By Ramesh Ponnuru
Thursday, May 18, 2017
Donald Trump promised he’d be a different kind of president, and he’s certainly delivered.
He’s not one of those politicians who campaigns as one sort of person and then governs as quite another. While voters were weighing him as a possible president, he made it clear that he saw the norms of American politics and government as contemptible. He showed himself to have excellent instincts—or at least an eye for the main chance—but not to be interested in the details of public policy or inclined to listen to those who are. A small circle of family and close friends were the only people whose counsel he took to heart. He had no guiding political principles but placed immense value on personal loyalty to him. His words weren’t meant to be taken as literally as those of other politicians, and he was much less coy than they were about bragging.
Some people hated all these traits and thought they rendered him unfit for office. Others loved them, or thought they were tolerable given what they saw as the need to blow up a dysfunctional Washington that was incapable of solving dire national problems. What no one on either side can honestly say is that they have cause for shock at the style of Trump’s governance. He may not have delivered on this or that applause line, but he’s been the same man he showed us in 2016 and, indeed, long before then.
The controversies that are now consuming the capital—about Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey, his sharing of intelligence with Russian officials, and his alleged attempt to get the FBI to stop investigating his former adviser Michael Flynn—may be scandals, but they aren’t surprises, not in their broad contours.
The first two are strangely parallel and center on actions Trump took in the course of two days in May. Both the firing and the Russian meeting drew charges of impropriety. The president has the unquestioned legal power to dismiss the FBI director and to divulge intelligence as he wishes. Both times, Trump and his defenders leaned on that legal power to dismiss all the criticisms of how he’d used that power. It was his “absolute right” to share intel with the Russians, he tweeted.
Both times, too, the White House dissembled in a way that was instantly obvious. Comey’s firing was said to be a response to a memo in which the new deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, had faulted the director for criticizing Hillary Clinton in public while closing his investigation of her. It was an implausible motivation for Trump, who quickly spoiled the story by confirming what had really bothered him about Comey: the director’s refusal to help him beat back charges of collusion with Russia and his failure to go after leaks that had embarrassed the administration.
After the Washington Post reported the disclosures to the Russians, Trump appointees such as National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson issued statements that criticized the story without denying anything specific in it. Just as Trump’s tweets confirmed the truth about Comey’s firing, so did the officials’ careful wording confirm the truth about the meeting: Trump had shared sensitive information, even if he hadn’t disclosed the sources and methods by which intelligence agencies had obtained it. (Left unaddressed in the officials’ statements was whether it would be possible for the Russians to use what they learned to figure out the sources and methods.)
Disorganized dishonesty has become the hallmark of the Trump administration’s response to accusations of misconduct. The disorganization may be the more prominent feature. Trump badly damaged Rosenstein’s reputation: Within weeks of being brought into the administration to give it the appearance of ethical high-mindedness, he took part in concocting a pretext for an abuse of power. McMaster’s credibility is falling, too. An administration that seeks to get the public to believe a false storyline may be fearsome; one that can’t maintain a false storyline longer than a day is merely pathetic.
These stories are rooted in presidential impulsiveness. Trump was angry at Comey for his lack of loyalty, and either none of his aides told him he shouldn’t fire the man for it or he refused to heed them. The president thought he could impress the Russians by telling them something they didn’t know, and he appears not to have first asked the intelligence agencies about the ramifications of his impromptu declassification. On these occasions he answers to no higher authority; but he also lacks the internal regulator that other presidents, like most people, have had.
Dishonesty, lack of self-control, inconstancy, incomprehension of norms or their reasons for being: These aren’t features of the president’s personality we’re seeing for the first time. (If the story that he pressured Comey to back off Flynn is confirmed, we may find out that in this instance, too, he wasn’t quite aware that he was doing anything wrong.) They’re features that have shaped the brief, long course of this presidency so far.
For his liberal critics, these features have a saving grace: They help explain why, as John Micklethwait writes in his essay, Trump hasn’t been able to carry out much of his agenda. Now Congress is trying to work around him, pretending he isn’t there. Trump has had very little to say to it about how it should handle such top priorities as health care and infrastructure. His administration isn’t even trying to provide Congress much direction. He’s easily swayed, reading an op-ed about taxes and then rushing out a tax plan to echo it. His own staff speaks of him, sometimes on the record, as a petulant child, one who has to be kept from watching too much television or the wrong programs.
And now? Will American intelligence officials keep sharing everything they know with Trump, understanding as they will that they can’t trust his discretion? Foreign officials probably won’t announce any formal suspension of their cooperation with our government. But surely their behavior will change.
The minor theme of White House coverage, beneath the din of scandal, is an impending staff shake-up. Trump is said to be furious, especially with his communications aides. That those aides are unimpressive is beside the point: No one, however talented, would be able to communicate coherent positions the president doesn’t have. Confirm or deny Trump’s comment about taping his conversations, and you’ve either admitted another lie or strengthened the whiff of Watergate. Their jobs require them to spend their days talking to reporters who don’t believe what they say, and who they know don’t believe what they say.
Talk of impeachment has rushed far ahead of reality, and the cabinet Trump picked isn’t about to relieve him of his duties. But we’re seeing the downsides of what we all knew to be the president’s character. We may also be seeing that we misunderstood the political implications of his character. His detractors have often portrayed him as a budding authoritarian. The assumption that law enforcement officers should be personally loyal to him, the insistence that presidential might makes right, the statements that make him out to embody the popular will: The portrait is not a fantasy.
But this is also a president who can’t impose discipline on himself, let alone his administration, let alone our country; who’s easily bored, distracted; who’s presiding over crisis after crisis of his own creation. There’s the president’s self-image, and then there’s his reflection. The strongman is a weak man.