In the immediate reverberation of 9/11, the writers at the Onion, perhaps struggling to find an appropriate manner in which to frame their next edition of satirical humour, at a time when nothing seemed likely to ever be funny again, settled on what was perhaps the most sensible headline seen anywhere that week:
HOLY FUCKING SHIT
The editors at the New York Times were too staid to use the same phrasing today, but it seemed to me earlier this afternoon that they might just as well have. Instead, they settled upon:
The Gray Lady dropped this 25 megaton H-bomb at a moment when the news cycle was already in a ferment over the Washington Post’s publishing of excerpts from Bob Woodward’s new exposé on the Trump White House, Fear, news of which was fighting for attention with the coverage of the Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Brett Kavanaugh as recently as late this afternoon. When I tuned in to MSNBC at 5PM (Atlantic), looking forward to a daily dose of my beloved Nicolle Wallace, they were running the Kavanaugh hearing live, and Ted Cruz was lobbing sweet little softball questions at the nominee, affording Kavanaugh a golden opportunity to purvey his pasty-faced platitudes about freedom, liberty, and his own good works, in adherence to the finest traditions of these pointless confirmation charades. The two Republican dickheads were engaged in a jovial, phony-baloney repartee that went more or less like this:
Dickhead Senator: Judge Kavanaugh, would you agree that America is good?
Dickhead Nominee: I would, Senator.
D.S.: And the Constitution – would you agree it provides a fine underpinning to this good, good, American goodness?
D.N.: I believe that is the nub of it, Senator, yes.
D.S.: You support freedom and justice, too, don’t you sir?
D.N.: Oh, yes!
D.S.: And religion is good, too? All forms of Judeo-Christianity? You once acted for clients who needed help getting approval to build a Synagogue, didn’t you?
D.N.: I did! Yes! God bless the Jewish folk!
Democratic Senator (Interrupting): Judge Kavanaugh, do you agree with the President that he has the absolute power to pardon himself?
D.N.: I don’t answer hypotheticals.
At this point, I figured Nicolle had been temporarily pre-empted, and turned the TV off, figuring I’d try again in ten minutes or so.
When I got back, Nicolle was there, all right, but the confirmation hearings were no longer the topic du jour. I blundered instead into the middle of a heated discussion of an anonymous op-ed just published in the Times, only minutes before, in which a self-described senior official within the White House detailed his* role as part of a cabal that works diligently to make sure that the President doesn’t actually run the executive branch.
Jesus Goat-Milking Christ!
Ms. Wallace proceeded to read excerpts so flat-out beyond anything ever heard within the annals of American government that I kind of sat there, with drool dribbling out of the corner of my mouth. Like:
But we believe our first duty is to this country, and the president continues to act in a manner that is detrimental to the health of our republic. That is why many Trump appointees have vowed to do what we can to preserve our democratic institutions while thwarting Mr. Trump’s more misguided impulses until he is out of office.
The root of the problem is the president’s amorality. Anyone who works with him knows he is not moored to any discernible first principles that guide his decision making.
The erratic behavior would be more concerning if it weren’t for unsung heroes in and around the White House. Some of his aides have been cast as villains by the media. But in private, they have gone to great lengths to keep bad decisions contained to the West Wing, though they are clearly not always successful.
Given the instability many witnessed, there were early whispers within the cabinet of invoking the 25th Amendment, which would start a complex process for removing the president. But no one wanted to precipitate a constitutional crisis. So we will do what we can to steer the administration in the right direction until — one way or another — it’s over.
Hi! I’m a senior official working in the highest corridors of power within the Trump White House! How’re ya doin’? Listen, my colleagues and I, in and out of Cabinet, work hard every day to make sure that the elected President isn’t actually wielding executive power. We sort of like, stifle the guy, right? He doesn’t even know! This is necessary because – Oy! – bish, he cray. You don’t know the half of it! In fact, everything he does, in response to every instinct he has, is so bat-shit ’round the bend that we’d invoke the 25th Amendment and have him packed off to the nut-hatch in a strait-jacket, but we don’t have the balls!
So I’m sitting there rocking back and forth, yet arguably, of course, this isn’t even all that surprising. Having it articulated on the down-low by an actual government official is a shocker, yes, but the substance of it, not so much. Those of us ill-advised enough to have been paying constant attention have not only suspected all this, we’ve even prayed for it nightly, especially when it comes to national security decisions. Indeed, the reason somebody like General Mattis over at Defence enjoys such support in the liberal commentariat is that all concerned have assumed that he and other “adults in the room” are nodding, smiling, and more or less refusing to carry out Trump’s directives pretty much daily, and thank the Good Lord. Right?
Anybody who doubted this prior to this afternoon needed only to read the aforementioned excerpts from Woodward’s book, released to sensational effect less than 24 hours ago, and now, incredibly, pretty much old news – such is the velocity of mayhem in the Trump Era. Among the most popular passages so far published detailed Mattis describing Trump as a doofus with the impulse control and understanding of a sixth-grader; Chief of Staff Kelly exclaiming that Trump is an idiot, the Administration is in Crazytown, and he doesn’t know why he remains in the worst job he’s ever had; and economic advisor Gary Cohn preventing Trump from revoking a free trade agreement with South Korea by stealing the papers from his desk before he could sign them – a move that only makes sense if the premise is that the President of the United States won’t even remember there was some vital bit of statecraft he was meaning to endorse with his big Trumpy John Hancock, so long as you hide the paperwork for a couple of days. Supposedly, too, Mattis simply disregarded an order to assassinate President Assad of Syria, and the Pentagon spiked his directives to develop war plans for both North Korea and Iran.
And so on.
If, like me, you think Trump is the Anti-Christ and his election was the breaking of the Seventh Seal, this can all seem good and proper, and appear to be no more than exactly what America needs in this time of peril. Sure. Still, this is no way to run a democratic railroad. I don’t even know what to label this sort of systemic subversive behaviour. “Insubordination” seems a little mild, while “treason”, technically, can’t fit because at law, treason requires some sort of direct aid or comfort to a wartime enemy of the United States. It’s God-awful, whatever it is, and an exceedingly dangerous, pernicious precedent for future administrations. If the President really is unfit, there are supposed to be Constitutional remedies. It isn’t supposed to come down to covert workplace sabotage and obstructionism verging on illegality to keep him in check, and it’s highly disturbing that those in the administration feel they have licence to do so. Others like them may feel that way again, some day, when the circumstances of some future administration don’t seem as clear-cut to those of us who have such powerful, principled objections to Donald.
Think of it. Apart from everything else, there is no more sacred principle in a constitutional republic bound by the rule of law than civilian control of the military. Yet here we are in the midst of a Presidency in which the generals receive clear orders directly from their civilian Commander-in-Chief and, after saluting smartly, simply refuse, passive-aggressively, to carry them out. It’s one thing to talk Presidents out of things, which is really what most of us imagine people like General Mattis to have been doing. It’s quite another to hang up the phone and mutter “yeah, fuck that” – even if the order is unlawful, an officer’s duty is to formally refuse. Instead, we’re told, they just feign obedience and do as they think best. Yes, it’s the lunacy of Trump being squelched, so hooray, for today. But God help us tomorrow. This is damned near a coup.
Look, this is America. It’s not supposed to be saddled with an untouchable Mad King who leaves his beleaguered courtiers no choice but to work around him, thwart him, and quietly undermine him so as to save the realm while keeping their own heads off the block. That’s not what Jefferson, Madison et. al. had in mind when they crasfted all those checks and balances. What is this?
So what now? It may all seem like the end of the world as we know it, for the moment, and Lord knows it’s got me all in a lather, but who knows? This is, after all, the era of Nothing Matters. Every new outrage seems as if this, finally, is the straw that will snap that poor overloaded camel’s back, and every time the purported crisis point is vanishing in the rearview mirror after one or two days, often to be overshadowed by the next horrifying thing that soon doesn’t matter. For various reasons, discussed many times in this space, I very much doubt that Trump will ever be successfully impeached, and we may therefore have to keep living in this weird limbo in which a Democratic House (please, Jesus) puts the brakes on any further Trumpian legislative horror shows, and various investigations finally get going in the effort to bring enough dirt to light to stop Donald from winning a second term, while the Mueller investigation indicts everybody in Trump’s inner circle but the President himself. That’s actually the happy scenario at this point.
We might hold out hope that Trump could himself get indicted, if Mueller assembles as much evidence of Donald’s various crimes as I expect, but Justice has a longstanding policy against this, viewing it as unconstitutional. This is just a policy, and could change, but guess what happens then? The question of constitutionality gets kicked up to the Supreme Court, where the swing vote will be supplied by the very guy Trump just nominated, and who’s now shucking and jiving his way through his sham confirmation. Everybody knows that Trump picked Kavanaugh because he’s on the record that the President can’t, or at least shouldn’t, be indicted, or even investigated. That, and he’ll overturn Roe v. Wade, of course, and roll back civil rights, worker’s rights, financial regulation, protection of the environment, and all that other stuff. Mainly, though, because of his well articulated opinion that the President is or ought to be above the law. Lots of other prospective nominees tick all those other routine Republican boxes. Brett, though, boy, he’s out there.
People say this all the time, but you simply could not make this shit up.
Bitter experience thus forces me to concede that this may end up as just the latest tempest in a teapot, politically, and that neither this remarkable op-ed, nor Woodward’s book, nor any tapes that Omarosa may yet release, nor anything else we have yet to imagine, may ever prove sufficient to strip Trump of his base, or move his Party to do its constitutional job. The fact remains that today, we received yet another reminder that the American system of government is being pushed beyond its limits, finding it impossible to react appropriately as both norms and laws are shattered right, left, and centre. If this isn’t a constitutional crisis, it’s surely a failure to use the tools the Constitution supplies, which tools were crafted for precisely this growing emergency. Instead, we see individuals acting on their own, in secret, to defy both the lawful and unlawful orders of the President, and blowing whistles while hiding behind anonymity, undermining their own credibility and no doubt driving their President even deeper into the instability they claim to mitigate. Only God knows what sort of cut-throat witch hunt will be going on in the West Wing by morning, or how much the ordinary operations of government will be further disrupted by the backbiting, finger-pointing and mutual suspicion that festers as Trump blows several gaskets and his minions try desperately to hunt down the Enemy Within.
Somebody anonymously describing a campaign of subversion within the White House does us no good at all. One can’t help but wonder what hidden agenda eludes us, as this dubious bureaucratic Secret Santa of the Quiet Resistance praises the unsung heroes who continually thwart the attempted misdeeds of their rogue leader. Whose interests are really being served here? Not ours. Until somebody goes on the record – until somebody finds the guts to do the job the Founders assumed people of conscience would have no trouble doing – we’re nowhere. It’s just more fake news for Trump to cite as proof that the Deep State is out to get him. Things just got scarier, with no prospect that by properly and openly forcing the moment to its crisis, they might also get better.
*At first blush, it seems more than doubtful, given the composition of Trump’s Cabinet and staff, that it could be a she, unless Kellyanne Conway is not at all who she seems…or Betsy DeVos is actually a diabolical Machiavellian schemer…or maybe it was more than one person, one of these women among them…OMG – Ivanka??