Donald Trump rose from pariah to president through politics, and now may be on the brink of being returned by the same means, the result of Bob Woodward’s searing testimonial in Fear and a scathing New York Times op-ed from someone in his own ranks.
Taken together, the two are the equivalent of a stiff left jab followed by a roundhouse right. The president has been left reeling, staring into the political abyss.
A former senior administration official tells me that Wednesday’s op-ed in the New York Times, by an anonymous senior administration official, is nothing short of an attempt at a “coup” against Trump himself. A veteran conservative activist who is close to the White House says the story here is one insiders have been identifying since the early days of the Trump administration (and that I’ve reported on ad nauseum): personnel. The president is betrayed, openly, in the pages of America’s paper of record and, according to the activist, “the senior people in the [administration] do nothing about it.”
Something tantamount to a national game of “Clue” is underway. It was Mike Pence, with an email to the Times, in the Naval Observatory. It was Ambassador Jon Huntsman, Jr., with the phone, in the bathroom of his Moscow apartment. This reporter is loathe to delve into conjecture, but the author of the op-ed seems clearly to be, first, interested in national security, and second, a traditional conservative. A preponderance of my sources argue that the simplest explanation is usually the correct one. “[National Security Advisor John] Bolton would shock me,” a State Department veteran says.
The op-ed author writes: “This isn’t the work of the so-called deep state. It’s the work of the steady state.” He (or she) maligns the president as “amoral” and devoid of “first principles.” A veteran watcher of Secretary of Defense James Mattis tells me that “’steady’ is a favorite Mattis word. …I think the McCain funeral hit Mattis hard.” Yet even if the president suspected his defense chief, he would be loathe to quickly dispatch him—and anyway Mattis may leave on his own after the midterms.
A case of seismic duplicity—or needed patriotism, depending on who you talk to—is, of course, only half the story.
The other half is one that has been recurrent throughout this administration: the president and his apparatchiks expended little initial capital on staffing the White House with genuine loyalists, or true believers. They appointed neither longtime personal friends of the president nor policy hands faithful to anything resembling a populist-nationalist agenda. News reports abound of the president’s surprising and depressing paucity of genuine friends. As I relayed last week in TAC: “A former senior Department of Defense official [being considered] for top administration positions recalls meeting Jeff Sessions after the election. After hitting it off, the future AG asked the candidate: ‘Where have you been?‘” A report of mine in the National Interest last year relayed the hiring procedures, or lack thereof, of Trump appointees on the campaign and in the administration; prospective employees were rarely asked about their policy preferences. Said Scott McConnell, founding editor of TAC, on Wednesday: “Trump’s biggest weakness is lacking knowledge of the policy people who might have helped him with a realist/populist agenda. …But he never evinced any interest in finding smart realists to staff his administration.”
The president suggested that the op-ed was perhaps “TREASON?” He routinely conflates national interest and personal interest, and thus now demands that the Times betray its source. In doing so, he denigrates a founding ideal of the republic, prepared to erode civic support for the First Amendment to dull the pain of an atrocious but largely self-inflicted news cycle.
The personal nature of the president’s complaint convulses the persuasive authority of the arguments against his opposition. Since the publishing of the op-ed, there has been a steady trickle of concern, particularly among left-liberal writers, about the precedent being set. “We’re Watching an Antidemocratic Coup Unfold,” says David Graham in The Atlantic. “How the ‘resistance’ in the White House threatens American democracy…. There’s more than one path to authoritarianism,” posits Damon Linker in The Week.
And indeed there are parts of the op-ed that are cause for genuine concern:
On Russia, for instance, the president was reluctant to expel so many of Mr. Putin’s spies as punishment for the poisoning of a former Russian spy in Britain. He complained for weeks about senior staff members letting him get boxed into further confrontation with Russia, and he expressed frustration that the United States continued to impose sanctions on the country for its malign behavior.
Treating Russia as the adversarial power that it is and proportionately punishing its malign behavior smacks of sound policy. But it’s also true that Trump openly ran on detente. Should actual voters’ preferences just be tossed aside in the name of, as the author suggests, the preservation of democracy? “So let’s see: Trump ran on closer relations with Russia,” Fox News host Tucker Carlson opined on Wednesday night. “Voters agreed with that. And so they elected him president of the United States. And yet, the tiny and incompetent Washington foreign policy establishment—the very same people who brought you Iraq and Libya—do not agree with that. So they subvert his views, which are also the views of voters.”
Beyond the substantive criticisms from both sides, of Trump and of his critics, is the diagnostic nature of the conspiracy—and it is a conspiracy—against the president. First and foremost, Trump, they say, is unwell or unfit. The case for invocation of the 25th Amendment is being made plainly in the pages of the United States’ most-read newspapers.
What’s truly remarkable is that, to a certain extent, the U.S. is already functioning as though the 25th Amendment has been invoked—at least if the reporting of Bob Woodward, the premier journalist of his generation, is to be believed. In spring of 2017, after Syrian despot Bashar al-Assad reportedly murdered citizens in rebel-held territory with chemical weapons, Trump, according to Woodward, told Defense Secretary Mattis: “Let’s f**ing kill him! Let’s go in. Let’s kill the f**king lot of them.” Mattis replied, “We’re not going to do any of that.” (Mattis denies Woodward’s accounts.) As the author of the op-ed gloats, this is “is a two-track presidency. Astute observers have noted, though, that the rest of the administration is operating on another track, one where countries like Russia are called out for meddling and punished accordingly.”
The debate, then, isn’t about policy. It isn’t as though Trump is trying to decimate the civil service, or staff the State Department with “realists” on Russia, or halve legal immigration. If he leaves office, his legacy will be tax cuts and (likely) two conservative Supreme Court justices; on policy, it’s unlikely that a President Cruz or Rubio would have done much differently. But the paranoid style that Trump has mainstreamed is, of course, a separate matter and not a small one. Neither is the fealty, or at least feigned fidelity, to a populist-nationalism that is now likely a prerequisite to becoming the Republican presidential nominee for the foreseeable future. That’s even though, at their core, the president’s protestations of “treason” and a “deep state” are about personal survival, not the implementation of a nationalist revolution.
For his supporters, Trump’s continued occupancy of the White House is more about cultural grievance—a middle finger to a failed establishment—than about a knock-down, drag-out fight over real political change.
As Steve Bannon told the Weekly Standard after his ouster last year: “The Trump presidency that we fought for, and won, is over.”
Curt Mills is the foreign affairs reporter at The National Interest, where he covers the State Department, National Security Council, and the Trump presidency.