Why the Anonymous Trump Official’s Op-Ed in the New York Times Matters

In 1947, “Mr. X” wrote an extremely influential article, for Foreign Affairs, advocating a policy of containment toward the Soviet Union’s expansionist tendencies. Its author turned out to be the diplomat George Kennan, who was then the second-ranking official at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. And, in 1996, Random House published “Primary Colors,” a thinly disguised roman à clef about Bill Clinton, by “Anonymous.” Less consequential than Kennan’s contribution, the novel nonetheless created a great deal of speculation about who its author was; it turned out to be the political journalist Joe Klein.

.. By nightfall on Wednesday, there were reports that White House officials were engaged in a frantic search for the culprit.

..  “scrutiny focused on a half-dozen names.”

.. the piece merely adds to what we already know about Trump’s character and the struggle of people around him to control his destructive tendencies.

.. it was reported that the Secretary of Defense, the Secretary of State, and the national-security adviser at the time—James Mattis, Rex Tillerson, and H. R. McMaster—had privately agreed to avoid being out of Washington at the same time.

.. There have been numerous reports about how Don McGahn, the outgoing White House counsel, tried to talk Trump out of firing James Comey and Jeff Sessions.

.. The real importance of the Op-Ed is that it corroborates these reports, provides a window into the mind-set of people who continue to work for Trump, and also reveals some intriguing details. “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,”

.. Really? “Early whispers within the cabinet” of invoking the Constitution to oust the President? If this is true, it is information of enormous consequence, and leads to a series of further questions. Who was involved in these discussions, and how far did the whispers go?

.. The suggestion that at least some members of the Cabinet have talked about invoking these powers is new and shocking. But what does it mean to say that the whisperers didn’t want to precipitate a crisis? After all, the rest of the article makes clear that the crisis already exists and is deadly serious.

.. The head of state of the most powerful country in the world is someone whose own subordinates and appointees regard as unmoored, untrustworthy, and potentially dangerous.

.. “The root of the problem is the president’s amorality,” the Op-Ed says. “Anyone who works with him knows he is not moored to any discernible first principles that guide his decision making. . . . Meetings with him veer off topic and off the rails, he engages in repetitive rants, and his impulsiveness results in half-baked, ill-informed and occasionally reckless decisions that have to be walked back.”

.. “I have no respect for someone who would say these things—of whose truth I have no doubt—in an anonymous oped, rather than in a public resignation letter copied to the House Judiciary Committee.”

.. He or she has enflamed the paranoia of the president and empowered the president’s willfulness.”

.. These are legitimate concerns, but the larger one is that we have a menacing dingbat in the White House, and nobody with the requisite authority seems willing to do anything about it, other than to try to manage the situation on an ad-hoc, day-to-day basis. Perhaps this could be seen as a “Trump containment” strategy, but it falls well short of the systematic containment strategy that Kennan advocated, and, in any case, the Trumpkins, unlike the early Cold War strategists, are not necessarily dealing with a rational actor. Something more is surely needed.

 

Trump is running on animus autopilot

Step Two: Trump’s original policy is successfully challenged on legal grounds.

It’s possible that no president has fared worse in court than Trump. His apologists blame “the resistance,” but often the real culprit is Trump himself. He proudly tweets his own unlawful intentions and sabotages his lawyers’ best arguments. Many of his orders, moreover, cannot withstand even cursory factual or logical review.

.. Step Three: The Trump administration engages in animus laundering.

When Trump loses in court, he doesn’t walk away. Instead, he grudgingly allows his lawyers and advisers to undertake a series of bogus, ends-driven “reviews.” As demonstrated by the travel ban and transgender ban cases, the goal here is to put just enough lipstick on the pig to pretend it isn’t a pig anymore. Often that is achieved by drafting a new order that uses slightly more polite and legalistic language to express the raw bigotry underlying Trump’s original decision. Justice Department attorneys can then insist in court that the (minimally revised) policy has been certified as legitimate by an assorted handful of Cabinet secretaries.

.. It has become fashionable to insist that advisers such as Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Chief of Staff John F. Kelly can pacify Trump’s most destructive instincts. With respect to the president’s animus-laden orders, however, they have displayed little interest in that role. Kelly publicly championed Trump’s travel ban. And it is rumored that Mattis, despite opposing the transgender ban, deemed this fight unworthy of his political capital. As a result, Trump’s agencies have largely run on animus autopilot.

When Trump Takes Charge

.. more important he was constrained institutionally, in roughly the ways that Republican politicians had promised that he would be — surrounded by a conventional Republican cabinet and (after a while) a conventional White House that essentially governed for him, letting him play the authoritarian on Twitter while the business of the presidency was conducted elsewhere.

.. Donald Trump: a septuagenarian cable-TV addict ill-suited for the responsibilities of his office but still fully capable of attempting to exercise its powers. Which meant that the containment game had to last, not weeks or months, but three more long years to work.

.. And it may not last that long. From his exciting new steel tariffs to his promised summit meeting with Kim Jong-un, Trump has been acting lately like a man less inclined to listen to his handlers — and now those handlers have begun to disappear.

.. it seems less like something happening to Trump and more like chaos orchestrated from the Oval Office: “The narrative of Trump unglued is not totally wrong but misses the reason why — he was terrified of the job the first six months, and now feels like he has a command of it. So now he is basically saying, ‘I’ve got this, I can make the changes I want.’”

.. What would Trump becoming a real president mean in practice? In terms of personnel, it might mean that instead of easing out the hacks and cranks and TV personalities, as his staff managed to do during the year of constraint, Trump will begin to usher out his more qualified personnel and replace them with, well, TV personalities — Cohn with Larry Kudlow, perhaps, or H. R. McMaster with John Bolton.

.. But it also promises to further multiply the number of important vacancies within the government

.. will encourage Trump to take more counsel from the shadow Trumpland of his campaign, where his more misfit-toy advisers tend to congregate.

.. the main Trumpian qualities that have been constrained to date are his impulsiveness and anger and impatience with rules and norms and limits.

.. if he actually begins to exercise the full powers of his office, it’s not so much that the odds of any particular policy course go up as that it becomes more likely that we get more extreme and destabilizing outcomes, somewhere.

That could mean war with North Korea, or it could mean some sort of unexpected and possibly disastrous treaty with Kim Jong-un’s regime; both become more likely the more Trump alone takes responsibility for our peninsular diplomacy.

.. It could mean the real détente with Russia that Trump’s harshest critics think he’s obliged by some corrupt bargain to seek out … or it could mean the kind of military conflict with Moscow that we sometimes seem to be stumbling toward in Ukraine and Syria.

..  different coterie of advisers find new ways to contain and soothe their boss.

.. Maybe Mike Pompeo .. and some combination of TV personalities can do better at managing the president in the long run than the Cohns and Tillersons and McMasters, because Trump will feel that he picked them all by himself.

.. Maybe this president will spend his administration going through periodic frenzies of “I’m in charge” activity, before subsiding back into the virtual presidency of his Twitter feed and Fox injections.

.. if the first year of Trump’s presidency vindicated Republicans who argued that he could be contained, it didn’t tell us anything definitive about whether he will be.

.. a week like this one, with a president chafing against his bonds and snapping some of them, is how a descent from farce to tragedy might begin.

Gary Cohn’s Breaking Point

Whatever the case, Cohn couldn’t take it. His departure demolishes three theories, cherished by administration apologists, as to why the Trump presidency will be a success (or at the least not a disaster) despite the temperament of the man at the top.

Theory No. 1: The grown-ups are in charge.

  • In the trade debate, Cohn lost out to the third-tier White House official Peter Navarro, who likes to hang around the West Wing in hopes of sneaking in to see the president.
  • On immigration, 32-year old Michele Bachmann acolyte Stephen Miller runs the show.
  • H.R. McMaster, the national security adviser, is widely reported to be seeking an exit.
  • His deputy Dina Powell already made her escape.
  • Reince Priebus was once supposed to be a White House grown-up, and look at what happened to him. His successor,
  • John Kelly, was supposed to quell the disorder, but has just as frequently contributed to it.

In most administrations, senior officials strive to stay in office a full term, or two years at the least. It’s supposed to be the honor of a lifetime.

Theory No. 2: Trump doesn’t believe his own crazy rhetoric.

The trade deficit has been a fixation of Trump’s since at least the 1980s.

  1. Withdrawing the U.S. from the Trans-Pacific Partnership was his first shot at it.
  2. Last week’s announcement of steel and aluminum tariffs were the second.
  3. Terminating Nafta will be his third.

.. What makes the tariff episode more alarming is that Trump announced the policy without any effort at a coherent policymaking process. It simply landed on Cohn much as news of a North Korean nuclear test might: radioactive and beyond his control. If Trump feels no compunction doing this to Cohn, what’s to stop him from behaving similarly with, say, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis?

.. As for Russia, Bob Mueller’s probe into potential collusion has made foreign policy cooperation untenable — but that only holds as long as the probe continues.

Theory No. 3: Serious Republicans will contain Trump’s follies.

It’s nice to see Paul Ryan and Lindsey Graham contradict the president on tariffs. But they and other so-called principled Republicans will surely fold on this, just as they have folded on immigration, the border wall and Trump himself.

.. Now the party’s steady transformation into an American version of France’s National Front is probably unstoppable.

Republicans unhappy with that drift — paging Nebraska Sen. Ben . Sasse — should leave while they can with honor intact. Gary Cohn’s exit isn’t just another resignation. It’s also a final warning.

Trump’s White House Is a Black Hole

The Republican Party is learning what should have been obvious from the outset: Mr. Trump’s chaotic personality can’t be contained.

.. combining it with the awesome power of the presidency virtually guaranteed he would become more volatile and transgressive.

His presidency is infecting the entire party.

.. The Republican Party once championed the principles of liberty and limited government, yet Mr. Trump is indifferent to them.

Republicans once sought to strengthen relations with Mexico; today they delight in antagonizing our neighbor. Not long ago, Republicans made outreach to Hispanics a top priority; today the signals that the president and his party send are that Hispanics are alien, unwelcome, nothing but trouble.

In 2012, Republicans defended Mitt Romney when he said Russia was our biggest geopolitical threat; today they are wholly untroubled by its effort to subvert the 2016 presidential election.

.. Republicans have long argued that human rights should play a central role in American foreign policy, from the presidency of Ronald Reagan through George W. Bush’s. Today human rights are viewed at most as an afterthought.

.. At the national level the Republican Party has become a destructive and anarchic political force in American life.

.. Rather than nourishing a sense of gratitude, he stokes grievances.

.. One White House aide, asked by The Washington Post whether John Kelly, the president’s chief of staff, could have been more truthful or transparent about the dismissal of the staff secretary Rob Porter, answered honestly: “In this White House, it’s simply not in our DNA. Truthful and transparent is great, but we don’t even have a coherent strategy to obfuscate.

.. All of this is antithetical to conservatism. On balance, Republicans are seeking to conserve very little

.. “Some men just want to watch the world burn.”

.. The Republican Party once prided itself as a defender of objective truth against postmodernism. Today, it has become the party of perspectivism — the view, articulated by Nietzsche, that all truth claims are contingent on a person’s perspective rather than on fundamental reality. “It is our needs that interpret the world,” Nietzsche wrote in “The Will to Power.”

.. the institutional expression of Donald Trump’s distorted and impulsive personality.

.. Party leaders who were once willing to challenge Mr. Trump, to call him out now and then, are now far more compliant and therefore far more complicit.

.. Mr. Trump was and remains the people’s choice — evidence that, while the president has accelerated the worst tendencies of the Republican Party, he is not solely responsible for them. He did not appear out of thin air.

.. Americans are longing for a more ennobling, less exhausting political leader.

.. people are tiring of the incessant conflict created by politics these days.

.. But as long as Mr. Trump is president, they will feel this way. He won’t change, and neither will the Republican Party. That’s how institutional corruption happens, from the top down.