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And it was all going so well…
Donald Trump had in recent weeks managed to get a tax bill approved. It was possible to ask: might his presidency be turning a corner?
For all the criticism, the tax changes are, like many of the great economic reforms, impossible to model and potentially transformative. The parallel could be with the defining economic event in modern British economic history, that is the scrapping of Exchange Controls (the limits on moving money in and out of there country) in 1979. This boosted the City, inward investment and British investment abroad. It re-opened the the UK to the world. Back then there was widespread scepticism, among economists and commentators, and Thatcher had to be convinced by her Chancellor Geoffrey Howe and then junior Treasury minister Nigel Lawson. It was a dynamic change that had unintended consequences galore – on the upside. Likewise, the Trump tax bill might – might – see a vast reshoring of US wealth, locked abroad by high corporate taxes. If that happens the returning capital will need to find a home and a return. It could unleash a wave of investment in infrastructure and innovation. But we’ll see. Trump has also been a critic of the Iranian regime that is now under pressure from protestors. Whether by design (be serious, of course not) or luck and the work of others he was perhaps – just perhaps – getting somewhere as the new year started.
And then the first extract from Fire and Fury, the new book by US author Michael Wolff, landed in New York magazine. The picture painted of the first year of Trump in the White House is jaw-dropping. The version of events told by White Hosue aides and others, and in particular Steve Bannon, the Breitbart boss who played a key role in the Trump victory and then set the pace in the White House as chief strategist, is not pretty. Trump’s supporters have denounced Bannon in response, and a furious Trump is saying Bannon is nothing to do with Trump.
Wolff had unprecedented access and interviewed the key players. The White House was so dysfunctional that it seems he just took up position and talked to as many people as possible, Trump included. No-one seems to have been in charge to set rules about what was on or off the record. It was chaos.
If the first extract is typical, the result of the process is a Washington Babylon of a book – the explosive political equivalent of the infamous technicolour tell-all volume on cinema that is Hollywood Babylon. Trump comes across in the tale as narcissistic and all over the place, like a great big stupid man-child mocked even by his friends.
The highlights? There are so many, but here are a few.
1) Trump and his closest aides did not expect to win the election:
“Even though the numbers in a few key states had appeared to be changing to Trump’s advantage, neither Conway nor Trump himself nor his son-in-law, Jared Kushner — the effective head of the campaign — wavered in their certainty: Their unexpected adventure would soon be over. Not only would Trump not be president, almost everyone in the campaign agreed, he should probably not be. Conveniently, the former conviction meant nobody had to deal with the latter issue.”
2) And then he won…
“Shortly after 8 p.m. on Election Night, when the unexpected trend — Trump might actually win — seemed confirmed, Don Jr. told a friend that his father, or DJT, as he calls him, looked as if he had seen a ghost. Melania was in tears—and not of joy.”
3) The dysfunctional operation post-election makes Theresa May’s tenure in Number 10 look like a model of good management.
4) Trump’s hair explained: “(Ivanka) treated her father with a degree of detachment, even irony, going so far as to make fun of his comb-over to others. She often described the mechanics behind it to friends: an absolutely clean pate — a contained island after scalp-reduction surgery — surrounded by a furry circle of hair around the sides and front, from which all ends are drawn up to meet in the center and then swept back and secured by a stiffening spray. The color, she would point out to comical effect, was from a product called Just for Men — the longer it was left on, the darker it got. Impatience resulted in Trump’s orange-blond hair color.”
5) Trump was spooked by the move to the White House. He has three TV screens in his bedroom (separate from his wife Melania) and he ordered a lock put on his door. No-one is allowed to touch anything in his room, including dirty clothes on the floor or his tooth brush. He has a fear of being poisoned.
6) Katie Walsh, the decent deputy chief of staff, does her best but is appalled by Trump, it is claimed.”Making suggestions to him was deeply complicated. Here, arguably, was the central issue of the Trump presidency, informing every aspect of Trumpian policy and leadership: He didn’t process information in any conventional sense. He didn’t read. He didn’t really even skim. Some believed that for all practical purposes he was no more than semi-literate. He trusted his own expertise — no matter how paltry or irrelevant — more than anyone else’s. He was often confident, but he was just as often paralyzed, less a savant than a figure of sputtering and dangerous insecurities, whose instinctive response was to lash out and behave as if his gut, however confused, was in fact in some clear and forceful way telling him what to do. It was, said Walsh, ‘like trying to figure out what a child wants’.”
7) Of an evening, Trump retreats to his bedroom with a cheeseburger and makes a lot of strange phonecalls in which he rambles. It’s all a bit like Elvis, in mid-1977. Elvis liked martial arts and visited the White House too, but he didn’t have access nuclear weapons.
8) Most significantly, Wolff quotes Bannon saying that the Robert Mueller investigation into Trump’s Russian connection is “all about the money laundering.” The meeting Trump’s eldest son and Kushner held with the Russians in Trump Tower is described as “treasonous. Bannon declares that the Russia probe is “all about money laundering.” Trump should be terrified.
A furious Trump responded with the following statement.
“Steve Bannon has nothing to do with me or my Presidency. When he was fired, he not only lost his job, he lost his mind. Steve was a staffer who worked for me after I had already won the nomination by defeating seventeen candidates, often described as the most talented field ever assembled in the Republican party. Now that he is on his own, Steve is learning that winning isn’t as easy as I make it look. Steve had very little to do with our historic victory, which was delivered by the forgotten men and women of this country. Yet Steve had everything to do with the loss of a Senate seat in Alabama held for more than thirty years by Republicans. Steve doesn’t represent my base—he’s only in it for himself. Steve pretends to be at war with the media,which he calls the opposition party, yet he spent his time at the White House leaking false information to the media to make himself seem far more important than he was. It is the only thing he does well. Steve was rarely in a one-on-one meeting with me and only pretends to have had influence to fool a few people with no access and no clue, whom he helped write phony books. We have many great Republican members of Congress and candidates who are very supportive of the Make America Great Again agenda. Like me, they love the United States of America and are helping to finally take our country back and build it up, rather than simply seeking to burn it all down.”
Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Ronald Reagan it ain’t.