WASHINGTON – It’s official: President Donald Trump’s 2020 re-election slogan will be lifted from a dystopian thriller in which a white-nationalist U.S. government suspends the rule of law. Variety described the film, “The Purge: Election Year,” as “a squalid B-movie political horror film that plays to our most reptile-brained basic instincts.”
Could there be any better description of the Trump presidency?
Trump, at his Saturday night rally, announced his re-election slogan: “Keep America Great!”
Trump floated the slogan 14 months earlier in an interview with my colleague Karen Tumulty, and news reports at the time pointed out that the phrase had already been used as a tagline promoting “The Purge: Election Year.” Trump went ahead with it anyway, and why not?
Purging is exactly what Trump is doing.
On Tuesday, it was Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s turn to be purged – announced via tweet. Trump didn’t bother to speak directly with Tillerson before he fired the former ExxonMobil chief, who had cut short a trip to Africa, where he was cleaning up for Trump’s “shithole” comments.
This was much the way Trump purged FBI Director James B. Comey, who learned of his firing from cable news while giving a speech in Los Angeles. And it’s similar to how Comey’s deputy, Andrew McCabe, was purged, and how Attorney General Jeff Sessions and deputy Rod J. Rosenstein likely would have been purged if Trump had his druthers, and how national security adviser H.R. McMaster will probably be purged soon.
Many others whose qualifications for service do not include sycophancy – from the regional immigration spokesman who quit rather than defend falsehoods up to top economics aide Gary Cohn – have self-purged rather than suffer more debasement. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis may soon be the last one standing between Trump and his nuclear button.
A common thread among Trump’s purge victims: discomfort with his abiding affection for Vladimir Putin. It’s probably no mere coincidence that Tillerson’s last significant action before his firing was to issue a statement calling Russia “an irresponsible force of instability in the world, acting with open disregard for the sovereignty of other states.” Tillerson concurred with Britain’s assessment of a nerve-agent attack, telling reporters the attack on British soil “clearly came from Russia.” The White House had avoided blaming Russia, asserting Britain was still “working through ... some of the details.”
The Trump White House similarly shied from criticizing Putin for saying, in an interview broadcast over the weekend, that the election interference may have been done by “Jews” who have Russian citizenship but “are not even Russians.” Likewise, the Trump administration has resisted imposing sanctions on Russia or spending money designated for countering Russia’s election interference.
Each baffling capitulation to Putin revives the long-standing question: Does Russia have some leverage over Trump? If that’s the explanation, Trump might need to crib more material from “The Purge.”
In the film series, the government provides a 12-hour period once a year in which any crime, including murder, is legal. The difficulty for Trump is that 12 hours could be too limiting. A purge week would be more practical. On Monday, foreigners would be free to manipulate U.S. elections. On Tuesday, it would be legal to obstruct justice. On Wednesday, ethics laws would be suspended, allowing government officials to boost their private businesses. On Thursday, sexual harassment and assault laws would be void. On Friday, it would be legal for foreigners to use nerve agents on U.S. soil.
The downside is that by Saturday, Stormy Daniels might decide confidentiality agreements are legally nonbinding.
It’s already legal for Trump to purge from his government anybody who has the temerity to display independent thought. And Tillerson did that, differing with Trump over the Paris climate accord, neo-Nazis in Charlottesville and dealing with Qatar, Venezuela, Afghanistan and Iran. Tillerson, who never exactly denied that he had called Trump a “moron,” drew a public rebuke from Trump for “trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man” Kim Jong Un.
Their most consequential disagreement was surely about Russia. Tillerson was reportedly stunned that Trump took Putin’s denials of election meddling at face value (”when he tells me that, he means it”).
Tillerson’s designated successor, Mike Pompeo, won’t give Trump such grief. The CIA director auditioned for the new job on “Fox News Sunday,” saying “the Russians attempted to interfere” in the election, but this was part of a “long history” of such things also done by “other actors.” Pompeo assured viewers that “there’s not been a single indication” Russia succeeded.
Ignore that guy who just called Russia “an irresponsible force of instability in the world.” He doesn’t work here anymore. Russia is harmless. Putin is benign.
The Purge is working.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.