When the history of the Trump administration is written, one moment in mid-2017 may be seen as decisive—a moment when a staff member saved the president from himself.
On June 17, according to the report by special counsel Robert Mueller released last week, the president called White House Counsel Don McGahn at home and ordered him to tell the Justice Department to fire Mr. Mueller, just as the special counsel’s investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election was getting under way. Mr. McGahn declined to carry out the order.
Then, about six months later, when word of the president’s attempt to fire the special counsel leaked out, Mr. Trump met with Mr. McGahn in the Oval Office and pressured him to deny the account publicly. Again, Mr. McGahn refused.
Had Mr. McGahn agreed to do what Mr. Trump wanted—to have Mr. Mueller fired and later create a false narrative about the effort—the case that the president had attempted to obstruct justice would have been much stronger. As it is, Mr. Mueller declined to say whether the president had or hadn’t obstructed justice; the Justice Department has decided there wasn’t sufficient evidence to show he did so; and Democratic leaders in Congress, much as they are under pressure from activists in the party to impeach Mr. Trump, are skeptical they have a case for doing so.
The Trump-McGahn exchanges point to an important, larger truth: Presidents need people around them who aren’t simply yes-men and yes-women who will blindly do their bidding. They need aides willing to take the tough step of challenging the leader of the free world. One key question is whether Mr. Trump still has enough of them around him.
Anybody who manages an organization recognizes—or should recognize—the need to have subordinates who can walk the fine line between being loyal and being willing to tell the president he or she is making a mistake. Playing that role as a staff member is particularly tough in the rarified air of the White House—and especially in this White House, where the boss has shown a penchant for lashing out at anyone seen as disloyal.
Yet history is replete with examples of the need to have White House aides willing to stand up to the boss. “That lesson cries out” from the Mueller report, says presidential historian Michael Beschloss.
President Richard Nixon, a mercurial man, was self-aware enough to recognize his need for such staff work. When he was preparing to take office, he wrote a memo to his chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, specifically authorizing him to ignore orders that seemed impetuous or ordered in anger. “There may be times when you or others may determine that the action I have requested should not be taken,” Nixon wrote, according to a definitive biography by John A. Farrell. “I will accept such decisions but I must know about them.”
Mr. Haldeman and others acted accordingly, a practice that proved crucial as Nixon descended into depression amidst the Watergate crisis that ended his presidency. One Nixon aide recalled years later that the president, apparently drunk, encountered him in a White House hallway late at night during the opening phases of the 1973 Arab-Israeli war and seemed to order him to unleash an American bombing attack on Syria. The order was ignored, and apparently forgotten by the president the next day.
Aides to President Ronald Reagan were frequently excoriated by conservatives for failing to “let Reagan be Reagan” when they pushed back against presidential instincts. Yet Mr. Reagan always defended his staff’s right to do so, and disputed the idea that he was being badly served by strong aides.
In his memoir, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates recounts a bitter argument with President Obama over implementation of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that compelled military commanders to discharge or separate gays and lesbians from other troops if their sexual orientation became known. That policy was being disputed in the courts, and there was a movement in Congress to change the law. Mr. Obama wanted his defense chief to suspend implementation of the policy in the meantime.
Though he supported changing the law, Mr. Gates refused, arguing that existing law couldn’t simply be disregarded. Congress soon passed legislation changing the practice, which included a period to certify that a new policy could be implemented smoothly. It’s likely the change went down better with commanders because Mr. Gates had shown the need to abide strictly by law.
This is the victory not only of a Trump personality cult, as it has been described, but also of an ideology, one closer to Putinism than Reaganism.
.. Back then, you may recall, some of the “crazies” — such as national security adviser Michael Flynn — had left the White House, and supposed pragmatists had taken charge: H.R. McMaster for national security, Gary Cohn for economics, Jared and Ivanka for — well, for general reasonableness.
.. There was talk of working with Democrats on infrastructure. Trump wanted to help the “dreamers,” those blameless young immigrants brought to this country as children. It seemed that existing international agreements — NATO, the North American Free Trade Agreement, the Paris climate accord — might be preserved, with some face-saving adjustments. Trump was still the politician who had spoken tolerantly on LGBT issues.
.. The White House defines itself and prepares to motivate its voters by the “enemies” it constantly creates, refines and rediscovers, including African American athletes, the press (“Our Country’s biggest enemy,” in a recent Trump tweet), Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (“very dishonest & weak”), and special counsel Robert S. Mueller III (directing a “Witch Hunt, led by 13 very Angry and Conflicted Democrats”). Also: Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Democratic leaders in the Senate and House, former FBI director James B. Comey, his own attorney general, his deputy attorney general . . . The list will never end.
.. But Bannonism is not just a snarling attitude. It encompasses a contempt for democracy and a respect for authoritarianism. When Trump refused to sign a statement of solidarity with the world’s other six leading industrial democracies and then proceeded to slather praise on North Korea’s dictator (“a tough guy . . . a very smart guy”), this was not just a sign of personal pique or favoritism: The U.S. president raised questions in the minds of other leaders about whether the concept of the West itself can survive his presidency.
.. It encompasses an “America First,” for-me-to-win-you-have-to-lose philosophy
.. It encompasses a contempt for immigrants, for outsiders of any kind. Certainly it is possible to support lower levels of immigration without being a racist. But to countenance the deliberate policy of tearing away small children from their parents that we are seeing today on the U.S.- Mexico border is consistent only with a worldview that deems Mexicans and Salvadorans somehow less human, less worthy, than white Americans.
..it’s no coincidence that Trump, who boasted about being the first Republican to say LGBTQ in his convention acceptance speech in 2016, has, as The Post’s James Hohmann noted last week, tried to ban transgender people from the military, removed protections for transgender inmates, employees and students, failed to acknowledge Pride Month and disbanded the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS. As in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, this revival of bigotry dovetails with an effort to woo the conservative Christian establishment.
.. Finally, Bannonism encompasses contempt for the government itself.
.. his constant disparagement of the Justice Department and the FBI; his at times insultingly unsuitable appointments (such as his personal physician to head the mammoth Department of Veterans Affairs); and his generally cavalier attitude toward staffing. Even today, 17 months into his first term, fewer than half of the 667 key positions tracked by The Post in collaboration with the Partnership for Public Service are filled, and for almost 200 there are no nominees.
.. But another answer came from Trump himself, who said after Bannon’s firing: “Steve Bannon has nothing to do with me or my presidency. . . . Steve was a staffer.”
Even discounting for Trump’s normal petulance and self-aggrandizement, there may have been an element of truth in what he said. The anti-democratic, protectionist, anti-immigrant, pro-authoritarian administration that has now taken shape, in other words, is not only Bannonism. It is raw and unvarnished Trumpism, too.
With Gary Cohn gone, it’s not clear that big business has any real pipeline into the White House (OK, polluters have an open line to Scott Pruitt, and predatory lenders a line to Mick Mulvaney, but these aren’t the groups who will stand up against trade war.)
.. Congressional Republicans, terrified of the Trump base, have proved unwilling to take a stand on anything, even if big money is at stake.
.. trade decisions are being made at Trump’s whim, without input from anyone who knows anything about trade economics (Peter Navarro thinks he understands the economics, which is even worse.).. Trump’s version of diplomacy – not just trade actions, but the systematic praise of brutal dictators and disdain for democratic leaders – has created a very angry world out there. Nobody out there wants to give Trump even the appearance of a win, and elected leaders would be punished by their voters if they did... I think, three main questions:
1. How high might tariffs go?
2. How much would this reduce world trade?
3. How costly would the trade war be?.. an all-out trade war could mean tariffs in the 30-60 percent range; that this would lead to a very large reduction in trade, maybe 70 percent; but that the overall cost to the world economy would be smaller than I think many people imagine, maybe a 2-3% reduction in world GDP... some people would actually gain, but a lot of people, very much including large groups and many communities in the U.S., would take big hits, especially in the short-to-medium run.
.. world’s economies, taking their lead from the U.S., abandon the rules and agreements that currently constrain their tariffs and start setting tariffs unilaterally in their perceived self-interest... The problem is that if everyone does this, you get the costs of reduced trade without the benefit of improved terms of trade, because other countries are doing unto you the same thing you’re trying to do unto them... “optimal tariff warfare”, which is actually more like an arms race than a shooting war, in the sense that there’s (usually) no victor and no resolution, just a lot of wasted resources... Then you have to find an equilibrium (a Nash equilibrium, for readers of “A Beautiful Mind”) in which each country is charging its optimal tariff given what everyone else is doing... If foreigners can easily substitute away from your goods, the optimal tariff is fairly low; if they can’t, it’s high... if that’s right, we’re talking about a really big rollback of world trade... a 70 percent reduction would bring us roughly back to 1950s levels. If Trump is really taking us into a trade war, the global economy is going to get a lot less global... they do say that trade wars are bad, don’t say that they’re catastrophic... the U.S. currently spends 15 percent of GDP on imports... at the bottom of the Great Recession, CBO estimates that we were operating 6 percent below potential GDP. Of course that loss was temporary, while a trade war might be forever... The U.S. currently exports about 12 percent of GDP... if we have the kind of trade war I’ve been envisaging, something like 70 percent of that part of the economy – say, 9 or 10 million workers – will have to start doing something else... the rapid growth of Chinese exports didn’t cost the U.S. jobs on net, it changed the composition and location of employment, producing a lot of losers along the way. And the “Trump shock” that would come from a trade war would be an order of magnitude bigger... the effects don’t seem trivial to soybean farmers already facing sharp price cuts and steel users already facing much higher costs.
“An attack on our country.”
.. But a lawful raid on his attorney’s office and hotel room is what prompted the president to use those immensely weighted words. They’re a signal — make that a siren — of how cornered he feels, how monstrously large his belief in his own persecution has grown and what a perilous situation America is in.
.. Some unrelated swipe at perceived enemies or random assertion of potency by a man who cannot bear any image of impotence and is always ginning up distractions, as both a matter of strategy and a function of temperament?
.. He was telling us, yet again, not to trust our own government. And he was reminding us, in shocking fashion, about his readiness to sell (and buy) fictions if they serve his self-interest, which he reliably puts before all else.
.. Even though Cohen is the apparent focus of their interest, Trump, too, must feel hideously exposed. This is a man who refused, despite intense pressure, to release his tax returns
.. Now information that may be much more private, and much more damning, is in strangers’ hands.
.. Trump, during a meeting that was supposed to be about Syria, went on and on about the “disgrace” (he used that word seven times) of Mueller’s investigation
.. It was the full martyr complex and all the greatest hits in one meltdown. Mike Pence sat stone-faced on one side of him, John Bolton without much expression on the other. It’s hard to imagine either of them having the rapport with Trump to calm him down.
.. There is no Hope Hicks anymore, no Rob Porter, no Gary Cohn, no H. R. McMaster: The ranks of people who either gave Trump a sense of comfort and stability or sought to steer him away from his most destructive impulses have thinned. He’s more alone than ever. He must be more frightened, too.
But not half as scared as the rest of us should be.