There is no such thing as an outrage-free week anymore. On Wednesday, President Trump offered us a particularly stunning example of this new political reality, telling the ABC anchor George Stephanopoulos that he would welcome foreign interference in an election and probably wouldn’t bother to tell the F.B.I. about any outside governments bringing him dirt on his opponent. On Thursday, he doubled down on this position, arguing, in effect, that accepting help from Vladimir Putin would be no different from dining with the Queen of England and the “Prince of Whales,” as he put it in a tweet. Trump, instead of proclaiming “no collusion,” now seemed to be announcing that he is pro-collusion. It didn’t take long for commentators to wonder about his strategy here as much as about his poor spelling: Does the President actually want Congress to impeach him?
One of Trump’s great skills has been to confound his opponents. In the third year of his Presidency, this is as true as it was on his first day in office, and his critics, at home and abroad, have, in the intervening time, become more skilled at reading Trump but hardly less capable or united in agreeing what to do about him. They have received the message that he is a threat to the established order—just about any established order—but resistance has often been more loud than effective, and the divisions over how to take him on seem to widen by the day. He is historically unpopular for a President by many measures, but no matter what he does the allegiance of some forty per cent of the American public has so far remained unwavering.
In Washington, Democrats currently have two opposite and contradictory theories of the case. They cannot both be right. For the House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi, the idea is to beat Trump politically in the 2020 election and, while using Congress’s powers to aggressively investigate him and his Administration, refuse to be drawn into a politicized impeachment proceeding that will not result in his removal from office. “A reluctance to drop the hammer is a healthy thing in a democracy,” Representative Gerry Connolly, a Virginia Democrat who agrees with the Speaker’s approach, told reporters on Thursday, when confronted with the President’s latest insult to his own law-enforcement agencies. Many of the nearly two dozen Democrats running for President are also believers in a version of this theory. Though some have endorsed impeachment and all are vociferously anti-Trump, they are focussing their campaigns less on the damage that the President poses to the constitutional order than on wonky, issues-oriented appeals to voters.
Then there is the Biden school. The former Vice-President regularly called Trump an “existential threat” to the country this week, in an Iowa campaign swing. In this, he is more or less in synch with those lawmakers back in Washington who believe that the evidence of Presidential obstruction assembled by the special counsel Robert Mueller warrants immediate impeachment proceedings, regardless of whether they turn out to be politically advantageous for the Democrats. So far, there are about sixty members of the House (including a majority of the Democratic members of the House Judiciary Committee and a lone Republican, Justin Amash, of Michigan) who are on the record as supporting this course, which leaves a couple hundred more to convince. On the campaign trail, Biden leads early polls with his “Make America America Again” approach, but, if his opponents are right that voters want more than just an anti-Trump crusade, then his theory of the case will be not just wrong but disastrously so.
A fight between Pelosi and her fellow-Democrats is exactly what Trump wants. He seeks division and discord; he benefits from it. It is surely one reason, among many, why the damaging revelations reported by Mueller have had almost no effect on his public standing. If anything, this week’s tiresome outrage cycle is a reminder of Trump’s uniquely successful brand of public crazy. Does anyone remember that he also announced this week that he will soon meet alone with Putin again, despite the uproar over their still mysterious one-on-one summit this past year, in Helsinki? Or that Trump said that he wouldn’t allow the C.I.A. to spy on his “friend,” the North Korean dictator, Kim Jong Un, after revelations that Kim’s murdered half-brother had been an American informant? Or that Trump spent the first part of the week claiming that he had cut a secret deal with Mexico on illegal immigration, a deal which Mexico denies exists and whose particulars he has yet to produce?
Trump is a political octopus, squirting so much diversionary black ink at us that diversion is the new normal. The new issue of Foreign Affairs out this week declares this historical moment “the self-destruction of American power” and offers a depressing autopsy on the vanishing of U.S. global leadership. But there are too many outrages of the day, of every day, to think about it. Some members of Congress are now publicly confessing that they haven’t had time even to read the Mueller report (and more are saying so in private, as I myself have heard). I doubt that they are stopping to consider the collapse of the liberal international order.
I happened to watch this week’s edition of the Trump show from the shadow of the Brandenburg Gate, in Berlin, which, later this year, will celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the American-midwifed reunification of Germany that followed. I attended a meeting of fervent transatlanticists that was dominated, as conversations invariably are these days, by the question of what to do about Trump. The Germans are no less confounded than the Democrats.