Sunday, July 22, 2018

Trump Enragement Syndrome:
Dan Coats may be the new patient zero

I F DIRECTOR of National Intelligence Dan Coats gets fired in the near future — paying the price for a perfectly normal reaction to a disruption in a workplace chain of command — we can save time and energy by not being flummoxed, or even stymied. President* Trump’s done this kind of thing before.

As with the departures of Reince Priebus and Rex Tillerson, two once-solid pillars of House Trump, Coats’ possible departure signals a kind of Trumpian return to form. If past is prologue, look for Trump to further cut Coats out of the loop, in a fashion consistent with past practice. Thanks to even a shallow reading of American political history in Trump time, we needn’t be surprised. The viral particles of Trump Enragement Syndrome are in the air again.

Remember how Priebus got his walking papers? After months of being in the White House wilderness — ignored by staffers, made to be the 12th man on the team, treated like the leper intern instead of the White House chief of staff — Priebus was replaced in July 2017 by John Kelly, formerly the head of Homeland Security.

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Politico reported last July 28, the day Priebus resigned as White House chief of staff: “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.

From 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.”

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AND WE can’t forget Rex Tillerson, the former CEO of Exxon Mobil and secretary of state. Weeks of backbiting and recrimination preceded his exit, time spent in a quiet kind of tension with Trump. Tillerson’s attempts to exercise some degree of autonomy, of standing on the not-inconsiderable power of its authority (an office that is, after all, in the line of presidential succession), all came to nothing. Thanks to some primal twitch in the Trump amygdala, Tillerson was found to have gone too far, to have run afoul of The Donald. Never mind how.

It started with the usual manifestations of TES: not outright, scenery-chewing outrage but a smoldering resentment from the president* couched in passive-aggressive Trump tweets, as well as persistent leaks to the press from “Trump administration officials” about how close to Tillerson’s head the sword of Damocles was positioned. Reports of Tillerson’s pending ouster circulated as early as three months before his departure.

In December, Bloomberg reported James Norton, a former deputy assistant secretary of Homeland Security under President George W. Bush saying that “[t]he administration’s foreign policy team seems “to be working with two voices, that of President Trump’s Twitter voice and the rest of the administration, so credibility of cabinet members and their negotiating power is always an issue.”

Not for long. Early March 13, as Tillerson returned from a trip to north Africa, he found out he'd been dumped, from Kelly, who (according to different sources) dropped the guillotine blade on Tillerson over the phone while the secretary of state was in the can.

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And it may be about to be Coats’ turn. It’d be especially galling if it’s true, since Coats has been a loyal Trump operative from the beginning. Coats may be dismissed for doing nothing more or less than acting as a symbol of order in a house known for disorder.

It started, of course, when Coats took umbrage with Trump’s actions in Helsinki, as the president stood next to Russian President Vladimir Putin and basically pledged allegiance to the dictator.

“We have been clear in our assessments of Russian meddling in the 2016 election and their ongoing, pervasive efforts to undermine our democracy, and we will continue to provide unvarnished and objective intelligence in support of our national security,” Coats wrote in a statement that managed to elude the green eyeshades of the Spin Police in the West Wing.

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THE MOST recent source of Coats’ trouble is his appearance July 19 at the Aspen Security Forum. Interviewed by NBC News’ Andrea Mitchell, Coats was diplomatic and circumspect when asked questions about Trump’s recent upheavals on the world stage, most recently Trump’s breathtakingly inept performance in Helsinki.

Then Mitchell announced some breaking news there on the stage with Coats: According to a tweet by Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Putin has been invited to come to the White House in the fall.

A perfectly normal professional’s reaction to finding out your boss has blindsided you in ways that should never have happened. No big deal. I’ll sort it out when I get back to the office on Monday.

Only Coats’ boss, the president*, didn’t see it like that. Neither did the tailors and haberdashers attending the wannabe emperor’s new clothes. By late Thursday and into early Friday, news circulated that White House officials were “furious” over Coats’ off-the-cuff statements in Aspen. The word went out that Coats had “gone rogue,” making the director of the nation’s 17 intelligence agencies sound like a bull elk in heat.

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Abigail Tracy at Vanity Fair sets the record straight: “Coats, of course, is only expressing publicly what many Trump aides are whispering in private. One administration official told me that National Security Council staffers were ‘pretty rattled by the summit’ and that morale is ‘back down to very low levels.’ Over in Foggy Bottom, a State Department staffer told me ‘lots of folks are planning an exit’ in the wake of the Trump-Putin summit.”

Whether those folks engage in their own predictable behavior depends, apparently, on how likely Trump is to act predictably himself.

To be clear: Predictability has its place; in an environment defined by chaos, anything that’s foreseeable is pretty damn refreshing all by itself. But Trump Enragement Syndrome is an acute condition — in the short-term, at least, a (politically) terminal disease for everyone but the host.

Priebus, Tillerson and others will tell you: Just because something’s predictable doesn’t make it preventable.

Image credits: Coats top: Getty Images. Priebus: Aude Guerrucci/Pool/Getty Images via Politico. Tillerson: Alex Wong/Getty Images. Coats lower: Aspen Security Forum via The Associated Press. Trump: Evan Vucci/Associated Press.

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