Wednesday, March 8, 2017

The train wreck on Pennsylvania Avenue

THE PENCHANT for secrecy in the administration of Donald Trump has left ample evidence of its own existence. The president-apparent has ruled the White House in the autocratic way he promised from the start. As a result, we’re dealing with a president enamored of crisis as an operational dynamic. A president mightily (and curiously) concerned with suppressing the truth about the involvement of a foreign power in our national election. A president who apparently thought that the occupant of the Oval Office could demand a wiretap on his say-so alone.

We’re left with a White House whose governing rationale, its throughline, is up for grabs. That may also come to include its players too. And soon.

On Sunday, CNN obtained and released a video was released late Friday, on CNN and other cable news orgs. The video showed the shadowy images of major players in the Trump White House, having what’s been described as an “animated” or a “heated” conversation.

Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner appear to be there, as well as White House Chief of Stuff Reince Priebus and word jumble enthusiast/White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer. So, of course, is Stephen Bannon, chief White House strategist and media prince of darkness, gesturing, chief strategizing — and pointing with assertion. In the Oval Office, a space that is not his own. CNN’s Ryan Nobles reported that “a lot of expletives” are said to have been exchanged.

The maximum leader was apparently upset with the latest fallout from Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who announced earlier that he would recuse himself from involvement in any cases related to his contacts with Russian officials in the run-up to the November election.

After a bruising confirmation battle, it turns out our new Attorney General lied under oath during that confirmation hearing — lied about his contact with Russian officials, notably Russian ambassador to the United States Sergey Kislyak.

Sessions met twice with Kislyak during the 2016 presidential election season; navigating this thorny little matter and the perception of wrongdoing in its wake are among Sessions’ first orders of business as the nation’s top law enforcement official.

Trump, it seems, thought that Sessions had caved too soon, or that he shouldn’t have folded at all, despite the fully bipartisan call for Sessions to step away from official involvement in any Russia probe.

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BUT TRUMP couldn’t just walk away from this apparent defeat. He had to say something. Reliable as Pavlov’s dog, Trump flew down to Mar-a-Lago and on Saturday morning, like a vengeful child armed with wi-fi, lashed out twice on Twitter to circulate the claim that President Obama was involved in a “Nixon/Watergate” operation to wiretap phones at his Trump Tower headquarters in Manhattan (as if a sitting president three months from permanently exiting the pressure cooker of the White House didn’t have better things to do).

There’s no evidence to support this wild (and possibly impeachable) claim; its very suddenness, how fast he put this crap together, distills the essence of the problem with the Trump presidency.

Robert Reich, former labor secretary, author and filmmaker, wrote Sunday in The Huffington Post on just how wrong this is for the Trump White House:

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“No president can order a wiretap on his own,” Reich wrote. ”For federal agents to obtain a wiretap on Trump, or anyone else, the Justice Department would first have had to convince a federal judge that it had gathered sufficient evidence of probable cause to believe Trump had committed a serious crime or was an agent of a foreign power, depending on whether it was a criminal or foreign intelligence wiretap.

“In which case we have someone in the White House who shouldn’t be making decisions that could endanger America or the world.”

Then, in a dictionary-perfect demonstration of the phrase double down, Trump on Sunday took to the twitterverse to call for a congressional investigation of the warrantless wiretaps he’d just invented the day before.

During the heat of the presidential campaign, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush said Trump was “a chaos candidate, and he'd be a chaos president. He would not be the commander-in-chief we need to keep our country safe,” We’re almost seven weeks into this thing and we’re learning just how right Jeb Bush really was.

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THE TRUMPIAN predilection for the predictably unpredictable has been pretty much distilled in an action-reaction feedback loop: His reaction to the Sessions debacle-in-the-making is an action of its own: the viciously sudden construction of a vast lie about President Obama and wiretaps of his headquarters, and (another action) the subsequent call for a congressional investigation into something that never happened in the first place.

Still to be seen in how The Donald reacts to the continuing low-grade fever of a controversy based on aroused suspicions into Russian government involvement in the 2016 American election (and the investigations into same that are quietly underway).

In these areas and more, President Trump has totally committed himself to superimposing the chaotic outsider meme of his candidacy on his presidency; he is institutionalizing chaos in Washington, and that way lies danger and disappointment. Michael A. Cohen of The Boston Globe got it right: “This weekend Donald Trump fell off the crazy tree and hit every branch on the way down.”

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Clearly, things haven’t been going well at House Trump; we know that from the CNN video that seems to show Trump’s various consiglieri just ... talking things over in a, uh, spirited fashion. When such events go south, there has to be a fall guy, and it looks as if Reince Priebus is being fitted for that double-breasted straitjacket right now.

Politico reported on Sunday about Priebus, formerly head of the Republican National Committee, and just how very hot his seat is. In a series of interviews, Trump White House intimates paint a picture of “a micromanager who sprints from one West Wing meeting to another, inserting himself into conversations big and small and leaving many staffers with the impression that he’s trying to block their access to Trump. They vented about his determination to fill the administration with his political allies. And they expressed alarm at what they say are directionless morning staff meetings Priebus oversees that could otherwise be used to rigorously set the day’s agenda and counterbalance the president’s own unpredictability.

“The finger-pointing further complicates life in an already turmoil-filled West Wing, one that has been hobbled by dueling power centers and unclear lines of command.

“It is unfair to finger Priebus alone for the administration’s missteps. Much of the fault can be assigned to the president himself — a notoriously unpredictable figure who relishes drama,” Politico reported. “Priebus has frequently lamented that he can’t control the president’s comments and spends much of his time in damage-control mode.”

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THE CHALLENGE for Priebus (well, the one that doesn’t involve trying to keep his job) is figuring out how to stage-manage a train wreck that’s straight out of “Groundhog Day,” something that keeps repeating and repeating. Organizational dysfunction is the new normal at the White House. The left hand, it seems, has been ordered not to cooperate with the right.

If Priebus is sensibly trying to stock the White House with people he can trust — those he knows from his RNC days — it’s problematic for a president whose campaign’s very reason for being was to institute a new order in Washington, to shake things up by going outside the establishment circles Washington lives by.

During that campaign, Trump talked about how he’d “drain the swamp.” The day-to-day working realities of life in the White House make it clear: It’s hard to drain the swamp when you’re forced to depend on people to tell you just how deep the swamp water is. And who on the other side can get you across.

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Priebus has the virtue of experience with many of the very people Trump needs to achieve something approaching credibility: the mainstream Republicans, movement conservatives that Trump requires to look like a leader.

Priebus knows the swamp-swimmers, some of ‘em anyway. If Trump jettisons him, Trump’s even more hard-pressed to gain that credibility in a White House that professional political operatives are less and less inclined to take seriously with every passing day.

The 100-days-in-office benchmark for new American presidents is a lazy cultural habit almost certainly created by journalists (those people enamored of round numbers). You could just as soon use 80 or 120 days as a test of the productivity of a new administration.

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BUT ON DAY 48, House Trump is already in very deep trouble. Its occupant loves drama, and the man has a perverse talent for cultivating conflict, of pitting people against people when they work for him. You only have to watch the early seasons of “The Apprentice” to see that’s true. Or the weekend video from CNN.

The chaos president has imported that persona into the White House, and that fact threatens to undo the best grasping efforts of an administration desperately trying to find its groove. Pray that no major crisis, domestic or international — or both — happens before it does.

The chaos president loves drama. He may have created a climate for more of it than he ever imagined.

Image credits: Sessions: CNN. Priebus: Associated Press via Politico. Trump at the window: Pool via Getty Images.

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