The impeachment inquiry is laying him bare. It’s not a pretty sight.
I was based in Washington and reported from Capitol Hill during Bill Clinton’s impeachment, which was the last time the country entered waters like these. It was ugly, and Democrats and Republicans traded vicious words.
But Clinton never publicly accused his detractors of treason or floated the idea that one of them be arrested on those grounds, as Donald Trump just did with Adam Schiff.
Clinton and his defenders raised the specter of a “vast right-wing conspiracy,” to use Hillary Clinton’s infamous phrase, thus asserting that he was being persecuted for his politics, not punished for his misdeeds.
But they didn’t insist, as Trump and his defenders routinely do, that a vital part of the federal government was an evil cabal intent on undermining our democratic processes, which is Trump’s self-serving characterization of the intelligence community. Their central strategy wasn’t to ignite a full-blown crisis of confidence in the institutions of government. They weren’t serving dire notice, as Trump essentially is, that if the president goes down, he’s taking everyone and everything else with him.The Clintons possessed and projected a moral arrogance that was laughably oxymoronic under the circumstances. And they and other prominent Democrats junked the party’s supposed concern for women’s empowerment to savage Monica Lewinsky, Paula Jones and others who came forward with claims about the president’s extramarital sexual activity, including serious accusations of sexual violence.
But they didn’t equate the potential fall of the president with the fall of the Republic. They didn’t go full apocalypse. Bill Clinton didn’t prophesy that his impeachment would lead to a kind of “civil war” from which the country would “never heal,” as Trump did by tweeting an evangelical pastor’s comments on Fox News along those lines.
I wrote last week that the prospect of Trump’s impeachment terrified me, and one of the main reasons I cited was what we’re seeing now: his histrionic response, which is untethered from any sense of honor, civic concern or real patriotism.
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He’s not like most of his predecessors in the White House, who had some limits, at least a few scruples and the capacity to feel shame. Their self-pity wasn’t this unfathomably deep, their delusions of martyrdom this insanely grand. “There has been no President in the history of our Country who has been treated so badly as I have,” he tweeted last week, and the violins have wailed only louder and weepier since.While there were fellow narcissists among his forebears, was there a single nihilist like Trump? I doubt it, and so the current waters are in fact uncharted, because the ship of state has a sort of madman at its helm.
That he’s fighting back by impugning his critics’ motives, stonewalling investigators and carping about the media shouldn’t disturb anyone, not if we’re being grown-ups. Richard Nixon, confronted with his impeachment, thrashed and seethed. Clinton assembled a war room in an effort to outwit his adversaries. That’s the nature of politics. That’s the right of the accused.
But in the mere week since a formal impeachment inquiry was announced, Trump has already gone much farther than that and behaved in ways that explode precedent, offend decency and boggle the mind. We’re fools if we don’t brace for more and worse.
For grotesque example, he has suggested — repeatedly — that government officials who tattled about his crooked conversation with the Ukrainian president are spies who deserve to be executed. Had any other president done that, many Americans would speak of nothing else for the next month.
But from Trump, such a horror wasn’t even surprising, and it competed for attention with so many other outrages that it was dulled, the way so much of his unconscionable behavior is. When you churn out a disgrace a minute and no one expects anything nobler, you’re inoculated by your own awfulness.
He has taken his vilification of the media to new depths, content on this front, as on others, to pump Americans full of a toxic cynicism so long as he profits from it. He and his handmaidens have disseminated distortion after distortion, lie upon lie, including the claim that deep-state officials tweaked the criteria for whistle-blowers just so that someone could ensnare him.
They have instructed Americans not to believe their own eyes, their own ears, their own intelligence. They mean to put truth itself up for grabs, no matter the fallout.
Lindsey Graham, the sycophant of the century, called the whistle-blower’s complaint a setup, as if it didn’t rest on the sturdy foundation of a reconstructed transcript — released by the White House — that shows Trump imploring a foreign leader to do political dirty work for him.
Trump keeps saying it was a “perfect” call, which is like seeing Dom Pérignon in a puddle of sewage. Then again, his presidency has long depended on such optical illusions.
There’s light, though, and it’s this: As corrosive as his tirades are, they may also be what does him in. He’s poised to take this persecution complex too far.
Already, there has been a swell of support for impeachment, according to new polls released by CNN and Monmouth University, and I bet that trend continues as revelations of his wrongdoing cascade and as he wildly overreacts.
That probably wouldn’t be enough to get Republican senators to convict him and remove him from office, should the House follow through with impeachment and a Senate trial ensue. But it would affect November 2020.
He’s in a bind, because his burn-down-the-house defense against impeachment makes the best case that he must be impeached — that a leader with no bounds and no bottom can’t be allowed to rage on unimpeded. The impeachment inquiry is laying Trump bare. As scary as that is for us, it may be even scarier for him.
In early January, FBI director Christopher Wray and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein met with House Speaker Paul Ryan and asked him to rein in his attack dog, Devin Nunes, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.
Nunes, who also attended the meeting, had supposedly “recused” himself from the Trump-Russia investigation, but in fact was running an increasingly vicious counter-investigation against the Department of Justice in an attempt to defend the administration.
.. He has compiled a secret memo making wild allegations of conspiracies and even criminality against all of Trump’s legal antagonists. The entire conservative media infrastructure, goaded on by Trump himself, is foaming at the mouth to publish the Nunes memo.
.. A side effect of Nunes’s campaign to discredit Trump’s investigators is to threaten to burn down the credibility and effectiveness of federal law enforcement. Here is the point that is largely absent from this drama: This is all happening because Paul Ryan wants it to happen.
.. A reporter asked Ryan if he believed the president should cooperate with Robert Mueller if he wanted an interview. Ryan dispatched it very quickly: “I’ll defer to the White House on all those questions. This pertains to them, not this branch.”
.. That has been Ryan’s stance all along. All the icky stuff Trump does, the corruption and disdain for the rule of law, is Trump’s business
.. In fact, there are things Ryan could do — and not just cinematic speeches calling out the president for his misdeeds. The House of Representatives could pass a bill to compel the release of Trump’s tax returns.
.. Given Trump’s unprecedented decision to retain his business interests in office, mere disclosure would be a meager step against the possibility for corruption. Democrats have repeatedly introduced bills to disclose the tax returns. Yet the House — Ryan’s House — has blocked every one.
.. In October, Gayle King asked Ryan how Trump could say that the tax cuts would increase his own taxes without disclosing his returns, and Ryan just laughed.
.. And now, Trump and his allies are circulating absurd lies about the Department of Justice in order to enable the administration to avoid any accountability to the rule of law. The heart of this campaign is the chamber Ryan controls.
It is not only or even primarily Devin Nunes, The Wall Street Journal editorial page, and Fox & Friends that are marching into the fever swamps. The invisible man at front of the march is Paul Ryan.
The West Wing has come to resemble the dankest realms of Twitter, in which everyone is racked with paranoia and everyone despises everyone else.
What made the Emperor Nero tick, Suetonius writes in “Lives of the Caesars,” was “a longing for immortality and undying fame, though it was ill-regulated.”
.. Many Romans were convinced that Nero was mentally unbalanced and that he had burned much of the imperial capital to the ground just to make room for the construction of the Domus Aurea, a gold-leaf-and-marble palace that stretched from the Palatine to the Esquiline Hill.
.. Chaotic, corrupt, incurious, infantile, grandiose, and obsessed with gaudy real estate, Donald Trump is of a Neronic temperament.
He has always craved attention.
.. Future scholars will sift through Trump’s digital proclamations the way we now read the chroniclers of Nero’s Rome—to understand how an unhinged emperor can make a mockery of republican institutions
.. He was post-Freudian. (“It makes me feel so good to hit ‘sleazebags’ back—much better than seeing a psychiatrist (which I never have!).”)
.. In due course, Trump perfected his unique voice: the cockeyed neologisms and the fractured syntax, the emphatic punctuation, the Don Rickles-era exclamations (“Sad!” “Doesn’t have a clue!” “Dummy!”).
.. Then he started dabbling in conspiracy fantasies: China’s climate “hoax,” President Obama’s Kenyan birth, “deep-state” enemies trying to do him in.
.. “Stop Being Trump’s Twitter Fool,” Jack Shafer, of Politico, advised, just after the election. Trump’s volleys were merely a shrewd diversion from serious matters.
.. “you’d expect that people would have figured out when Donald Trump is yanking their chain and pay him the same mind they do phone calls tagged ‘Out of Area’ by caller ID.”
.. Sean Spicer, the President’s first press secretary, insisted otherwise. Trump, he pointed out, “is the President of the United States,” and so his tweets are “considered official statements by the President of the United States.”
.. Trump’s tweets are most valuable as a record of his inner life: his obsessions, his rages, his guilty conscience.
.. he set a White House record with a sixteen-tweet day.
.. took credit for a year without an American air crash,
.. he continued to offer respect bordering on servility to the likes of Vladimir Putin.
.. One of his signature phrases—“fake news”—has been adopted by autocrats from Bashar al-Assad, of Syria, to Nicolás Maduro, of Venezuela. To the astonishment of our traditional allies, Trump humiliates and weakens a country he pretends to lead.
.. He surrounds himself with aides who are either wildly incompetent or utterly defeated in their attempts to domesticate the mulish and bizarre object of their attention.
.. There is no loyalty or deliberation in the White House, only a savage “Lord of the Flies” sort of chaos. Each day is at once preposterous, poisonous, and dangerous.
.. And so the West Wing in the era of Trump has come to resemble the dankest realms of Twitter itself: a set of small rooms and cramped hallways in which everyone is racked with paranoia and everyone despises everyone else.
.. Trump has reacted to Wolff’s book in the manner of a wounded despot
.. Nero had hoped to last long enough on the throne to re-brand the month of April “Neroneus” and the city of Rome “Neropolis.” He did not succeed.
.. The President sees one West Wing satrap and Cabinet official after another finding a distance from him. “Where is my Roy Cohn?” he asked his aides angrily
.. He is unfit to hold any public office, much less the highest in the land.
.. The President of the United States has become a leading security threat to the United States
First of all, people who create mottos about how they don’t care what people think tend to be precisely the sort of people who care what other people think.
Another dead giveaway: When you repeatedly invite reporters from places such as Vanity Fair to follow you around and record your Stakhanovite disregard for the opinions of others.
Similarly, people who famously call back every reporter seeking a quote are the kind of people who love being buttered up by journalists.
.. Likewise, people who hungrily cooperate with authors looking to turn them into political celebrities are really into the idea of being political celebrities.
Staffers who take credit for their bosses’ political victories, on the record, tend not to be aloof islands of self-confidence either. People desperate to let you know that their philosophical lodestars are obscure mystics and cranks — he studied Evola and Guénon! — tend to be compensating for something.
.. If Bannon truly didn’t care about the “Opposition Party,” his term for the mainstream media, he wouldn’t have lost his job in the White House, the favor of the Mercers, and what was left of his reputation. But he just couldn’t resist talking to reporters and claiming credit for the accomplishments of others.
.. Bannon is a common character in Washington: a megalomaniac who made the mistake of believing his own bullshit.
Bannon believed he was the intellectual leader of a real grassroots movement, and all that was needed to midwife it into reality was to Astroturf as much rage and unthinking paranoia as the Mercer family’s money could buy.
.. Bannon’s self-proclaimed Leninism was mostly the kind of b.s. one spouts to rally the twentysomethings in their cubicles to churn out more ethically bankrupt clickbait fodder.
.. Lenin was a real radical who wanted to tear everything down. But his motto wasn’t “Honey badger don’t give a sh*t” — it was “The worse the better.” Both men share a theory that by exacerbating social tensions — heightening the contradictions in Marxobabble — they would emerge victorious. The biggest difference between the two men is that Lenin knew what he was doing.
.. There is a Nietzschean quality to both Bannon and the host organism he fed off. Rhetorically, Trump extols strength and power and denigrates rules and norms. But Trump’s Nietzscheanism is almost entirely in service to his own glory. He simply wants praise for its own sake. Bannon’s fetishization of strength and power and his denigration of rules and norms stems from a potted theory about how to burn it all down so he can rule the ashes.
.. He marveled at the performance art of Milo not because of any intellectual merit, but because it was transgressive, which is its own reward to the radical mind.
.. People spend too much time trying to figure out if Bannon is a bigot. Who cares? Isn’t it even more damning that he was perfectly comfortable to enlist bigots to his cause simply to leach off their passion and intensity?
.. Because Bannon consistently confuses means and ends, he was fine with forming an alliance of convenience with the alt-right when he thought it could help him.
.. Bannon likes to talk a big game about the importance of ideas, but his idea of how politics works is entirely anti-intellectual, and that’s what spelled his doom.
.. He talks a lot about the Trump agenda, and yet he’s made it his project to destroy any politician Trump actually needs if they dare stray from public sycophancy to Trump or fealty to Bannon’s dog’s-breakfast ideology.
.. He goes around the country stumping for crackpots and bigots, claiming to be the Joan of Arc of Trumpism, boasting incessantly of his courage and loyalty to Trump as evidenced by his willingness to stick with Trump during “Billy Bush Weekend.”
.. There’s just one problem: Bannon can’t stick to it. He just can’t help but boast to liberal reporters about how great and brilliant he is. He can’t resist talking smack about his rivals and denigrating the reality-show nationalist that plucked him out of relative obscurity, because despite all the impressive verbiage, Bannon can’t help but make himself the story.