Monday, August 7, 2017

Seeking adult supervision on the Trumptanic

IF WASHINGTON politics was Wimbledon tennis, the events of the last two weeks would show the Trump administration is playing from behind right now, and it is glaringly obvious. All the screams from the baseline, all the huffing and puffing at the line judge won’t change a thing. House Trump is in what appears to be a permanent defensive crouch, even when they’re on offense.

This White House is in a predicament rare for an administration this young: on a kind of war footing with much of the American public that helped Trump get elected, and, weird enough, on a war footing with itself.

The polling tells part of the story. To go from the politically ecumenical reaction to his first six months occupying the Oval Office, Trump has inspired by accident a bipartisanship he couldn’t possibly compel on purpose. Democrats oppose Trump, that’s hardly breaking news. But what’s emerging in a flurry of new and recent polling indicates something bigger, wider, and more dissatisfied under his own tent:

The Los Angeles Times reported on Saturday, Aug. 5: “Since the election, in which he received 46% of the vote, Trump’s popularity has slumped. Polls by a half-dozen nonpartisan survey organizations in the last week have shown his job approval dropping again after several months of a stable, albeit low, plateau. Fewer than 40% of Americans have a favorable view of his performance in office, the polls indicate.

“Trump’s drop in polls has featured a notable decline in support among independents and a smaller, but still significant, decline among moderate Republicans. That decline was reflected in all three focus groups, both a Republican-dominated one and two that included Democrat-sympathetic voters.”

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There’s been more, of course. Lot more. Some of last week’s debacle was self-inflicted, the walkback as blowback, much of it from Congress. Look at Wednesday, Aug. 2. Rick Wilson of the Daily Beast did:

“On Wednesday, Trump was forced into signing the bipartisan Russian sanctions bill. Passed by overwhelming, veto-proof majorities in both the House and Senate, Trump was trapped like a Russian mink in a snare. After pretending the dog ate his homework for a day by claiming the White House didn’t have the bill, and with the knowledge that he would face the staggering political loss of a veto override, he grudgingly, reluctantly, painfully signed it.”

House Trump’s breathtaking levels of organizational dysfunction, already bad before, took a turn into the Shakespearean over the last two weeks. Weaved in between the various polls were White House dramas too thick and fast to be believed. “You don’t know the players without a scorecard,” the old saying goes. But since January 20, with the installation of Donald Trump as president*, it’s been hard to know the players with or without a scorecard. Some of them aren’t in the game long enough for a scorecard to matter in the first place.

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AS THE TRUMPCARE bills self-destructed on the floor of the Senate, various people were called on to fall on various swords. Communications director Mike Dubke resigned after Trump’s first foreign trip; Politico reported that Dubke bolted “after Trump criticized him for not fiercely defending the firing of former FBI director James Comey.” Then came press secretary and word-salad enthusiast Sean Spicer, who was cashed out on July 21. But the events of the days that followed made a bad situation ... a lot more interesting.

Despite his being a chief of staff — the one presumably in charge of daily operations, the White House’s air traffic controller — Reince Priebus never really had much control over anything. From July 28 Politico: “From the start, Priebus—whose presence was intended to give the Establishment wing of the Republican Party a line into the White House, and to smooth Trump’s relations with House Speaker Paul Ryan and other GOP leaders on Capitol Hill—was hemmed in, with senior advisers like Bannon, Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner and Kellyanne Conway reporting directly to the president.

Politico: “The unpredictable nature of the information flow in the White House made him uneasy, several administration officials say. He lost his cool when other West Wing staffers knew things that he didn’t, and he would call people who had spoken to the president to ask them what Trump had told them. He would run from meeting to meeting trying not to miss anything. He would corner people who criticized him publicly and ask them to stop – but admit the criticisms were close to accurate. He would rarely leave Trump's side and rush into the Oval Office when he saw others were in the room.”

Politico also reports how the idea developed that — somehow — Priebus was to blame for the debacle of the Trumpcare legislation that died serial deaths in the Senate. “Priebus’ failure to smooth passage of health care legislation through the GOP-led House in March infuriated the president, according to people close to him, and may have made his departure inevitable.”

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Multimillionaire businessman Anthony Scaramucci, scourge of Spicer and Priebus, was tapped as White House communications director, over Priebus’ especially vocal objections. Spicer resigned in protest. In short order, Scaramucci proceeded to create his own White House meme: Out with Priebus’ nebbish-accountant mien and Spicer’s angry-word-salad shtick, in with Scaramucci’s elegant swashbuckler at the podium.

In the White House press briefings room, in his maiden voyage, appeared to be everything that Priebus and Spicer were not: suave, glib, apparently capable of some self-deprecation, seemingly not afraid of interactions with reporters that didn’t involve gnashing of teeth for one or the other.

But then he had to go and spoil it all by saying what he said in a rambling, free-wheeling, strangely unhinged interview with Ryan Lizza of The New Yorker.

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WHAT I’M GOING to do is, I will eliminate everyone in the comms team and we’ll start over,” said Scaramucci, in the first movement of the Fandango. “They’ll all be fired by me. I fired one guy the other day. I have three to four people I’ll fire tomorrow. I’ll get to the person who leaked that to you. Reince Priebus—if you want to leak something—he’ll be asked to resign very shortly.”

“Reince is a fucking paranoid schizophrenic, a paranoiac,” Scaramucci said. Pizza said he later channelled Priebus while he spoke: “ ‘Oh, Bill Shine is coming in. Let me leak the fucking thing and see if I can cock-block these people the way I cock-blocked Scaramucci for six months.’ ”

You want a perfect example of how toxic the atmosphere in House Trump really is? Consider this: Within minutes of ending the July 26 interview with Lizza, minutes after telling Lizza that “I’ve gotta start tweeting some shit to make this guy crazy,” Scaramucci, the communications director in the White House, sent out a tweet that asserted Priebus, the chief of staff in the White House, had illegally leaked information on Scaramucci’s personal finances.

This alone distills the generally apparent down to something that couldn’t be more obvious, to anyone: House Trump is a White House in internal crisis, divided against itself.

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It was obvious again when Priebus resigned as chief of staff two days later, embarrassed, maybe even humiliated, a broken man walking, angry and bewildered across a tarmac in the rain. soaked to the skin by a narrative that painted him some time ago as a man out of his depth, Willy Loman in the West Wing.

Establishment Republicans, movement conservatives needed someone in the White House who could act as a check on Trump’s wild, reflexive machinations. To some degree, that’s what they had with Priebus for six precious months. Now, with Priebus gone— and with Trump acting as his own one-man, 140-character communications department — those mainstream, Pantone-red conservatives will likely be coming after Trump all over again. Scaramucci, Priebus’ implacable adversary, blindsided him. George R.R. Martin couldn’t have come up with what happened next.

Ten days after taking the comms job, Scaramucci was gone as Comms Chieftain, ushered out the door by the new sheriff in town, the closest thing to true adult supervision this administrationette has ever had. And that still may not be enough.

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A FORMER Marine and former Marine Corps liaison to Capitol Hill, John Kelly looks like a man who doesn’t suffer fools, gladly or otherwise. On that basis, how he got sucked into this tighter orbit of House Trump in the first place is a mystery. But Kelly, previously the director of homeland security, was named on July 31 to replace Priebus as chief of staff. And shortly after that, maybe even hours later, that afternoon, Kelly fired Scaramucci.

The Washington Post reported: “The chief of staff took his oath of office early Monday in an Oval Office ceremony thronged by senior staffers, including Scaramucci. But a short time later, Kelly told the communications director he was out, leading Scaramucci to offer his resignation instead, according to four White House staffers and outside advisers not authorized to speak publicly about personnel matters.

“In the brief, cold words of the White House announcement, Scaramucci was leaving because he ‘felt it was best to give Chief of Staff John Kelly a clean slate and the ability to build his own team.’ The three-sentence release concluded, ‘We wish him all the best.’ ” The Mooch, who announced his intention to “go dark,” was last seen scuttling down Pennsylvania Avenue carrying a Bankers Box and a ten-pound brick of Priebus Schadenfreude™ cheese.

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Kelly went further imposing his will in the playground. The New York Times reports: “Mr. Kelly cuts off rambling advisers midsentence. He listens in on conversations between cabinet secretaries and the president. He has booted lingering staff members out of high-level meetings, and ordered the doors of the Oval Office closed to discourage strays. He … has demanded that even Mr. Trump’s family, including his daughter Ivanka Trump and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, check with him if they want face time with the president.

“On Wednesday, his third day on the job, he delivered a message about respecting chains of command, backing the decision of Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster, the national security adviser, to dismiss Ezra Cohen-Watnick, a Kushner ally and staff member on the National Security Council.”

It’s as if the camp counselor at TrumpCamp walked to the threshold of the door to a darkened room filled with noisy, raucous, pre-teen boys at summer camp … walked to the door while they were rioting in the dark … and turned on the lights

Kelly’s obvious brief is to attempt to instill a culture shift at House Trump, one meant to address internal leaks, but also to reroute some of the presidential access lines through him … and to instill something close to esprit de corps in a corps that badly needs it. But Chief of Staff Kelly faces his own singular challenge. It’s one thing to make sure the trains run on time; it’s something else entirely to make sure they don’t run off the tracks.

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KELLY’S BIG early challenge may well be dealing with the man who hired him. Trump, whose sense of himself knows no bounds, doesn’t long put up with people inclined to tell him no. Not without them being very high up in the Trump business history org chart/food chain — or by being family. He’s spent decades in the business world, and every minute of the campaign, and the administration that’s followed, reinforcing his primacy and the power of his vision, reason and procedure and precedent be damned. Winning the election in November, of course, utterly reinforced that Trumpian vision as certitude.

John Kelly’s first job, and the one that matters most, is to save Donald Trump from himself. With a shoot-from-the-hip braggadocio style and Twitter as his rhetorical ballistic missile system, Trump has been a strategist’s nightmare. Reason: Trump observes no real strategy beyond the bombastic, blustery overkill of his campaign stops and presidential tweets. With little sense of decorum about the office he occupies, and inconsistent consideration of the consequences of what he tweets, the president* is his own worst enemy. Thus, Kelly’s first job is to rescue Trump from his own media appetites and reflexes. If that’s possible.

There’s a lot to recommend about Kelly. A fan of Irish whiskey and previously a four-star Marine general, he’s the father of Marine 1st Lieutenant Robert Kelly, who was killed when he stepped on a mine while on a patrol in Afghanistan in 2010. There’s humility and strength in Kelly’s gaze, soul and weight to his bearing. His persona communicates gravity and seriousness. He looks like a frickin’ White House chief of staff.

And his biography and the haunting insight of its lessons lead one to believe there’s another, other message Kelly has sent to The Donald. You’ve met your match. I’m not afraid of you. There’s nothing you can take from me that will ever compare to what I’ve already lost. Inside the White House and outside it, Team Trump is under withering fire, and Kelly might be a great help, imagistically speaking. The Daily Beast already thinks so: “John Kelly and Son’s Memory Bring Decency to White House,” the Beast reported.

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But ironically, the man brought in to be the camp counselor isn’t above making some pretty decent messes of his own. The New York Times reported Aug. 3: “In closed-door meetings with House members in March, Democrats questioned Mr. Kelly about aggressive immigration sweeps at churches and hospitals. The frustration grew as Mr. Kelly disputed that such sweeps were happening, even in the face of enlarged photos showing a Homeland Security vehicle parked on the grounds of Christ Cathedral in Garden Grove, Calif. “He’ll push back hard,” said Representative Lou Correa, Democrat of California, who presented the photographic evidence to Mr. Kelly during the meeting. …

“The next month, Mr. Kelly offered a taste of his blunt approach, telling lawmakers they could ‘shut up’ if they did not like the laws his department was charged with enforcing.”

Are we looking at adult supervision for the adult supervision?

The viral dynamic of social media has of course weighed in on all of this in its usual reductive way, boiling the vast Trump experience down to what you can get your mind around at a glance. Like something circulating recently on Twitter: the graphic illustration of an ocean liner, (maybe a still from the movie Titanic, maybe not) labeled in letters of the appropriately grandiose TRUMP scale, in the process of sinking, clearly heading down by the bow.

One of those Arizona voters quoted by the L.A. Times expressed her own enchantment with Trump similarly going under water. “I loved him because he was different,” she said. “I hated Obama, so I was ready for a change.”

One word in those last two sentences separates the past from a possible future. It’s the name of the nation’s former chief executive. Time’ll tell how fast it could be replaced in those sentences with the name of the current one.

Image credits: Trump: CBS News. GOP base support graph: Firehouse Strategies. Scaramucci: Getty Images. Trump and Priebus: Getty Images. Priebus: Aude Guerrucci/pool/Getty Images. Kelly: Cliff Owen/Associated Press. John Kelly cartoon: Peter Kuper/The New Yorker. © 2018 The New Yorker. Trumptanic: via @counterchekist.

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