President Donald Trump is flailing like a man who fears he’s about to go under, and he hasn’t even been in office a full month. His instinct is to flee to the warmth and comfort of his political base – but he will learn that while presidents can run, they can’t hide.
Trump’s administration faces two acute, interlocking crises: serious questions about his campaign’s contacts with official and unofficial representatives of the Russian government, which U.S. intelligence agencies believe made concerted efforts to help Trump win the election; and appalling levels of dysfunction in the White House that make self-inflicted wounds the rule rather than the exception.
The president’s response has been to rant on Twitter and schedule a campaign-style rally Saturday in Florida – all of which may boost Trump’s morale but will do nothing to make his problems go away.
It is unclear whether Trump is trying to fool the nation or fool himself. Witness one of the angry tweets he sent out Thursday morning: “The Democrats had to come up with a story as to why they lost the election, and so badly (306), so they made up a story – RUSSIA. Fake news!”
Let me take a moment to unpack the misinterpretations, distortions and contradictions jammed into those two sentences.
“The Democrats had to come up with a story” refers to Trump’s claim that the Russia allegations are nothing more than a tantrum by Democrats upset that Hillary Clinton did not win as they had expected. That is ridiculous. The Democratic Party is focused on rebuilding at the grass-roots level and finding new leadership. Democrats I’ve spoken to have as much criticism as praise for Clinton and the campaign she ran.
Trump’s phrase “they lost the election, and so badly” ignores the facts. Clinton did comfortably win the popular vote, after all. And Trump’s electoral margin was historically quite modest.
The part about how Democrats “made up a story – RUSSIA” is absurd. It was U.S. intelligence agencies, not the Democratic Party or the Clinton campaign, that made the finding that Russia meddled in our election with the aim of boosting Trump’s prospects. If anything, the chief Democrat at the time – former President Obama – reacted too mildly.
And the tweet ends with what has become Trump’s favorite way to dismiss anything he’d rather not hear: “Fake news!” But why would he fire his national security adviser, Michael Flynn, over inauthentic news reports? In other Thursday morning tweets, Trump attacked “low-life leakers” in the intelligence community – thus essentially confirming that leaked information about the Russia connection is genuine, not “fake.” Not even a president can have it both ways.
The idea that Russian President Vladimir Putin played a big role in putting Trump in the White House presents such a grave challenge to our democracy that even reluctant Republicans in Congress will have to investigate. The FBI is already probing reported contacts between the Trump campaign and Russian intelligence officials. We must, and I believe will, learn the truth.
This sort of crisis would test any White House. Based on performance so far, it may drown Trump’s.
Who’s in charge? Chief of Staff Reince Priebus is yet to establish any reasonable sense of order or any effective process for making decisions. Chief strategist Stephen Bannon and senior adviser Stephen Miller constitute a competing power center, and were responsible for the shoddily drafted travel and refugee ban that was blocked by the courts. Counselor Kellyanne Conway goes on television and speaks confidently for the administration, but increasingly is out of the loop – as when she said Trump had “full confidence” in Flynn just hours before his dismissal. Press secretary Sean Spicer struggles daily to reconcile Trump’s pronouncements with objective reality.
No communications director has been hired. Who would take the job?
Among Trump’s inner circle, only senior adviser Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, seems to be having a relatively positive impact. Yes, this administration has reduced me to applauding nepotism.
Last weekend we saw Trump and his brain trust learning details of an ominous geopolitical development – a new North Korean missile test – as the president hosted a dinner party for Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on a terrace at Mar-a-Lago, surrounded by other diners who belong to the posh club. Within range of prying eyes, Trump and party used the flashlight apps on their cellphones to read incoming documents.
Trump claimed Thursday that his administration is running like “a fine-tuned machine.” A test-crash simulator, perhaps?
I guess things could be worse. Don’t ask me how.
Eugene Robinson can be contacted at email@example.com.