After the fallout from Michael Wolff’s damning book Fire and Fury, Paul Thomas looks at the scenarios facing President Donald Trump.
On Christmas Eve, when normal people were wishing each other “Merry Christmas”, he took to Twitter to claim that he’d made it safe to use the words again: “People are proud to be saying Merry Christmas again. I am proud to have led the charge against the assault of [sic] our cherished and beautiful phrase.”
Apart from being spurious, this was a racist dog-whistle directed at his base and their paranoid fixation that a coalition of otherness is hell-bent on imposing a multicultural, politically correct, godless tyranny on white, Christian, real America.
Silly season or not, the Trump Show must go on. Thus, when most Americans were still digesting Christmas dinner, the President was back at work, doing what he does best and what may be the only part of the job he actually enjoys: spitting venom, sowing confusion and spreading alarm in 280 characters or fewer. He insulted Pakistan; he opened a new front in his war on the mainstream media by announcing the Fake News Awards for “the most dishonest and corrupt” coverage; and he upped the ante in his puerile but frightening game of nuclear brinkmanship with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, aka “Little Rocket Man”, crowing that the nuclear button on the White House desk is “much bigger and more powerful”.
These were just teasers to build anticipation for the new season’s premiere, in which a muckraking journalist brings out a warts-and-all exposé and all hell breaks loose.
As has been noted, the key point in Michael Wolff’s book Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House – that Trump is monumentally deficient in the attributes and qualities that one associates with the presidency – hardly qualifies as a revelation.
Indeed, there’s an echo here of movie mogul Harvey Weinstein’s exposure as a remorseless sexual predator. Until the New York Times put it on the record, Weinstein’s behaviour was widely known, largely ignored, assiduously covered up and enabled. Only after the cat was out of the bag did the show-business community sheepishly admit it had been common knowledge for years. Similarly, it is hardly a secret that Trump is unfit to be president: commentators across the political spectrum were pointing that out well before he secured the Republican nomination, and have continued to do so, with mounting alarm, since he took office.
(There’s a direct link in the form of lawyer Charles Harder. Trump unleashed Harder on Wolff and his publisher Henry Holt & Co in an 11th-hour bid to stop Fire and Fury being published; Weinstein unleashed Harder on the New York Times in an 11th-hour bid to stop the story detailing his history of sexual harassment and assault seeing the light of day. Perhaps you can judge men by the lawyers they share, as well as the company they keep.)
“Out of his depth”
“Even discounting for hearsay and exaggeration, the Trump in Fire and Fury seems utterly plausible, save for those who have chosen not to believe their own lying eyes,” wrote Jonah Goldberg in National Review, the journal founded in 1955 by William F Buckley, American conservatism’s foremost post-war public intellectual. “All it takes is a willingness to see the obvious: the President is a man out of his depth, propped up by a staff and a party that needs to believe more than what the facts will support.”
We shouldn’t even be surprised by Wolff’s dutiful compilation of behind-his-back disparagement of Trump by his closest aides and advisers, variations on the theme of the President is an imbecile: “idiot”, “dope”, “dumb as shit”. Since Inauguration Day, journalists and congressional Democrats have been reporting that the President’s allies and appointees are prone to delivering scathing private and off-the-record assessments of his intellect and personality. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has had plenty of opportunities to deny that he described Trump as a “f---ing moron” and has spurned all of them. Retiring Republican senator Bob Corker, initially a Trump enthusiast, memorably described the White House as “an adult daycare centre”.
One thing Trump can’t be accused of being is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. He makes no attempt to conceal his true self, because he finds it immaculate and believes the rest of the world, minus loser liberals and the fake-news media, is similarly besotted. We don’t need private interactions with the man to know what he is because his defining characteristics are on permanent public display. After all, this is a 71-year-old whose rebuttal of the charge of ignorance is to tweet, “Throughout my life, my two greatest assets have been mental stability and being, like, really smart.” For the benefit of those who can’t or won’t join the dots, he went on to declare that the combination made him “a very stable genius”.
Although not quite the bombshell tell-all of lazy headlines, Fire and Fury did have immediate, significant consequences. The first was that it generated the funniest Trump jape to date, a false extract posted on a satirical Twitter account accompanied by the comment, “Wow, this extract from Wolff’s book is a shocking insight into Trump’s mind.”
The best satire is original and extravagant, yet derived from an acknowledged reality. Trump is known to be a fan of professional wrestling, that hysterical hybrid of sport and show business. He is a man with a pitiful attention span who reportedly watches up to eight hours of television a day and often retires to his bedroom with a cheeseburger at 6.30pm to see what’s on the box.
The gorilla channel
According to the false extract, Trump, being under the impression that there was a TV channel that screened “nothing but gorilla-based content 24 hours a day”, complained to White House staff that the television in his bedroom didn’t have “the Gorilla Channel”. His minions spliced together gorilla documentaries and beamed them into the presidential bedroom from a temporary transmission tower on the South Lawn.
Once the docos were re-edited to get rid of the boring, “non-fighting” bits, Trump was a happy President: “‘On some days he’ll watch the Gorilla Channel for 17 hours straight,’ an insider told me. ‘He kneels in front of the TV with his face about four inches from the screen and says encouraging things to the gorillas like “the way you hit that other gorilla was good”. I think he thinks the gorillas can hear him.’”
Some found it all too credible. Netflix had to issue a Twitter plea for people to “stop calling our customer service hotline to ask if we have the Gorilla Channel”.
Fire and Fury has inflicted major and perhaps lasting damage on former Trump adviser Steve Bannon, who provided its most arresting quotes. I say “perhaps”, since Trump has shown a willingness to embrace ex-enemies who come to heel. Bannon, though, is in a different position from former Trump hater Lindsey Graham. As a high-profile Republican senator, Graham can be useful to Trump, whereas Bannon, already diminished by the failure of his anti-establishment intervention in the Alabama special senate election, is now in danger of becoming irrelevant.
Furthermore, whereas Graham called Trump most of the names in the book – “kook”, “crazy”, “jackass”, “race-baiting, religious bigot” – Bannon has committed the far graver offence of undercutting the White House’s and, increasingly, the Republican Party’s attempts to torpedo special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, and matters pertaining thereto.
According to the spin, the whole collusion thing is a hoax and Mueller is conducting a high-powered, lavishly taxpayer-funded, increasingly sinister witch-hunt/fishing expedition. However, Bannon, who until last August was a senior member of Trump’s inner circle and widely portrayed as the power behind the throne, deployed the dread term “treasonous” in relation to the much-scrutinised June 2016 “Hillary Clinton dirt” meeting in Trump Tower attended by Trump’s eldest son, Don Jr, son-in-law Jared Kushner, campaign manager Paul Manafort and a cast of shady Russians. Bannon subsequently claimed the term was specifically directed at Manafort, who is now facing several charges arising from the Mueller investigation. Wolff, however, insists Bannon was clearly referring to Trump Jr, the Russians’ original point of contact. Bannon also described the investigation as a category-five hurricane bearing down on a President too dim and/or complacent to see what’s coming. Trump, he said, has “lost his stuff” and “is not going to make it”.
How likely is it that Bannon’s prediction will come to pass? Highly unlikely, the man himself now says, as he performs a turbo-grovel and full-throated recantation in a desperate bid to avoid becoming a historical footnote. In reality, we’re still at the stage where no scenario from “nothingburger” to impeachment can be unequivocally ruled out. To look at a few:
1. Mueller clears Trump
The investigation concludes that although the Russians meddled in the campaign, there was no active, calculated collusion. Any contact the Trump campaign had with the Russians resulted from misplaced zeal and political naivety and Trump didn’t know about it or authorise it. Caving in to Republican pressure to stay away from Trump’s business dealings before he became president, the Department of Justice shuts down the investigations of money laundering and assorted murky financial transactions. Trump, vindicated and vengeful, emerges more powerful and less tractable than before; the discredited Democrats and fake-news media slide even further in public estimation.
2. Trump is censured but cleared of actual wrongdoing
The investigation concludes that Trump presided over a cynical shambles of a campaign and therefore bears a moral responsibility for the actions of his underlings. However, establishing his legal responsibility for their illegal acts would be difficult, if not impossible. Trump claims complete vindication; the Democrats talk impeachment but haven’t got the numbers or public opinion on their side. With Trump out of jeopardy and gearing up to run for a second term, the resistance finds it increasingly hard to maintain the rage.
3. Trump sacks Mueller
Congressional Republicans back the decision, on the grounds that Mueller had exceeded his authority by delving into Trump’s business dealings before he became president. A new special counsel is appointed, with a narrow brief and for a fixed time. Americans take to the streets in numbers not seen since the Vietnam War protests. The commentariat raises the spectre of a second civil war.
4. Mueller nails Trump
The investigation produces compelling evidence that Trump broke the law and committed impeachable offences. Enough Congressional Republicans abandon Trump to make his position untenable. Trump resigns. New President Mike Pence’s first official act is to pardon Trump for crimes discovered and yet to be discovered. Within weeks of Pence being sworn in, the saying “Be careful what you wish for” dominates political commentary.
In all likelihood, the midterm elections on November 6 will have as much bearing on the fate of Trump’s presidency as Mueller’s investigation. All 435 seats in the House of Representatives plus 33 Senate seats are up for grabs and there are also numerous local and state elections, including 36 gubernatorial races.
Recent polls show the Democrats leading the Republicans by margins ranging from 10% to 18% but have to be seen in the context of gerrymandering that, until recently, was thought to have made some Republican districts virtually unlosable. Like so much else in the age of Trump, that consensus is fraying; some number crunchers are now saying there’s a 66% chance of the Democrats gaining control of the House of Representatives. In that event, you would think, the truth will out.
On the other hand, if the Republicans retain control of both chambers of Congress and the majority of state houses and legislatures, that will be that. Trump and the GOP will interpret the outcome as proof the American people don’t care about any of it – collusion, obstruction of justice, money laundering, even the possibility that their president has been compromised by and is beholden to a hostile foreign power and strategic adversary – and act accordingly.
The unavoidable implication of such an outcome would be that Trump isn’t what’s wrong with America; Americans are what’s wrong with America.
This article was first published in the January 20, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.