The White House, Trumped: Quo Vadis, Donald?

Following the chaotic White House charade of multiple conflicting responses to the tragedy in Charlottesville last week, the problems of Trumpian government continue to become ever harder to ignore. As an aside, J. BROOKS SPECTOR wonders if anyone is beginning to study seriously the implications of the 25th Amendment to the Constitution – the one that allows a cabinet to declare that a president is unable to continue his duties and must be replaced by the next one in line. Mike Pence, are you listening?

Most of you have probably seen one of those horror/SF/thrillers with a crazy religious or magical angle where, one by one, the people in a room or on a space ship begin to disappear with no notice or fuss. Just “poof”, and then they are gone. Usually there is not even a puff of smoke, the aroma of sulphur, or the faint whirring of divine or purgatorian wings. Just vanished.

And now this very film has been in the making for some weeks in the White House as well. Back in January, there was a picture of some of the most senior Trump aides, all clustered together with him, just after the inauguration. There they were – Michael Flynn, Sean Spicer, Stephen Bannon, Reince Priebus, and Vice President Pence – gathered around a new president seated at the famous Resolute Desk in the Oval Office.

Photo: US President Donald J. Trump (L) speaks on the phone with President of Russia Vladimir Putin, in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC, USA, 28 January 2017. Also in this picture; White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus (2-L), US Vice President Mike Pence (3-L), Chief Strategist and Senior Counselor Stephen Bannon (3-R), White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer (2-R) and National Security Advisor, retired Lieutenant General Michael Flynn. EPA/MICHAEL REYNOLDS

Now only the vice president remains from that original crew. And, of course, there have also been others gone from the White House, courtesy of those generals-now-in-suits McMaster and Kelly, as they work to root out more of any residual Flynn cohort, such as KT McFarlane, now exiled off to Singapore. This, of course, doesn’t even count those captains of industry and finance who have deserted the Trumpster’s various advisory councils (before he shut them down to avoid further embarrassment) or from his artistic advisory council. Along the way he has been taking pot shots at his attorney-general and fired the previous director of the FBI for failing to show enough personal fealty to his nibs.

Yes, of course, every presidential administration has its staff casualties and replacements over the years. People wear out from the round-the-clock, hamster-on-the-tiny-racing-treadmill-in-a-cage aspect of working in the White House. Eventually a president’s first line-up is replaced bit by bit, as those individuals figure out how to get a much better paying job elsewhere (usually in the private sector), or they decide some sleep and a chance to meet their families again is worth something. Or, in some cases, they want time to write their breathless, tell-all book, before their rivals can write their own spill-the-beans tracts.

Almost always, by the time a presidency has run for eight, or even just four years, at the end of it, the players are largely a different crew than those who came in with the presidential luggage and his personal knick-knacks. And sometimes, too, a president discovers that the men and women he brought with him into office just aren’t the right people to rely upon – either because they have their own unsavoury political baggage; their ideas just don’t match their chief’s own ideas; or they just don’t know how to get along with all the others and get anything done.

But never, not ever, not once since the modern presidency came into being in the post-World War II period, has a president had virtually his entire corps of his most senior advisers clear out like this one has had done in just a few months’ time. And there is no sign of any real end to this, either.

There will be more headlines from the factional struggles yet to come as the infighting within the White House remains unresolved. The New York City group, presumably aligned to a more traditional Republican globalist agenda – including such people as first daughter Ivanka, son-in-law Jared, and National Economic Council head Gary Cohn – will continue to butt heads with those “America first”-ish, ultra-nationalist-populists like Stephen Miller and Sebastian Gorka (and potentially Kellyanne Conway as well). Meanwhile, the generals, including National Security Advisor HR (Herbert Raymond) McMaster and Chief of Staff John Kelly, along with James Mattis at the Defence Department, have a more traditional internationalist, neo-conservative military bent as well, drawn from their years in uniform.

Even though Steve Bannon is now out of his White House office, he has made an immediate return to Breitbart News – the mother lode of alt-right fakery and pot stirring. This almost guarantees he will be inserting his oar on a routine, frequent basis, keeping things perpetually unsettled in what will pass for order in the Trump White House.

Strikingly, none of these remaining warring tribes has managed, at least not yet, to build a strong, stable relationship base with the Republican Party’s “900 pound gorillas” – Senator Mitch McConnell and Congressman and Speaker Paul Ryan – the way Reince Priebus had done. These two legislators – along with their principal lieutenants – have been attempting to control an increasingly fractious House of Representatives and Senate in which their Republican majorities were increasingly riven between a clutch of moderates on one side, the Freedom Caucus of the hard right, and the remainder uneasily in the middle of this tussle. And that doesn’t even begin to describe any efforts to build a relationship with Democrats to achieve a semblance of bipartisan behaviour.

Of course, much – maybe most – of the Sturm und Drang was, and continues to be, coming from the wild, unscripted, ad hoc, improvisational, “it’s all about me, me, me” nature of Donald J Trump as president. Unwilling or too lazy (or simply unable) to spend the time to learn about the realities of actually governing or the nuances and complexities of real issues (as in his famous comment about the national health care issue, where he said, “Who knew healthcare was this complicated?”), the president continues to fall back on red meat, dog whistle, crowd-pleasing campaign rhetoric as a substitute for actual analysis. Even when derided, comprehensively corrected, debunked or Snopes-ed, he usually is right back on those same old lines.

Save for the worst impulses of people like Stephen Bannon, he seems curiously allergic to advice most of the time from people whose very job titles seem to include the word “adviser” in them. Even when he takes advice, the sound of the screeching of his fingernails across the floor as he is dragged to the podium is a terrible din. Look no further than his inability to stay with a simple-minded denunciation of neo-Nazis, racists, white supremacists and Ku Klux Klanners, instead falling back on a second bizarre version of that “some of the finest people” language.

To remind readers, since this now seems almost like ancient history, the racists et al marched in Charlottesville, Virginia, ostensibly to protest the removal of a statue of General Robert E Lee, the Confederate military leader. They carried the usual paraphernalia of such marches, torches, swastika flags, ultra-right banners, and chanted the usual contemporary paraphrases of such old Nazi favourites as “Alle Juden raus”. A melee ensued the next day as anti-protesters arrived and one person was killed (and many others injured) by a white supremacist in his car – in an apparent copycatting of recent murderous actions in Spain, France and the UK by Islamist terrorist wannabes. The president spluttered his first statement of equivalence on demonstrators and protesters on Saturday, failing the simplest test imaginable for an American president: “True or false? Racism and neo-Nazism are evil.”

In the wake of a growing media storm (including some barely controlled denunciations from a long list of Republican politicians and others), on the Monday after his first comment, he was almost literally bludgeoned by his staff into reading a denunciation that would have been un-newsworthy and largely reassuring had he uttered it in the first place. There things might have stayed – well almost – save for the fact that on Tuesday, out he came yet again and then he was right back into the false equivalence of his “some neo-Nazis are fine folks” remarks and his long ramble about what would happen if one Robert E Lee statue is gone. To listen to the president, Washington, Lincoln and Jefferson are sure to be smashed or melted down next. And it was a commentary like that one that made the nasty stuff hit the fan.

Even a sober-minded, pro-business journal like The Economist judged the president’s performance an abject failure, writing,

Mr Trump is not a white supremacist. He repeated his criticism of neo-Nazis and spoke out against the murder of Heather Heyer [the woman killed by the car]. Even so, his unsteady response contains a terrible message for Americans. Far from being the saviour of the Republic, their president is politically inept, morally barren and temperamentally unfit for office.”

That journal went on to argue that “his advisers, particularly the three generals sitting at the top of the Pentagon, the National Security Council and as Mr Trump’s chief of staff, are better placed than anyone to curb the worst instincts of their commander-in-chief.”

But that is a faint hope, it seems. Sadly, because Donald Trump resolutely refuses to learn in office; to build bridges to his own party, let alone the opposition; to dig into the details of governing; or to build coalitions across institutions on behalf of policies, his campaign promises will remain just that and he will become increasingly irrelevant to the actual business of governing.

And there is little time left for all those mundane things in Congress like authorising an increase in the debt ceiling before government borrowing is capped and passing a federal budget, let alone dealing with likely chimeras like tax reform packages and building that “big, beautiful wall” between the US and Mexico. Besides all that, there is the glowering crisis of North Korea’s nuclear tipped missiles and the chest-beating competition between Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump (and the more general confusion of the Trump administration’s policy on North Korea); a potential trade conflict with China now made more possible from a decision to initiate a public process of evaluating Chinese trade infractions; creating potential problems for the Iranian P5+1 nuclear pact by threats of yet more sanctions; the loose talk about military engagement over the situation in Venezuela, and the Russian election hacking investigations that have the potential to bring down the whole house of cards that is the Trump administration.

Given the barely controlled chaos in the White House – despite General Kelly’s effort to instil some military-style discipline into a perpetually biting and scratching staff – the vision of Stephen Bannon lobbing incendiary devices INTO the White House, as he has promised if the true faith is not upheld, almost guarantees to keep the muddle going. Finally, of course, so far, at least, the president simply hasn’t been prepared to exercise control, save in the negative sense of criticising his aides and cabinet members, or to keep his tweets and public rants in check. This is no way to run a railroad, a government, a White House, or the military might of a nation. DM

Photo: US President Donald J. Trump (L) listens to CEO of Merck Kenneth Frazier (R) speaks during the announcement of a pharmaceutical glass packaging initiative, in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, DC, USA, 20 July 2017. Kenneth Frazier announced on 14 August 2017 that he would step down from one of US President Trump’s advisory panels, citing ‘a responsibility to take a stand against violence and extremism’, days after a series of racist demonstrations erupted into violence in Charlottesville. EPA/MICHAEL REYNOLDS