Marge: This is the worst thing you’ve ever done!
Homer: You say that so much it’s lost all meaning.
— The Simpsons, “She of Little Faith”
The Kremlin connection should scare everyone. The phrase “What the hell” sure seems like it would quickly be worn out of fashion by the Orange Regime. But like bacon or the fires of hell or basic black, the Trump Administration retains its evergreen power to shock and amaze. The President’s Russia connection is not merely disturbing in itself, but because of what it says about the people around him.
In the last two days, we have seen a series of incredible stories unearthed: the resignation of National Security Chief Michael Flynn. The evidence of strong ties between the Trump White House and the autocracy of the Russian state. And the biggest question of all: did Trump’s campaign conspire with Putin to hack the DNC? And of course, this all comes right after the clueless roll-out of the travel ban.
The Flynn problems go hand-in-hand with several petty cases: Alternative facts, Nordstrom’s, Ivanka’s fashion line, W.E.B. “DeBois.” Each of these botches is a small potato. And in fairness, some of the hubbub could be written off as the usual grousing and backbiting of a party out of power. When there’s a new President, every misstep is magnified by the other team. It’s just how American politics works. Infant governments make errors in their first days. Such mistakes usually tell us very little about how a Presidency operates in the long-term.
But these are not normal times. And to have this many scandals, this soon, of these kinds, suggests something more permanent and problematic than the fumbling which is so typical of the early weeks of any Administration. Taken as a whole, the weird career of President Trump demonstrates the befuddlement which governs, and will continue to govern, the Administration.
Most of the Presidents have been highly-adept players with political experience. Now, there have been capable men who ascended to the office without a history of governing—adroit dilettantes. They didn’t know the game but they knew how to learn. There have been incapable men who have ascended with a history of governing—feckless pros. They knew the game, but absolutely nothing else. But to have both at the same time—the unskilled and the untried—is something new. You’d think the free-floating possibility of raw treason would be the remarkable part, but we are in the Age of Trump, and so General Flynn’s folly is but another course in the horrific banquet of fail and megafail laid before us.
If I had to choose between Trump colluding deliberately with Russia, and Trump stumbling into being Russia’s catspaw, I would without hesitation choose the former. The first is criminal. The second is incompetent. A hitman holding a loaded firearm is preferable to a baby with a gun.
As the Times reported on February 14:
Phone records and intercepted calls show that members of Donald J. Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and other Trump associates had repeated contacts with senior Russian intelligence officials in the year before the election, according to four current and former American officials. American law enforcement and intelligence agencies intercepted the communications around the same time they were discovering evidence that Russia was trying to disrupt the presidential election by hacking into the Democratic National Committee, three of the officials said. The intelligence agencies then sought to learn whether the Trump campaign was colluding with the Russians on the hacking or other efforts to influence the election.
In media, there’s a shopworn archetype of “the guy who says what everyone is thinking.” This is rarely the case; almost always, what Everyone is Thinking turns out to be only What That One Guy is Thinking.
But this one time, allow me to go out on the limb of a limb and say, with grim, lockjaw-certainty, what everyone who is not a Trump in-the-bunker to-the-ender is thinking: of course Trump probably had shady dealings of some kind. Shady dealings are what he does.
The only gasp-worthy turnaround in this basket of hideous happening is that the Kremlin would play along: could Russia’s case be so hopeless that they would put all their eggs in this goofy basket? Perhaps for Putin, it’s win-win: either he gets an ally in the seat of power, or his rival is destabilized.
The objection is obvious: the Russian connection may not be a deliberately designed con. The entire affair could be a misunderstanding—powerful people talking shop. It may be that Trump’s aides went too far in chatting up the officers of the Bear and forgot diplomatic niceties. But if the White House has committed treason through the mechanism of stupidity, that is more troublesome, not less, than deliberate plotting with Moscow.
Consider an earlier story for the Times, on February 12:
Three weeks into the Trump administration, council staff members get up in the morning, read President Trump’s Twitter posts and struggle to make policy to fit them. Most are kept in the dark about what Mr. Trump tells foreign leaders in his phone calls. Some staff members have turned to encrypted communications to talk with their colleagues, after hearing that Mr. Trump’s top advisers are considering an “insider threat” program that could result in monitoring cellphones and emails for leaks.
And while Mr. Obama liked policy option papers that were three to six single-spaced pages, council staff members are now being told to keep papers to a single page, with lots of graphics and maps. “The president likes maps,” one official said.
Officials said that the absence of an orderly flow of council documents, ultimately the responsibility of Mr. Flynn, explained why Mr. Mattis and Mike Pompeo, the director of the C.I.A., never saw a number of Mr. Trump’s executive orders before they were issued. One order had to be amended after it was made public, to reassure Mr. Pompeo that he had a regular seat on the council.
This jives with the reports we have heard about the White House being governed by four or five different centers of power; the image of President Trump refusing to burn the afternoon oil, the rumors of a bathrobe Presidency which is so hands-off that it makes the later Woodrow Wilson seem like Jimmy Carter. The president likes maps.
The point here is not to call the President clueless. Of course he is; that is beside the point. Frankly, Presidents do not need to be particularly bright to do their jobs, and the Executive Branch is more than one man. At bare minimum, the President has to be able to make decisions and persuade, and that’s about it; someone else can handle the paperwork.
As Sam Kriss wrote, “the powers of the presidency can be competently exercised by any grey and dismal middle manager.” Suppose the Chief Executive isn’t a good manager, though? Suppose he’s not good at his job, and doesn’t know it, and because he doesn’t know it, he hires people just like him? The Flynn Controversy is significant not because it tells us what we always knew—Trump has no idea what he’s doing—but because it shows that none of the so-called adults surrounding him know what to do either. We knew it would be bad. As Peter Beinart wrote in The Atlantic:
Nothing Donald Trump has done since becoming President is particularly surprising. The attacks on judges and the press, the clash of civilizations worldview, the ignorance of public policy, the blurring of government service and private gain, the endless lying, the incompetence, the chaos—all were vividly foreshadowed during the campaign.
The bankruptcy of the Administration surprises no one, but many of us are shocked at how bad and how quickly we got there.
Some contrast is necessary here, and the most obvious analogue will do: the late President Nixon was a crook, but he was a competent crook. There’s something be said for high-functioning malevolence. Even when Nixon plotted and schemed, there was no doubt that he was competent in his treachery. Nixon broke the Ten Commandments like a preacher’s boy on his first unsupervised trip, but he would never have broken the world. Being that devious implied enlightened, amoral self-interest. Even when he was at the bottom, during Watergate, listening to the Victory at Sea soundtrack, he still had his hand-picked team of hard-nosed grinders to keep him from nuking Asia during a bender.
Trump has none of those abilities or people, and it shows. He surrounds himself with jabbering flunkies and the kind of strange loungers you’d see awake in a cruise ship bar at 3 A.M. This is his trusted court, the people he hand-picked out of the seven billion or so souls now walking the green surface of the Earth. What does this say about his judgment?
Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, railed against the administration on Tuesday, decrying the “dysfunction” of the country’s national security apparatus and accusing the White House of being a place where “nobody knows who’s in charge and nobody knows who’s setting policy.” Gen. Tony Thomas, head of the military’s Special Operations Command, expressed concern about upheaval inside the White House. “Our government continues to be in unbelievable turmoil. I hope they sort it out soon because we’re a nation at war,” he said at a military conference on Tuesday.
A day before Flynn headed off into the big farm where they take family dogs and failed commissars of national security, the Orangeman and his guest Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe sat outside on Mar-A-Lago, scanning national security documents by the light of an iPhone. They planned a military response exactly where you’d want to concoct your designs: in the club—in front of waiters, club members, anyone and everyone.
North Korea fired off a nuclear missile, and the response from the alt-right was to stay at dinner. Sometimes, a single gesture speaks volumes, and this was one: a group of confused statesmen, surrounded by the trappings of try-hard taste, trying to muddle their way out of clueless darkness. All that gathered power, and not a one thought of moving the conversation away from the open air.
We only know this because a member of Trump’s club decided to make this hour of state public.
In an article for The Hill:
The two images, one of which shows the man carrying the briefcase, is tagged at “Donald Trump Palm Beach Home.” “It functions as a mobile hub in the strategic defense system of the United States. It is held by an aide-de-camp. and Rick is the Man,” the captions continues. The user also posted several pictures of President Trump and First Lady Melania Trump, which are tagged at his private residence Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Fla. He also posted pictures that appear to show Trump and Japanese Prime Minister discussing confidential national security information about a North Korean missile test in the public dining room at Mar-a-Lago.
Normally I don’t object to the leaking of state secrets. But Trump didn’t hold open-air discussions of national security to prove a principle; he did it because he is so self-centered and oblivious that it wouldn’t occur to him to not have an important meeting at his table, like a cartoon king bellowing about the realm while munching on a turkey leg.
It made perfect sense that Trump would conduct state secrets and the business of the world at his meal in Florida. Why would anybody be surprised by this? The opponents of the alt-right expected a grim, unstoppable force; but this is a farce of gangsterism, not its reality. Of course it would be North Korea that showed Trump trying to find his way in darkness; a third-rate military power for a third-rate television star in a third-rate resort. The fake strong testing the fake rich.
Several insightful commenters suggested, quite reasonably, that Trump’s team were not the sinister ministers of American fever dreams but grasping hustlers who should never have left the carnie-level of swindling. If anything, this overestimates the savviness of Team Trump. A garden-variety street con will know enough about human psychology to deceive well, or play on the fears or needs of the mark.
Trump’s squad are below even this level, if this last month of the Orange Reign is any guide. Inside the alt-right ecosystem of think-tanks and magazines, they are giants. In the actual world, where even a lemonade stand requires a level of rational judgment, they stand revealed as what they always were: minor league. How clear the facts of the world show, when seen in the light of a phone! Conway, Spicer, Flynn, and the rest of this White House are the marginal players of a mutant belief structure which stumbled its way into power by a fluke of history. They are not ready for primetime, and they never will be.