It’s safe to say the pseudonormalization of Trump has stopped, at least for a while. The moment Trump fired Comey, DC immediately returned to the frantic hysteria of the first month of the administration. Trump, who thought that Comey’s firing would be welcomed by even the Democrats, shattered the illusion that he might be able to behave himself. Trump made the letter to Comey look as suspicious as humanly possible by thanking Comey for telling him he wasn’t under investigation:
Politico: Two people familiar with White House discussions said Trump was determined to write a line in the letter firing Comey saying that the FBI director had given him three assurances he wasn’t under investigation. The words, said one White House adviser, “probably will cause him more heartbreak than anything else.” The line, this person said, had worried White House officials after it was printed – but few people saw the letter before it went out.
The result was a nightmare for any Trump staffer and a veritable binge for the media. Consequently, I believe what we are witnessing is the resurgence of an intra-executive war between Trump and the executive bureaucracy. A month ago I observed that the leaks about White House dysfunction had dried up:
What has happened, I believe, is that White House staffers now have an incentive to keep their mouths shut and not talk to reporters. And I think that’s because there is no longer quite the constant stress of random chaos imposed by (a) Trump’s going off message on Twitter and elsewhere, and (b) Steve Bannon. They now feel they have a chance of survival, and they are more willing to bury hatchets and stick together. They’re still miserable but they are engaging in less friendly fire.
With Comey’s firing, this immediately ceased to be operative. CNN’s Fareed Zakaria switched from “I think Donald Trump became President of the United States last night” to “President Trump poses a danger to American democracy.” The leaks started up again with a vengeance. Impeachment was on the table.
It’s curious that the media should be seen as such an enemy when their main role in damaging the Trump administration remains that of stenographers for anonymous sources, rather than investigators per se. The investigations into conflicts of interests and shady business deals don’t look good, but don’t move the needle much in terms of the administration’s ability to function. But leaks about Trump’s blabbermouth to the Russians and Trump’s demand for Comey’s loyalty pledge definitely do–and the leakers know this full well. You can’t look at this record of events and not think that there is some coordination going on in terms of what is being leaked and when:
I’m not suggesting any conspiracy. When you antagonize and frighten a great number of people, those people tend to react together. If those people have damning material on you, they tend to release it. What I’m suggesting is that the executive branch, and the intelligence community in particular, are not just leaking these stories to damage Trump but also to send the signal that a lot of people are going to make Trump and his administration’s lives a living hell, and that they are capable of doing so for quite a while.
Daily Beast: One veteran agent in the FBI’s criminal division responded to a message from The Daily Beast this way: “Who cares, nothing matters, no one knows anything, everything sucks.” A senior-level FBI source was more candid. If Trump has declared war on the bureau’s leadership, the source said, then the president should expect “nothing less in return.”
Hence the list of damning leak-driven stories above. That list doesn’t even include the “Republicans said Trump was on Russia’s payroll” story. Whether McCarthy was joking or not when he said it, that story is exactly the sort of thing to raise Trump’s paranoia and make him increasingly convinced that the Republican party is against him, thus causing him to degenerate even further. If Trump has turned against his own son-in-law (who apparently thought firing Comey was a super idea and wanted to fight back against the special counsel appointment), how long will it be until Trump starts firing staffers at random and publicly ranting about his own party and administration?
NYT: Mr. Trump’s appetite for chaos, coupled with his disregard for the self-protective conventions of the presidency, have left his staff confused and squabbling. And his own mood, according to two advisers who spoke on the condition of anonymity, has become sour and dark, turning against most of his aides — even his son-in-law, Jared Kushner — and describing them in a fury as “incompetent,” according to one of those advisers.
Trump only knows escalation and confrontation (and petulance), so the only remaining options to him are going to become increasingly crazy and irrational:
Axios: Trump is also irritated with several Cabinet members, the sources said. “He’s frustrated, and angry at everyone,” said one of the confidants. Trump’s friends are telling him that many of his top aides don’t know how to work with him, and point out that his approval ratings aren’t rising, but the leaks are. “The advice he’s getting is to go big — that he has nothing to lose,” the confidant said.
Trump probably does have nothing to lose, unlike the rest of us. The incessant flow of damaging stories suggests that the intelligence community is trying to push things to a crisis point now rather than later–possibly out of the fear that Trump will do even worse things than he has done so far. Even the accompanying leaks from his own administration continue to paint him as an infantile bully who literally cannot understand the requirements of his job and requires constant ego inflation.
Politico: Top White House officials learned of the looming New York Times story about a memo Comey wrote memorializing Trump’s request two hours before it went online. Aides rushed to ask Trump what he had actually told Comey. But the White House had no memos or tapes of the meeting to rebut the claims, several officials said. Trump didn’t even give an entire readout of his conversation, leaving staffers “actually unaware of what happened,” one official said. “It’s not like we were in on the meeting,” this person said. “We had no idea. We still don’t really know what was said.” Another official laughed when asked if Trump had really “taped” the meeting, as he’s suggested on Twitter: “If so, none of us have heard the tape.” Trump was furious about the story, one of the officials said, but retreated to the White House residence within 75 minutes of it going online – leaving aides to “figure out how bad the fallout was.”
WFB: “No one in the White House likes or respects Trump.” Those are the words of a source with very close ties to a number of officials in the White House explaining the views of key personnel advising the president.
These staffers are, again, making sure everyone knows that Trump is the problem, not them. Who can blame them? Trump makes their own lives a living hell already. The “adult” of the administration, NSC head H. R. McMaster, just threw away his credibility weaseling around Trump’s disclosure of classified info to the Russians. McMaster’s book Dereliction of Duty is about how the Joint Chiefs failed to speak truth to power during Vietnam: “The president was lying, and he expected the Chiefs to lie as well,” McMaster wrote. God’s Department of Irony has been working overtime on McMaster. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein managed to salvage a bit of his reputation by appointing Mueller as special counsel. McMaster surely knows the time for him to do so is running out rapidly. But Trump won’t listen to anyone, so his “loyal soldier” options are minimal if not nonexistent.
Other anonymous sources reinforce the total impossibility of speaking truth to Trump’s power:
NYT: After four months of interactions between Mr. Trump and his counterparts, foreign officials and their Washington consultants say certain rules have emerged: Keep it short — no 30-minute monologue for a 30-second attention span. Do not assume he knows the history of the country or its major points of contention. Compliment him on his Electoral College victory. Contrast him favorably with President Barack Obama. Do not get hung up on whatever was said during the campaign. Stay in regular touch. Do not go in with a shopping list but bring some sort of deal he can call a victory.
All of this is sure to fuel the “Everybody hates Trump” narrative that is building in Trump’s head. Strangely, he still blames the media, not seeming to realize that they’re primarily fueled by the enemies in his own organization.
Trump: Look at the way I have been treated lately, especially by the media. No politician in history, and I say this with great surety, has been treated worse or more unfairly.
Yet despite Trump’s engorged persecution complex and the sclerotic executive branch, I’m skeptical that we’ll reach the crisis point soon. Things could still calm down and we could return to another pseudonormalization period. It may depend on just how many damaging stories the intelligence community has stored up. It’s possible they have a lot. But it may primarily depend on the most chaotic factor of all, Trump himself.
Postscript: Within an hour of posting this, two more stories leaked out just in time for the weekend news cycle. First, a senior White House adviser, likely Kushner, has been deemed a person of interest in the Russia collusion investigation. Second, Trump bragged to the Russians about firing Comey: “I just fired the head of the F.B.I. He was crazy, a real nut job. I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.” Looks like the leaks won’t stop any time soon.
- Trump Diary 11: May Day
- Trump Diary 9: Black Blocs and U-locks
- Trump Diary 8: Pseudonormalization Prevails
- Trump Diary 7: March 14, 2017
- Trump Diary 6: February 21, 2017
- Trump Diary 5: Feburary 15, 2017
- Trump Diary 4: February 2, 2017
- Trump Diary 3: January 28, 2017
- Trump Diary 2: January 24, 2017
- Trump Diary 1: January 23, 2017