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The President of the United States has a point about the media and the hysterical nature of its criticisms. On the latest cover of the once-mighty and now reduced Newsweek, Donald Trump is cast as the “lazy boy” leader who does no work. That particular charge is daft and unfair.
There is a long history of arguments about the productivity of presidents. A workaholic American President is not, generally, a force for good.
Ronald Reagan’s policies won the Cold War and revived America after its Vietnam, Watergate, Carter slump in morale, yet he was was regularly criticised by opponents and the media for being a 9 to 5 (if that) operator. His approach to the office of president worked more often than not. Ideologues complained that he appointed all sorts of unsound people, but as someone with a perceptive understanding of human nature and personal motivation Reagan understood the wisdom of balancing his team and not getting agitated or stressed by excessive work.
There the defence of Donald Trump, on the basis that it is perfectly possible to be a good president without overdoing the effort, runs out of road. Even to mention Trump in the same breath as Reagan, a great figure Trump admires and borrows phrases such as “Make America Great Again” from, sounds preposterous.
Reagan had his flaws but unlike Trump he had an inherent understanding of the importance of the dignity of office, and with a few exceptions he held to it. The President is head of state, President for all Americans, as well as national chief executive and supposed political leader of the West.
When Trump won, his supporters, and those who thought he at least deserved a chance to develop in the job, agreed that even if he was a brash populist of the social media age he was, more importantly, a businessman who knew how to get stuff done. In time, he might learn the decorum of office while draining the Washington “swamp” and reforming the tax system and unleashing stronger economic growth.
That hope was rooted, it turns out, in a terrible misunderstanding of Trump. He is not and never was a conventional chief executive or business leader. They are usually accountable to boards and shareholders. Trump is different. He is a solo performer and hustler who headed an empire run according to his whim. Trumpworld is difficult to monitor and measure due to its opaque structure.
That’s the freewheeling approach that took him to power. Could it translate to office? Seven months into the Trump presidency and it’s clear that he is even less suited than feared. He is getting worse by the week, not better.
If you have been away on holiday recently, or are currently abroad resting and trying to get away from Trump and his Twitter timeline of nerve-jangling inappropriate idiocy, here’s a quick summary of the lowlights.
Last month, the efforts in Congress to scrap Obamacare were sunk in a humiliating reverse for Trump. Republican John McCain, the war hero and senior senator for Arizona, nursed his wrath over being mocked during the election campaign by Trump for having been captured by the Vietnamese. He dished it back out in stunning fashion. McCain’s quiet surprise “no” to Trumpcare on the floor of the US Senate was beautifully delivered.
Of course, Trump responded with a period of statesmanlike reflection on his failure. Don’t be silly.
Trump declared war on the Republican Congress. Then he fired his joint chief of staff Reince Priebus and appointed a general in his place (more of which in a moment). On Thursday evening Trump held a rally where he explained to thousands of supporters that he is great and everyone else is to blame.
Now, Robert Mueller, the Special Counsel appointed by the Deputy Attorney General, has set-up a grand jury (made up of 16 and 23 citizens) to hear evidence on allegations of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. Witnesses will be ordered to appear, papers subpoenaed and deals offered, and Mueller seems determined to probe the financial ties of the Trump organisation and its friends in Moscow and beyond. America is a republic of laws. Close to Trump there will be a lot of nervous people.
The crucial point is that lies big and small – the stock in trade of Team Trump – become in a grand jury setting extremely dangerous. Perjury and obstruction of justice mean jail.
Did I miss anything?
Oh, yes, the “Mooch”. New communications chief Anthony Scaramucci (real name, not a talkative and doomed character from the Sopranos) was the cause of the departure of Mr Priebus, when he unleashed a torrent of on the record abuse about his colleague to a reporter. The Mooch’s plans for reform of the White House comms operation came to naught and he was fired after Priebus.
Scaramouche, Scaramouche, will you do the fandango? No longer. It turns out his fandangoing is done. Mr Scaramucci is no more. Not in a Goodfellas sense. But in Trumpland he has gone from being a “made man” to being “done” in under a fortnight.
As someone who likes America and Americans a lot, the overwhelming feeling I get watching the farce unfold is simply sadness for a great country that is run by someone unsuited to running a casino never mind the world’s leading democratic power.
Mercifully, in response to a nationally humiliating Trumpian shambles that takes in the worsening Russian investigation, his inability to handle the basics, a revolving door at the White House and Congressional concern, key elements of the American state have started to step up. To Trump advocates this is the so-called “deep state” of the intelligence community and anti-Trump senior public officials combining with the military and the media to delegitimise Trump and force out the elected president.
There is a lot of nonsense talked about the deep state in the US and beyond. Of course one of the roles of media, novelists and elected officials is to monitor it, to ensure it operates within the law and is accountable to lawmakers in the US and parliament in the UK.
But countries devoid of some kind of serious “deep state” (meaning civil and military institutions with deep roots and experience) don’t get very far.
In that spirit, the US Marine Corps and other military types have Trump almost surrounded. His new chief of staff is General Kelly, who served in Iraq in 2003 with the bookish Secretary of State for Defense, General Mattis, the very far from mad “Mad Dog.” By coincidence, even Special Counsel Robert Mueller is a former Marine. He served in Vietnam. Unlike President Trump.
What is going on here is quite simple. Trump’s name is on the Kelly appointment, but this move is an imposition because Trump has demonstrated he lacks basic administrative skills and the capacity to make sensible judgments. Regardless of the eventual outcome of the Russia investigation, this chaos cannot go on. There are nuclear weapons involved.
The transcripts that were leaked this week of his calls with the President of Mexico and the Prime Minister of Australia underlined just how dangerous the situation is. They were recorded in January at the new President’s moment of maximum authority, when foreign leaders wanted to build links. On the call, Trump squanders even that advantage with boorish buffoonery.
The call with Malcolm Turnbull, Australia’s leader, is particularly troubling. Not only does he insult Turnbull, comparing the leader of a vital ally unfavorably with Putin, he struggles several times to understand basic concepts. On the call, Turnbull makes multiple polite attempts to explain a simple immigration deal and Trump cannot grasp what is being said. Ad hominem is best avoided, but read Trump’s remarks in that transcript and try telling me the word “stupid” doesn’t come to mind.
Trump may survive these latest developments, or seek to relaunch himself as a man being drowned by the swamp. That is a dangerous complaint as he was supposed to be the businessman chap who could get stuff done no matter what, remember?
But if he does survive, and if the Russia affair does not take him out, stopping short of the door of the Oval Office, then he does so hugely weakened and constrained, with Congress reluctant to pass anything for a potential lame duck President, and with his associates and an embattled White House pursued by Mueller. Kelly, Mattis and the others are boxing Trump in. That’s very good news. There is life in the American state yet.