Reviewing the latest chaos emanating from the White House, J. BROOKS SPECTOR argues that it is time for Congress to step up to its constitutional duty and consider whether or not the new president should be given his walking papers.
By now it should be obvious to all but the most gullible and innocent that Donald Trump has a tenuous connection to truth, in addition to a rather meagre grasp of the terms of reference for his job – or the knowledge, insight and character needed to carry out this position honourably. The other day, New York Times columnist, David Brooks, a man whose views lean rather heavily towards those of the conservative centrist persuasion, explained the president’s flaws to perfection.
According to columnist Brooks, while the whole world has been focusing hard on parsing Donald Trump’s statements in order to find the deeper policy threads within and to understand Trump’s way of thinking about issues, instead, what we really have been observing is like a jar with six live fireflies in it, with the cold light from their respective abdomens winking on and off at random. While I will never be able to observe those fascinating beetles again without horror, this seems an apt metaphor for the state of the president’s thinking on most things. It’s sad, very sad.
The new president’s first hundred days have been replete with false starts, self-inflicted wounds and unnecessary tangles with Democrats and his own party over budget and healthcare issues; with the federal judiciary over entry into the US; as well as with a whole clutch of the country’s traditional allies internationally. In the midst of all of this, he has continued to insist everything was on track; everything was going to be tremendous; the jobs were pouring back into the country; he had saved the government zillions by cutting costs on jet fighters, aircraft carrier steam catapults and a million other things; that his promised “great, great wall” would be built come what may; the promised tax reform plan (despite being a windfall for the rich) and the biggest ever tax cut ever would rain money down upon everyone, and that every trade measure would feature “America first, America first”. That was, of course, when he wasn’t busy inventing that 1933 Great Depression-era phrase, “priming the pump” – or other linguistic car crashes.
But all of this has now palled in the face of the train wreck that has evolved from he and his aides and supporters’ insistence on cozying up to Vladimir Putin and the Russians – first during the presidential campaign and then, thereafter, into the actual presidency. This has come in spite of the financial sanctions enacted against Russia due to the unresolved Russian involvement in the secessionist conflict in the eastern reaches of Ukraine, Russia’s forcible annexation of Crimea, the Russian involvement in the 2016 US election, and Russia’s continuing deep support of a particularly odious Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria. (Of course there are also hints and allegations about a deeper Russian financial connection to Trump and the Trump Organisation, and to many of his once and former aides and operatives. But, so far at least, little of that has been definitively proven – yet.)
But once Michael Flynn was forced to resign as the newly appointed national security adviser after less than a month, largely for lying to the vice president about Flynn’s ties to Russia and its ambassador to the US, the president’s entanglements with the FBI became a bone of contention. Despite his staff’s initial public argument that the president had fired FBI Director James Comey for having lost the confidence of the president and country (largely due to his handling of the Hillary Clinton e-mail story), it quickly became clear the real issues were very different, and much more troubling.
First there was Comey’s reluctance at a private dinner to swear personal fealty to Trump (rather than to his oath of office). But, second – and most especially – it turns out it was Comey’s obdurateness in refusing to shut down the FBI’s ongoing investigation (running since last July) of that problematic Russia connection for Flynn and the others, the Russians’ election interference in the US, and all the rest of it. In the process, while Trump aides had first spent their energies – both in the White House briefing room and on television and even in the shadows from the shelter of some tall bushes in the White House garden – trying to spin that first story; the president, himself, via his tweets and some astonishing television appearances, told another story instead. This action once again carried out in what is fast becoming a Trump trademark move – throwing some perfectly usable staffers under an oncoming metaphorical Greyhound bus.
But even that hasn’t stopped the problem. Now there has been the revelation that Comey, as has been his wont for decades, kept detailed notes of several conversations he had with the president about all this – including his refusal to call off the dogs over Russia. The Comey notes also apparently included the fact that Trump had clearly exerted as much pressure as he dared in arguing that Flynn was a really “good guy” and he didn’t need any of this tsoris. And, oh, besides all that, Comey’s continuation as the big cheese over at the FBI probably depended upon learning how to go along with the flow too.
Criminal lawyers are now parsing the president’s behaviour in terms of whether it meets the “intent to thwart justice” test of the criminal charge of obstruction of justice. This is clearly not where Donald Trump had hoped to be in his fourth month as president – with an ongoing FBI investigation, two congressional investigations about all this, and a growing pack of lawyers trying to measure whether or not a crime has been committed. Or, more ominously, whether that crime equals the constitutional test of “high crimes and misdemeanours”, the grounds for charges of impeachment to be brought to bear, per the US Constitution.
Okay, right about now readers may be saying this is already enough trouble for one week. But no, there was still more to come. We learned that last week Trump had met the Russian foreign minister and their ambassador in Washington in the Oval Office. Now remember, such a meeting like that has not happened with a president for quite a while, given the Ukraine, sanctions, Crimea, and that Syria business. While no US press, or even a White House photographer had been present, the Russian had brought along their very own Tass News Agency cameraman who documented the grip-and-grin session and who then gave the photos of the meeting to the Russian foreign ministry, which dutifully released those photos in a rather embarrassing gotcha moment for the White House.
Ah, enough already, right? Wrong yet again. Now it seems that the Trumpster apparently managed to tell his Russian visitors some rather closely held, ultra-sensitive intelligence about IS plans to make use of seemingly operational laptops as carefully rigged bombs on commercial aircraft. Well, that does seem like a rather likely tactic for IS, given the very large number of travellers who carry laptops on board aircraft all over the world. But the problem is that Trump apparently was drawing from some rather specific Israeli intel that had been shared with the US, and that what he said in his meeting might well be traceable back to the sources and methods used to gain the more detailed information. This could compromise Israeli (and other Western) intelligence on the matter.
There is no guarantee, after all, that the Russians might not parse out bits of this valuable info to their partners Iran, Syria, or Hezbollah by the end of things. Now, there has been no charge that the president has illegally trafficked in classified material – he is allowed to do that as the head of government – but the effects of what he has done are still being accounted for.
A faux pas like that could easily encourage other nations to be much more cautious in co-operating with American intelligence agencies in the future, given their fears that some of their most important sources and operations could be compromised by Donald Trump’s self-evidently loose lips in casual conversation, especially given his willingness to boast to the Russians that he has “really great intel”. It might also make it that much harder for American agencies themselves to operate in the field in dealing with non-state actor terror threats and nervous sources in investigating (or stopping) such things.
Ultimately it might well make foreign leaders that much more reluctant to trust Donald Trump with anything else that needs circumspection or caution in speaking about, either in leaders’ meetings or to the public. All this, of course, comes just as Trump is poised to jet off to Europe and the Middle East to speak with – guess whom? Why, his conversations will be with people like the Israelis, the Saudis and other Arab leaders, America’s Nato allies, and its G-7 interlocutors. Every one of those folks has secrets and concerns about their sources.
All of this is a real pain for Trump’s briefers and senior staffers, since he has let it be known he eschews long, detailed briefing papers with actual information; instead preferring one-page lists of bullet points, clever charts, maps and pictures. Those are great tools and they also help in bluffing one’s way through a final exam in college. But, sometimes, being president requires real work, real study, real thinking, real contemplation of the enormity of the job and the consequences of the president’s decisions. And that, of course, brings us back to David Brooks’ fireflies in a bottle and their random flashes – and the need for Congress to think very hard about whether or not Donald J Trump should continue in his present occupation, or be allowed to retire to his over-gilded eyrie in Manhattan yet again. DM
Photo: US President Donald J. Trump walks across the South Lawn of the White House to depart by Marine One, in Washington, DC, USA, 17 May 2017. Trump travels to deliver remarks at a commencement ceremony at the US Coast Guard Academy in Connecticut. EPA/MICHAEL REYNOLDS