It’s like the campaign never ended. It’s the same all-Trump, all-the-time madness, only exponentially worse.
Morning, February 24th, National Harbor, Maryland, the Conservative Political Action Conference. Chin up, eyes asquint, Donald Trump floats to the lectern on a sea of applause and adulation. The building is shaking, and as fans howl his name – Trump! Trump! Trump! – he looks pleased and satisfied, like a Roman emperor who has just moved his bowels.
“Great to be back at CPAC,” he says. “The place I have really …”
The thought flies into the air and vanishes. Last year at this time, Trump was bailing on a CPAC invite because a rat’s nest of National Review types was threatening a walkout to protest him. There was talk of 300 conservatives planning a simultaneous march to the toilet if the formerly pro-choice New Yorker was allowed onstage.
Whether Trump remembers this now, or just loses his train of thought, he goes silent.
“We love you!” a young woman screams, filling the void.
“I love this place!” Trump exclaims, sunnily now. He recalls the tale of his first major political speech, which was delivered to this very conference six years ago. Back then he was introduced to the beat of the O’Jays soul hit “For the Love of Money,” and over the course of 13 uncomfortably autoerotic minutes flogged his résumé and declared it a myth that a “very successful person” couldn’t run for president.
He starts to tell that story, when suddenly he spots something in the audience that knocks him off script.
“Siddown, everybody, come on,” he says.
A lot of the people can’t sit down because they’re in standing-room-only sections. There’s confusion, a few nervous laughs. Frowning, Trump plows ahead.
“You know,” he says, “the dishonest media, they’ll say, ‘He didn’t get a standing ovation.’ You know why?”
Those of us in the dishonest-media section shoot befuddled looks at one another. Not one of us has a clue why.
“You know why? No, you know why?” he goes on. “Because everybody stood and nobody sat. So they will say, ‘He never got a standing ovation.’ Right?”
This makes no sense, but the crowd roars anyway. Trump leans over and pauses to soak in the love, his trademark red tie hanging like the tongue of a sled dog. Finally he turns and flashes a triumphant thumbs-up. A chant breaks out:
“U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!”
Reporters stare at one another in shock. They were mute bystanders seconds ago; now they’re the 1980 Soviet hockey team. One turns to a colleague and silently mouths: “U-S-A? What the f … ”
Nearby, another press nerd is frowning to himself and counting on his fingers, apparently trying to use visual aids to retrace Trump’s reasoning. Was the idea that reporters wouldn’t notice a standing ovation unless the crowd eventually sat down?
Helpless shrugs all around.
In a flash, Trump is launching into a furious 15-minute diatribe, bashing the “Clinton News Network” (Trump continually refers to Hillary Clinton as if the campaign were still going on) and describing the press as the “enemy of the people.”
Within hours, Trump’s aides will bar a group of news outlets from a White House gaggle, in a formal declaration of war against the media. The next morning, a still-raging Trump will tweet out his decision not to attend the White House Correspondents’ Dinner – no great loss, since the event has never not been a wretched exercise in stale humor and ankle-biting toadyism, but still. How long can he keep up this pace?
Since winning the election, Trump has declared interpersonal war on a breathtaking list of targets: the Australian prime minister, an acting attorney general, seven predominantly Muslim countries, a “so-called” federal judge, Sweden, “Fake Tears” Chuck Schumer, Saturday Night Live, the FBI, the “very un-American” leakers within the intelligence community, and the city of Paris (it’s “no longer Paris”). He’s side-eyed Mark Cuban, John McCain, millions of protesters, Lindsey Graham, Richard Blumenthal, Chris Cuomo, the University of California at Berkeley, ratings “disaster” Arnold Schwarzenegger, Nancy Pelosi, the “TRAITOR Chelsea Manning,” Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, Barack Obama and the city of Chicago, among many, many others.
There is no other story in the world, no other show to watch. The first and most notable consequence of Trump’s administration is that his ability to generate celebrity has massively increased, his persona now turbocharged by the vast powers of the presidency. Trump has always been a reality star without peer, but now the most powerful man on Earth is prisoner to his talents as an attention-generation machine.
Worse, he is leader of a society incapable of discouraging him. The numbers bear out that we are living through a severely amplified déjà vu of last year’s media-Trump codependent lunacies. TV-news viewership traditionally plummets after a presidential election, but under Trump, it’s soaring. Ratings since November for the major cable news networks are up an astonishing 50 percent in some cases, with CNN expecting to improve on its record 2016 to make a billion dollars – that’s billion with a “b” – in profits this year.
Even the long-suffering newspaper business is crawling off its deathbed, with The New York Times adding 132,000 subscribers in the first 18 days after the election. If Trump really hates the press, being the first person in decades to reverse the industry’s seemingly inexorable financial decline sure is a funny way of showing it.
On the campaign trail, ballooning celebrity equaled victory. But as the country is finding out, fame and governance have nothing to do with one another. Trump! is bigger than ever. But the Trump presidency is fast withering on the vine in a bizarre, Dorian Gray-style inverse correlation. Which would be a problem for Trump, if he cared.
But does he? During the election, Trump exploded every idea we ever had about how politics is supposed to work. The easiest marks in his con-artist conquest of the system were the people who kept trying to measure him according to conventional standards of candidate behavior. You remember the Beltway priests who said no one could ever win the White House by insulting women, the disabled, veterans, Hispanics, “the blacks,” by using a Charlie Chan voice to talk about Asians, etc.
Now he’s in office and we’re again facing the trap of conventional assumptions. Surely Trump wants to rule? It couldn’t be that the presidency is just a puppy Trump never intended to care for, could it?
Toward the end of his CPAC speech, following a fusillade of anti-media tirades that will dominate the headlines for days, Trump, in an offhand voice, casually mentions what a chore the presidency can be.
“I still don’t have my Cabinet approved,” he sighs.
In truth, Trump does have much of his team approved. In the early days of his administration, while his Democratic opposition was still reeling from November’s defeat, Trump managed to stuff the top of his Cabinet with a jaw-dropping collection of perverts, tyrants and imbeciles, the likes of which Washington has never seen.
En route to taking this crucial first beachhead in his invasion of the capital, Trump did what he always does: stoked chaos, created hurricanes of misdirection, ignored rules and dared the system of checks and balances to stop him.
By conventional standards, the system held up fairly well. But this is not a conventional president. He was a new kind of candidate and now is a new kind of leader: one who stumbles like a drunk up Capitol Hill, but manages even in defeat to continually pull the country in his direction, transforming not our laws but our consciousness, one shriveling brain cell at a time.
It seems strange to say about the most overanalyzed person in the world, but Trump arrived in Washington an unknown. His shocking victory had been won almost entirely outside the Beltway, via a Shermanesque barnstorming tour through white-discontent meccas in states like Iowa, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, where he devoured popular support by promising wrath and vengeance on the federal government.
Trump didn’t appeal to K Street for help, didn’t beg for mailing lists or the phone numbers of millionaire bundlers, and never wrung his hands waiting for favorable reviews on Meet the Press. He was the first president in modern times to arrive in Washington not owing the local burghers.
What that meant, nobody knew, but it probably wasn’t good. Leaders in both parties had reason to panic. Democrats were calling him illegitimate. Leading Republicans had abandoned Trump during the “grab them by the pussy” episode. In a true autocracy, theirs would be the first heads gored on stakes as a warning to the others. Many D.C. bureaucrats had no idea what to expect. They were like shopkeepers awaiting the arrival of a notorious biker gang.
Candidate Trump had lied and prevaricated so fluidly that it was impossible to be sure where he really stood on any issue. Was he “very pro-choice,” or did he think women who got abortions deserved “some form of punishment”? Was he an aspiring dictator and revolutionary, or merely a pragmatic charlatan whose run for president was just a publicity stunt that got way out of hand?
The mystery seemed to end once Trump started choosing his team.
Some appointees were less terrifying than others. Former ExxonMobil chief Rex Tillerson at least pays lip service to climate change and probably has enough smarts to complete one side of a Rubik’s Cube. Treasury pick Steven Mnuchin would struggle to make a list of the 30 most loathsome Goldman Sachs veterans. These and a few others were merely worst-case-scenario corporate-influence types, industry foxes sent to man regulatory henhouses.
But the rest were the most fantastic collection of creeps since the “Thriller” video. Many were blunderers and conspiracists whose sole qualification for office appeared to be their open hostility to the missions of the agencies they were tapped to run.
Trump’s choice for EPA director, Scott Pruitt, was a climate-change denier who infamously zeroed out the environmental-enforcement division from the Oklahoma attorney general’s office. For secretary of labor, Trump picked a fast-food titan who prefers robots to human workers (robots, he said, don’t file discrimination suits!).
Trump put a brain surgeon in charge of federal housing, picked a hockey-team owner to be secretary of the Army, and chose as budget director a congressman best known for inspiring a downgrade to America’s credit rating by threatening to default on the national debt.
Trump’s pick for energy secretary, Rick Perry, reportedly not only admitted that he didn’t know what the Department of Energy actually does, but had called for that very agency’s elimination as a presidential candidate (and forgot that fact during a debate). Moreover, Trump had brutalized Perry during the campaign as a dimwit among dimwits, whose “smart glasses” affectation didn’t fool anyone.
For Trump and his inner circle to name Perry to any Cabinet post at all felt like trolling, like a football team wrapping the mascot in packing tape and mailing him to Canada. But to send someone you’re on record calling an idiot to run the nation’s nuclear arsenal, that doesn’t fit easily in any bucket: mischief, evil, incompetence – it’s even a little extreme for nihilism.
Trump’s lead adviser, the fast-talking Breitbart Svengali Steve Bannon, would ultimately explain the thinking behind Trump’s appointments in front of the CPAC audience. “If you look at these Cabinet appointees, they were selected for a reason,” he said. The mysterious figure described that reason as the “deconstruction of the administrative state.”
This seemed to confirm the darkest theory of the Trump administration: a state-smashing revolution disguised as populist political theater. A do-nothing Cabinet could ease back on its discretionary authority to save public lands, enforce workplace protections, uphold emissions standards. It could (and soon would) stop investigating crooked police departments. It could redirect funds meant to study climate change or viral outbreaks.
Continuing a theme that dominated election season, both parties were painfully slow to accept the reality of what they were dealing with.
The early response of the Democratic leadership to Trump’s picks was a shocking strategy of partial accommodation and “picking their battles.”
“I call it the law of conservation of no’s,” says Jeff Hauser of the Revolving Door Project, which monitors federal appointments. “The Democrats felt they could only say no to Trump so many times, that they had to hoard their political capital for one or two battles.”
Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and Co. decided to focus their oppositional efforts on a few select targets, particularly Trump’s Health and Human Services nominee, Georgia Rep. Tom Price.
An orthopedic surgeon with snow-white hair, sallow cheeks and the voice of a man complaining to a waitress, Price is probably best known for spending the past eight years leading the effort to overturn the Affordable Care Act.
In a classic example of Beltway-Clintonian triangular thinking, the Democrats felt that Price was their best bet to score a crossover win because of his history of favoring cuts in the popular Medicare and Medicaid programs.
After a paradigm-crushing year in which Trump won the presidency claiming vaccines were a hoax, global warming was a Chinese conspiracy and Ted Cruz’s dad killed JFK, Democrats were clinging to a Nineties-era playbook that said forcing Republicans into a corner on Medicare and Social Security was still a no-lose play in American politics.
The focus on Price was another example of Democrats’ inability to recognize a changed political landscape. But even before Trump came on the scene, this lack of vision doomed them.
In 2013, then-Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada eliminated the filibuster procedure for presidential nominees. Passage of the so-called Reid Rule was widely hailed by Democrats because it solved the short-term problem of Republican obstruction of Obama.
In reality, Reid just sabotaged the future self-defense capability of the entire Senate. This was one of many examples of Democrats cheering an expansion of executive power that later left them weakened under Trump. Delaware Sen. Chris Coons was one of the first to get religion late last year, once he started to see Trump’s loony nominees marching up the Hill.
“I do regret that,” Coons told CNN in late November. “[The filibuster] would have been a terrific speed bump.”
Still, it’s not clear that Democrats would have used the filibuster, even if they had it holstered. At an early-December meeting at North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp’s Washington home, several prominent Democrats reportedly met over Chinese food and emerged with a crack-suicide-squad strategy for fighting Trump: Talk more about pocketbook issues and maybe take on Price.
One Democrat after another sounded notes of accommodation. West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin said he planned to generally support Trump’s picks “unless there’s just something scathing coming out that I don’t know about.” Sen. Brian Schatz of Hawaii added, “We can’t very well be at a fever pitch on everything.”
Price sailed through hearings and was confirmed along party lines basically without a struggle, and the Democratic “resistance” looked cooked out of the gate.
Another early nominee who skated through was CIA chief Mike Pompeo, a Jesus-humping conspiracist who embraces torture and once called politics “a never-ending struggle … until the Rapture.”
A spy chief who believes in literal Armageddon apparently wasn’t “scathing” enough to be “fevered” about, and 14 Democrats supported his nomination in a whopping 66-32 confirmation.
Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts then gave voice votes in favor of Trump’s choice to run the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Ben Carson.
Even if Carson were not an addled mystic who thinks gay rights are a Marxist plot and “hummus” a Palestinian terrorist group, putting a doctor with no economics background in charge of an agency about to take part in one of the most complex financial projects in our history – the reorganization of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac – seemed like madness.
Carson, through an aide, said as late as November he didn’t want to take a Cabinet post because he “has no government experience,” saying he didn’t want to do anything that could “cripple the presidency.”
Mark it down as another first in the Trump era: Politician formally announces his own incompetence in an attempt to prevent his own nomination, gets nominated anyway, and is even supported by members of an opposition party that perhaps unconsciously has begun to grade Trump’s insanity on a curve – an early example of how the relentless Trump show bends our perception of reality.
Democratic members who cast early yea votes were besieged when they went back home. Warren was deluged with furious Twitter responses (“Ben Carson is ok?! Wtf is wrong with you!”), while Schumer appeared at a rally in Battery Park in Manhattan, only to be hectored: “Stop voting for his nominees!”
The Women’s March also shocked Democratic leadership. Some reports called it the largest protest in our history, with as many as 4.2 million people marching in 600 different cities.
These people didn’t want Democrats “picking battles” and “conserving no’s” – they wanted them to hurl themselves under tank treads to stop Trump at every turn. But what really made the message sink in for Democrats was a mid-January hearing that provided one of their first up-close encounters with Trump’s invasion force.
The turning point comes early on the evening of January 17th, in Room 430 of the Senate’s Dirksen Building. At the center of this imposing hearing hall with majestic circular paneling, built in the Fifties to provide the Senate with a dramatic venue fit for the television age, sits the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) committee’s first visitor from Planet Trump.
She is a mute, unassuming woman with straight blond hair, glasses and a quizzical expression, perched at attention like someone awaiting a sermon.
The nomination of Betsy DeVos to be education secretary was surely meant on some level as an insult to the Senate. The daughter of an auto-parts billionaire, DeVos is also married to the heir of the Amway fortune, which makes her something like America’s reigning Queen of Suckers. Her family has given as much as $200 million to conservative causes and politicians over the years.
It has to have entered Trump’s calculations that a large percentage of senators for this reason would not be able to reject her no matter what she said or did under questioning. It’s exactly the sort of cruel theater in which Trump the reality-TV producer once specialized.
DeVos arrives dressed in a blazer of bright purple. (Historians will note this is the same color of the robes worn by Incitatus, the horse Caligula used to troll the Senate.) Over the next three and a half hours, she will prove to be the worst witness since William Jennings Bryan sent himself to the stand in the Scopes Monkey Trial.
A well-known charter-school advocate who had said that “government really sucks” and that public education was a “dead end” – who had neither attended public school nor sent her kids to one – DeVos is at first standoffish but predictable in her answers. But things turn surreal when Minnesota Sen. Al Franken asks her where she stands on the question of proficiency versus growth.
Do we judge schools according to how much their students know, or should we better measure how much students know relative to how much they knew before? It’s the education equivalent of asking if a football coach prefers the run or the pass.
DeVos has no idea what Franken is talking about.
“I think, if I’m understanding your question correctly around proficiency, I would also correlate it to competency and mastery,” she says, “so that each student is measured according to the advancement that they’re making in each subject area.”
“Well, that’s growth,” Franken says. “That’s not proficiency.”
DeVos stammers a brief response, then freezes. She looks like a duck trying to read a parking meter.
As the hearing progresses, DeVos tires and her Sunday-school smile wilts around the edges. By the time Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut asks if guns should be allowed in schools, she’s fed up.
“I think probably there, I would imagine that there is probably a gun in the school to protect from potential grizzlies,” she says, in reference to an earlier exchange with Wyoming Sen. Mike Enzi.
Murmurs shoot through the rear of the hall. The members are unaware that the hearing is trending on Twitter. The “grizzlies” line, to use an overwrought cliché, broke the Internet.
Committee Chair Sen. Lamar Alexander, a pink-faced Southerner whose own fringe presidential runs in the Nineties in some ways presaged Trump’s – the difference being Alexander’s populist affectation was a red-flannel shirt instead of conspiratorial xenophobia – had miscalculated in his apparent attempt to hide the hearing by scheduling it at night.
The Republicans also failed to adjust for the new Trump-era media landscape. Twitter that day boiled with hot stories. Trump’s NSA communications pick, pearl-earringed Fox News blockhead Monica Crowley, had to step down over plagiarism accusations. Trump was continuing his days-long flame war with Georgia Rep. John Lewis, and blasting his approval ratings as “rigged.” Some 51 members of Congress were announcing plans to boycott Trump’s inauguration. And so on.
“During the day, seven crazy things were happening,” a committee aide explains. “But in the evening, this was it.”
When the hearing ended, ranking member Sen. Patty Murray of Washington was amazed to find out that the HELP committee had somehow become the center of the social-media universe.
“I looked down at my phone and saw all of these texts,” she says now. “I was like, ‘Wow.'”
A video from the hearing would garner 1.2 million hits on YouTube, beyond anything in the committee’s history.
The impact of the DeVos implosion was twofold. First, the Democrats realized they could and should fight back. Second, Republicans found the downside of party-line votes. Many received a torrent of abuse from constituents who demanded they vote DeVos out.
“I have heard from thousands, truly, thousands of Alaskans who have shared their concerns about Mrs. DeVos,” said Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who dealt with protests outside her Alaska office and later estimated that 30,000 constituents called to complain.
Murkowski announced that she would pull her vote for DeVos, as did Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine. A senator voting against his or her own party’s nominee is the Beltway equivalent of an eclipse or a volcanic lightning strike – rare and frightening to the natives.
True to form, the Democrats – they have been a step behind Trump for a while now – never managed to peel off a third defector to defeat DeVos. But Republicans still suffered the indignity of needing Vice President Mike Pence to break the tie, another thing that had never before happened in the Senate’s history.
The DeVos debacle impacted Trump’s choice for labor secretary, Andy Puzder. The CEO of CKE Restaurants, which includes the Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr. chains, the lecherous and moronic Puzder made DeVos look like Robert Frost.
Earlier that week, it came to light that Puzder’s ex-wife had appeared in disguise on The Oprah Winfrey Show back in the Nineties to talk about being abused. Moreover, Puzder greenlit a line of pseudo-pornographic commercials, including one that featured babes in postage-stamp bikinis opening wide to wolf down “three-way burgers.” Even his name, Puzder, sounds like an unmentionable sex act.
To be confirmed, Puzder would have to run the same gauntlet of HELP committee senators: Murray, Franken, Murphy, Warren and Bernie Sanders, among others, all of whom had turned their cross-examinations of DeVos into viral hits.
If silly Betsy DeVos crashed Twitter, what would hours of live Q&A with a cleavage-obsessed multimillionaire do?
Before it came to that, four Republicans – Collins, Murkowski, Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina and Sen. Johnny Isakson of Georgia – announced they were withholding support for Puzder’s bid. Soon after, he pulled out, and Democrats for the first time drew blood against Trump. Puzder later told Fox News that the DeVos hearing “actually is what killed” his nomination.
From that point forward, there was no more “conservation of no’s.”
“I think before, some people might have been saying, ‘Somewhere in his heart [Trump] must love the country. We’ll give him the benefit of the doubt,” says Murray, stressing she herself never felt this way. “But after DeVos, everyone realized, you can’t give him the benefit of the doubt.”
Murray adds that DeVos provided what seemed like proof of the Bannon theory of Trump’s governance by self-sabotage.
“You sensed it before, but now it’s jelling in people’s minds,” Murray says. “This was a completely different kind of administration. We had to consider that this was a really focused deconstructive effort.”
In the chambers of the Senate and on social media, the battle over Trump’s nominees felt like a comedy of manners. But out in the real world, there were already people staring at the business end of his presidency, and the costs were very real.
On the evening of January 28th, Munther Alaskry sits on the tarmac in a Turkish Air Lines jet in Istanbul, his wife and two young children by his side. They are on a stopover, headed for Houston. An Iraqi native, Alaskry had served in combat in Iraq as a translator alongside American soldiers dating back to 2003. He’d carried a weapon in the field, wore an American-issued uniform and been hunted by militias in his own country for more than a decade.
He applied for a visa to the U.S. in 2010 and, after nearly seven years of paperwork and interviews with practically every American security agency, was finally granted permission to immigrate in December 2016. “If that is not extreme vetting, I don’t know what is,” he says.
But before his jet takes off in Istanbul, a woman comes down the aisle and asks his wife for her passport. Alaskry knows instantly the game is up. He and his family are pulled off the plane and flown back to Baghdad at his expense. There is nothing to go back to. He’d sold his car and furniture. He and his wife had quit their jobs. He is also sure to be executed if the wrong people find him. They hide in his father-in-law’s house.
“We had no idea what to do,” he says. “We had nothing.”
Trump’s infamous executive order on January 27th barring immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries was initially taken by conservatives as proof that he was a doer, not a talker. “Man of Action Has Press, Democrats and Hollywood in a Dither,” The Washington Times gushed.
But the episode ended up being classic Trumpian ineptitude. The order was so poorly thought out that even the meanest judge couldn’t ratify it. It originally included a de facto exemption for Christians, making it a glaring violation of the Establishment Clause of the Constitution. A Bush-appointed judge, James Robart, struck it down out of the gate, and Alaskry was shortly after able to get his family to Rochester, New York. He marveled at Americans’ inability to distinguish, say, an ISIL fighter from people like himself, to say nothing of his children.
“The veterans, they know,” Alaskry says. “But the normal people, they do not know the difference.”
A president like Trump can have an impact even if he never manages to get a single law passed, simply by unleashing stupidity as a revolutionary force. Of course, no one can draw a direct line from Trump to incidents like the one in Kansas, where one of those “normal people” shot two immigrants from India, killing one, after accosting them about their visa status. Nor can anyone say that the Trump effect caused a Sikh man with American citizenship to be shot outside Seattle by a man yelling, “Go back to your own country!”
If Trump and his supporters don’t want to take credit for this exciting new era of not knowing what a Muslim is, but shooting people for being one anyway, that’s OK. But Trump’s executive orders were the hallmark of his first days in office, as he signed the travel ban, pledged to overturn the Dodd-Frank financial rules and ordered the construction of the so-called “Great Wall of Trump,” among other things.
But in most cases these orders only announced the start of long legal battles with highly ambiguous chances for success. Take away the impact they had as symbols of action, and most of what Trump has actually done so far, concretely, is pick a team. He soon enough stopped bothering with that, too.
Afternoon, February 16th, the Senate. Up in the gallery above the dais, in the cheap seats near the ceiling where they keep the reporters, rests a copy of Robert Caro’s tour de force Master of the Senate. As you sit flipping the pages of the colossal tome, reading decades-old descriptions of the very “drab tan damask walls” next to which you sit, you learn that this body, like a heavy ocean-worthy ship, was designed to withstand the most violent changes in circumstance.
Even two centuries ago, people like Jefferson and Madison understood that Americans were likely to go crazy from time to time, and so infused the Senate with awesome powers to stall and block the “transient impressions into which [people] might be led.”
On the floor below, Democrats are playing out the script, furiously arguing against Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s nominee to head the Office of Management and Budget. Emboldened by their clash with DeVos and the withdrawal of Puzder, they’re finally fighting in earnest using traditional legislative weaponry. But they still have no answer for the post-factual revolution raging outside the Capitol that saddled them with a figure like Mulvaney in the first place.
The South Carolina congressman with the cropped hair and the bulldog face is one of the most disliked people on the Hill. Mulvaney orates with the charm of a prison guard and behaves as if smiling on Capitol grounds would violate the Framers’ vision of limited government. He fits the Bannonite vision of revolutionary destruction, having for years led a gang of fiscal conspiracy theorists who, based on nothing whatsoever, believe that nothing bad could come from the United States defaulting on its national debt.
“I have yet to meet someone who can articulate the negative consequences [of defaulting],” he said in 2010.
Shortly after saying this, the United States’ credit rating was downgraded from AAA to AA+ by Standard and Poor’s, thanks in large part to congressional Republicans like Mulvaney threatening default. This episode will cost American taxpayers an astonishing $18.9 billion due to higher interest rates just on American securities issued that year. A similar episode two years later cost the economy another $24 billion, making Mulvaney and his bund of congressional “debt truthers” perhaps the most expensively stupid people ever to be elected to federal office in America.
As the Mulvaney vote nears, one Democratic senator after another stands up in the gallery to call him out. Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois notes that Mulvaney once questioned whether the Zika virus caused birth defects, apparently because he didn’t want the government spending money on scientific research.
“I’m not making this up,” Durbin pleads.
The Republicans yawn. One of the brilliant innovations of the Trump phenomenon has been the turning of expertise into a class issue. Formerly, scientists were political liabilities only insofar as their work clashed with the teachings of TV Bible-thumpers. Now, any person who in any way disputes popular misconceptions – that balancing a budget is just like balancing a checkbook, that two snowfalls in a week prove global warming isn’t real, that handguns would have saved Jews from the Holocaust or little kids from the Sandy Hook massacre – is part of an elitist conspiracy to deny the selfhood of the Google-educated American. The Republicans understand this axiom: No politician in the Trump era is going to dive in a foxhole to save scientific research. Scientists, like reporters, Muslims and the French, are out.
Most conservatives who opposed Trump over the past two years on grounds of basic logic now realize that they’ll suffer if they take stands against his conspiratorial ideas on immigrants, the budget, “so-called” judges, climate change or anything else. Trump has made being the voice of reason politically dangerous. Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, for instance, is already saddled with a Trump-aligned primary challenger and the enmity of Breitbart, which ran a photo of him next to an “I’m With Her” logo.
After Mulvaney squeaks through, the Democrats plunge into desperate tactics to stop the next bugbear, EPA nominee Pruitt. The drawling, devout Oklahoman represents the epitome of the Bannon ethos, failing in committee to name a single environmental regulation he supported.
To try to stop him, Dems invoke one of those senatorial stalling tactics, a rule that allows them to hold off a final vote for 30 hours, provided they keep the floor open through the Mr. Smith Goes to Washington technique of continuous debate. They stay up all night, with one member after another blasting Pruitt as the kind of man who would use a spotted owl as a dashboard ornament. But in the many rhetorical dead spots, they hit the theme of the month: Russia.
At the time, Trump’s national security adviser and noted Pizzagate conspiracy theorist Gen. Michael Flynn had just resigned, after revelations that he had unreported contact with the Russian ambassador prior to Trump’s inauguration. Within a few weeks, Attorney General Jeff Sessions will be rolled up in a similar imbroglio.
No matter what you believe on the Russia front, the manner in which the story is being prosecuted is striking. After failing to stop nutcases like Mulvaney using conventional tactics, the Democrats forayed into the unconventional. The scandal so dominates blue-state media that Russia Wars can almost be said to be the Democrats’ competing reality franchise. This show even incorporates Trump’s sensational political style, cycling lurid accusations with tune-in-next-time promises of future revelations. As damaging as it’s been, it’s yet another example of Trump’s uncanny ability to Trump-ize the world around him.
All of Trump’s opponents sooner or later fall victim to the same pattern. He is so voluminously offensive that Christ himself would abandon a positive message to chase his negatives. His election so completely devastated Democratic voters that many cannot think of him except in the context of removing him as soon as possible.
A scenario under which he is impeached somehow for colluding with Vladimir Putin to disrupt last year’s election seems like the needed shortcut. Unfortunately, despite a lot of lies about meetings and conversations and other curious behavior, there’s no actual proof of conspiracy. The former director of national intelligence, James Clapper, said there was “no evidence” of such collusion as of his last day in office.
That has put congressional Democrats in the perilous position of having to litter their Russia speeches with caveats like, “We do not know all the facts” and “More information may well surface.” They’re often stuck using the conspiracy-theory technique of referring to what they don’t know as a way of talking about what they hope to find out.
Trump has responded to all this in a predictable manner, leveling wild counter-accusations, saying Obama had been “tapping my phones” and was a “bad (or sick) guy.” Trump’s senior adviser Kellyanne Conway, who will either be ambassador to Mars or in a straitjacket by the end of this presidency, followed up by suggesting the government may have used a microwave oven to surveil Trump Tower during the election.
Maybe Trump didn’t plan this, and it’s just coincidence that where we are now – dueling accusations of criminality, investigations instead of debates, jail promised to the loser – is what politics would look like in a WWE future where government is a for-profit television program. And maybe it’s not the Trump effect that has Democrats so completely focused on him instead of talking to their voters, a mistake they also made last election season.
Still, the Russia story is the ultimate in high-stakes politics. If proof emerges that Trump and Putin colluded, it could topple this presidency. But if no such evidence comes out, the gambit could massively backfire, validating Trump’s accusations of establishment bias and media overreach.
In the short term, however, there’s no question that Russia is bloodying Trump politically. An evening speech during the Pruitt hearings by Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar hits the typical notes.
She cleverly references a trip she made to Ukraine with McCain and Graham, both owners of key votes in future legislative battles. She then goes all out rhetorically, hinting at bombshell future revelations: blackmail, betrayal, treason.
“If we are committed to ensuring that Russia’s hacking invasions and blackmail do not go unchecked,” she says, “we must do everything in our power to uncover the full extent of this interference in our own political system… .”
This goes on all night. Democrats stick it out until morning, only to wake up to find that two of their own caucus members from coal country have crossed over to give Pruitt their support.
Their cave-in shows that the power of Trump’s base extends even to Democrats. The two senators, Heitkamp of North Dakota and Manchin of West Virginia, both face re-election in 2018 and hail from states where Trump won handily. So much for throwing their bodies under tank treads: The Democrats can’t even convince their members to forget about re-election long enough to save the EPA. The ayes have it, 52-46, handing environmental enforcement to a man likely bent on a campaign of inaction, portending perhaps a return now to the good old days of the Cuyahoga River spontaneously catching fire.
As the month of February nears its end, Trump has won far more than he’s lost on the nomination front. But he appears to have been scarred by this process that saw one appointee resign (Flynn), four more withdraw (Puzder, Crowley, would-be Army Secretary Vincent Viola and Navy Secretary pick Philip Bilden), and another, Sessions, caught up in scandal and forced to recuse himself from the Russia probe after possibly perjuring himself during his confirmation.
As much of a dumpster fire as it may have seemed from the outside, the rocky nomination process has actually been a honeymoon of sorts for Trump, a period when he only needed a simple majority in a 52-Republican Senate to get his people passed. Going forward, as of now, for actual legislation, the filibuster will be in play, and Trump will need 60 votes to do real damage.
“The 60-vote universe is where he’s got a problem,” says longtime Democratic strategist Simon Rosenberg.
That theory is borne out a few weeks later, when a House bill to repeal the Affordable Care Act runs into trouble in the Senate, and no fewer than eight Republicans announce their objections. The Congressional Budget Office complicates the picture by scoring the Republican bill and concluding that it would leave 14 million fewer people insured next year.
This contradicts Trump’s “drinks for the house!”-style assertion that a new plan would mean “insurance for everybody.” OMB head Mulvaney quickly jumps in to say the CBO is “terrible at counting” and dismisses the score as bad math. Newt Gingrich, whose continued relevance as a go-to talking head is another unfortunate consequence of this presidency, goes further, crying that the CBO should be “abolished” and replaced by “three to five professional firms.” In modern American politics, every game is a blown call by the refs.
Just a month or so into Trump’s administration, one of the central promises of his campaign – the killing off of the Affordable Care Act – is in trouble. Trump’s inability to hold coalitions together, or really do much of anything beyond generate TV ratings, is already showing. But just as it was last year when the punditocracy told him he’d made himself unelectable, Trump’s ace in the hole may be that he doesn’t care. His history is that when the playing field doesn’t work for him, he moves it. The Framers may have designed the government to withstand bouts of popular madness, but there are no checks and balances against the power of celebrity. A president who is both a tyrant and disinterested in governance would have blown their minds.
“At some point, he just stopped appointing people,” says an incredulous Hauser, the capital watchdog, at the end of February. “He’s only made 30 appointments. That means he’s still got over 1,000 empty posts. Nearly 200 ambassador posts are in limbo. He named Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, but not a single judge beyond that – with over 100 empty federal seats to be filled. Nobody knows what the hell is going on.”
Sources theorize that Trump’s appointments slowed thanks to a combination of factors. Those include a fear of more DeVos-style blowback and an inability to find people capable of passing security clearances (at least six White House staffers reportedly had to be dismissed for this reason).
A darker explanation was offered by a ProPublica story revealing that Trump sent waves of nonpolitical appointees to the agencies in so-called beachhead teams, i.e., people sent in groups under temporary appointments of four to eight months.
These appointees did not have to be confirmed by Congress. Some are freaks and fringe weirdos on a level below even the goofballs in Trump’s Cabinet. A fair number carry amorphous “special assistant” titles, making it difficult to know what their duties are.
More unnerving is the presence in the Cabinet-level agencies of a seemingly new position, “senior White House adviser.”
Some Hill sources believe these new officials are reporting directly to Steve Bannon, who is fast achieving mythical status as the empire’s supreme villain. On the surface, Bannon is just another vicious ex-hippie of the David Horowitz/Michael Savage school, a former Grateful Dead fan who overswung the other way to embrace a Nazistic “culture first” alt-right movement. Everyone from Time magazine (which called him “the great manipulator”) to The New York Times (which called him a “de facto president”) is rushing to make him into a superempowered henchman of the extreme right, a new Roy Cohn – fitting, since Cohn himself was one of Trump’s first mentors. But whether he’s Cohn or just a fourth-rate imitator with a fat neck is still unclear.
Rosenberg believes the anemic pace of Senate-track political nominations, coupled with this flood of unconfirmed political hires, may be at least in part a conscious strategy to try to decrease the autonomy of the agencies and increase the control of the White House, in particular the Bannon camp.
Even at Tillerson’s introductory speech, Rosenberg points out, a young Trump campaign organizer and former Chris Christie aide named Matthew Mowers is seen standing next to Tillerson.
“He’s like a 27-year-old kid,” Rosenberg says. “Normally you would never have a young political appointee in the shot with the principal.”
This sounds like Kremlinology – the days when we were forced to try to figure out who was on the outs in the Soviet Politburo by seeing who sat next to whom in photos of Red Square parades – and it fits the Soviet flavor of the news leaking out of the agencies. Congressional sources in contact with the State Department report that some “beachhead” appointees wanted to start making immediate drastic cuts, closing consulates abroad willy-nilly, without asking for information or visiting the locations.
The Trump government has been besieged with damaging leaks – everything from internal Homeland Security reports showing little risk from immigrants of “Muslim ban” countries to alleged orders to consider reopening CIA “black sites.” D.C. has never seen anything like it: Reporters are able to get damaging information about the goings-on inside agencies just by cold-calling the right numbers.
The administration is so concerned with leakers within the State Department that Tillerson has supposedly banned note-taking at meetings. “The level of paranoia is off the charts,” reports a former senior official.
Tillerson himself is said to have postponed some diplomatic business to focus on what is euphemistically described as “fixing” the State Department. Probably this means more weeding out of civil servants, something going on across government.
Most infamously, Attorney General Sessions – fast becoming the poster child for the Trump administration’s inability to avoid stepping on its own genitalia – asked 46 U.S. attorneys to resign, including Southern District of New York chief Preet Bharara, who reportedly was specifically asked to stay on just after the election.
Some of these moves sound like Bannon’s much-publicized bent toward Leninist thinking: Purge unbelievers, fill the bureaucracies with loyal dunces, concentrate power, eschew governance goals for political ones. But it’s hard to say how much unanimity of purpose there could be.
When Sessions got caught up seeming to have lied to the Senate about meeting Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, a video surfaced showing a scene in which Trump was reportedly raining expletives on Bannon and others over the Sessions fiasco. If all this chaos is part of a cunning plan to destroy government from within, it sure is cleverly disguised as a bunch of paranoid amateurs flailing around and turning on one another weeks into the job.
One reporter tasked with covering the appointments says the staffing issue comes down to the same question we always have about Trump: Is this a scheme to destroy government, or cluelessness? “It’s just so hard to tell,” he says, “where this falls on the stupid-to-evil spectrum.”
While the chaos of Trump’s first months has caused him problems in the Beltway, it seems not to have hurt him a lick with his fans. After the CPAC speech, Trump supporters offer their takes on the nominee battles. The consensus? The Democrats who opposed Trump’s picks are a bunch of smartasses who need to lighten up.
University of Delaware student Daniel Worthington says the Democrats’ grilling of DeVos really rubbed him the wrong way.
“You come off as douchey, when somebody’s like, ‘Oh, you don’t know the difference between proficiency and growth?'” he says. “I’d be like, ‘You’re kind of an asshole.'”
When asked if he thinks Puzder should have been confirmed, Worthington nods.
“Yeah, we don’t get Carl’s Jr. up here,” he says. “But I like their commercials.”
Tuesday, February 28th, a joint session of Congress, the last day of Trump’s first full month in office. It’s less than a minute into his first major national address, and Trump is already eyeballs-deep in bull.
“Recent threats targeting Jewish community centers and vandalism of Jewish cemeteries,” he says, “remind us that … we are a country that stands united in condemning hate and evil in all of its very ugly forms.” Just hours before, he told a group of state attorneys general that hate crimes against Jews were overblown, that “sometimes it’s the reverse, to make people – or to make others – look bad.”
Trump moves on to what the press will describe as an “emotional moment.” He recognizes Carryn Owens, the widow of a Navy SEAL whose death Trump only hours before had blamed on both the previous administration and his generals. But on TV, Mrs. Owens sobs as Trump says her husband Ryan’s name had been “etched into eternity.”
The press goes wild. Van Jones of CNN, for years a fervent critic of Trump who notably called Trump’s electoral victory a “whitelash,” gushes that Trump “became president of the United States” during the Owens episode.
The New York Times, denounced as an “enemy of the American people” just over a week before, raves about the speech. They describe the “optimistic address” as “soothing comfort food” in which Trump “seemed to accept the fetters of formality and tradition that define and dignify the presidency.”
The soft-touch treatment seems to make no sense, until one remembers that the pundit class is the cheapest of dates, and while President Trump may be a dolt, the reality-show Trump is as clever a manipulator as American politics has ever seen. Brilliantly, he’s turned the presidency into a permanent campaign, one in which an ostensibly hostile news media has once again become accomplice to whatever the Trump phenomenon is, by voraciously feeding at its financial trough.
The genius of Trump has always been his knack for transforming everyone in his orbit into a reality-TV character. As a candidate, he goaded Lindsey Graham into putting a cellphone in a blender, inspired pseudo-intellectual Rand Paul to put out a video of himself chain-sawing a tax code in half, and pushed Marco Rubio into making jokes about dong size during a debate. He even managed to get into a public spat with the pope. Whatever your lowest common denominator is, Trump will bring it out and make sport of it.
The same phenomenon is now in play with the whole world. President Trump, following Bannon’s lead, describes the press as an “opposition party” out to get him, and before long, they basically are. Trump accuses the Democratic National Committee of rigging the game against Bernie Sanders; new DNC chair Tom Perez, in a tweet that could play in the Borscht Belt, says Trump’s weekly address was “translated from the original Russian and everything.” Even before Trump trolls Sweden, Swedish Deputy Prime Minister Isabella Lövin trolls him, running a photo of herself signing a law while surrounded by women – a parody of the already-infamous photo of Trump signing an anti-abortion executive order while surrounded entirely by men.
And when Rachel Maddow finally gets hold of a tiny slice of Trump’s tax returns, instead of soberly reporting it as a small-but-intriguing piece of a larger picture, she hypes it on Twitter like the scoop of the century – exactly as Trump would have done. Social media blasted Maddow as the second coming of Geraldo Rivera opening up Al Capone’s vault. Everything connected with Trump becomes tabloidized. The show is unstoppable.
Nearly two years into our relationship with Donald Trump, politician, his core schtick is no longer really a secret. The new president swings wildly between buffoon and strongman acts, creating confusion and disorder. While his enemies scramble to make sense of the outrages of a week before or yesterday or 10 minutes ago, and spend valuable energy wondering whether the man is crazy or stupid or cunning (or perhaps all three things at once), Trump continually presses forward.
We always assumed there was a goal behind it all: cattle cars, race war, autocracy. But those were last century’s versions of tyranny. It would make perfect sense if modern America’s contribution to the genre were far dumber. Trump in the White House may just be a monkey clutching history’s biggest hand grenade. Yes, he’s always one step ahead of us, and more dangerous than any smart person, and we can never for a minute take our eyes off him.
But while we keep looking for his hidden agenda, it’s our growing addiction to the spectacle of his car-wreck presidency that is the real threat. He is already making idiots and accomplices of us all, bringing out the worst in each of us, making us dumber just by watching. Even if Trump never learns to govern, after four years of this we will forget what civilization ever looked like – and it will be programming, not policy, that will have changed the world.