatened to withdraw from the Open Skies Treaty, which, since 2002, has allowed the U.S. to monitor Russian military deployments, notably in Ukraine.
To see a panicky president endanger our national security while he showers Erdogan and Putin with gifts is to see a leader over the edge. He has no intention of even pausing his traitorous crime spree on the way to impeachment.
Trump agonistes brings to mind O.J. Simpson in his white Bronco, futilely fleeing from an inevitable charge of double murder. “Inevitable” is the key word.
Whatever his histrionics, letting Trump betray his country in plain sight is not an option for anyone other than those whose minds are pickled by far-right conspiracy theories. The Bronco will be stopped. But this is a long struggle, and the accused may again get off scot free. Let’s worry about that tomorrow.