WASHINGTON – It’s not your imagination. Donald Trump’s occupancy of the White House is every bit as insane, corrupt and dangerous as you might fear. Witness this jaw-dropping message to the sitting president of the United States from the former director of the Central Intelligence Agency:
“When the full extent of your venality, moral turpitude, and political corruption becomes known, you will take your rightful place as a disgraced demagogue in the dustbin of history. You may scapegoat Andy McCabe, but you will not destroy America … America will triumph over you.”
I have met John Brennan, who headed the CIA for four years under Barack Obama. To say he is not given to hysterics is a gross understatement. His picture ought to be next to the word “sober” in the dictionary. Yet there he was on Saturday morning, using Twitter to tear into the supposed leader of the free world with language normally reserved for the tinhorn dictators of obscure kleptocracies.
What set Brennan off was the administration’s decision to fire Andrew McCabe from his job as deputy director of the FBI just two days before he would have qualified for full pension benefits. Trump had been tweeting with cartoon-villain glee over the dismissal, doubtless because he saw it as furthering his campaign to discredit any witness who might offer damning evidence against him in the Russia probe.
Trump ran the same dishonest routine on fired FBI director James Comey, and he’s also trying his best to sully the sterling reputation of Special Counsel Robert Mueller. The Oval Office has seen pettiness before, and it has seen venality, but it has never seen anything like Trump.
On Sunday, my Washington Post colleague Ruth Marcus reported that the president required senior officials to sign non-disclosure agreements much like the one his lawyers are using in an effort to silence porn actress Stormy Daniels about the affair she says she had with Trump. Such agreements are probably not enforceable in the context of White House service, many legal experts say, but the intent may be to intimidate the signers into silence with the threat of costly litigation.
Read that last paragraph again. We have to discuss attempts to squelch free speech and the public’s right to know, strong-arm tactics of intimidation, furtive sex and a porn star in order to write about an office held by men such as Washington, Lincoln and Roosevelt.
Such decadence is par for the course. Last week, Trump fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson – from an office held by Jefferson, Madison and Monroe – by means of a tweet. Either Trump went out of his way to humiliate Tillerson, or he was too cowardly to dismiss the man face-to-face. It doesn’t really matter which.
There is no “on the other hand” in our current predicament. If Trump were on some kind of learning curve, we’d see some evidence by now. If anything, he is getting worse – perhaps because he senses that the Mueller investigation is closing in, perhaps because he is just hopelessly overwhelmed by the job. At this point, I suppose it’s a good thing that he spends so much time watching Fox News, playing golf and calling old cronies for emotional support. Maybe it’s better that he wallow in self-absorption rather than actually try to run the government, since he has no idea how to make things better but is eminently capable of making them worse.
The Constitution gives Congress the tools it needs to deal with this situation, but Republicans in both the House and Senate refuse to use them. There could be constraints – legislation protecting Mueller from being fired, for example. There could be oversight – hearings into the havoc Trump’s cabinet is wreaking on government agencies, such as Tillerson’s decimation of the senior foreign service or EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s war against climate science. There could be investigations – not just into Russia’s election meddling but into the many apparent and potential conflicts of interest involving Trump’s far-flung real estate and branding empire.
If Trump does try to fire Mueller, House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell should get much of the blame. They have given Trump no reason to believe they will ever stand up to him.
Fortunately, the Constitution gives ultimate power to you and me. With every outrageous, shocking and depressing week, the November election becomes more important. The Trump presidency will keep going from bad to worse, and it is our responsibility to use our votes to make it stop.
Eugene Robinson’s email address is email@example.com.