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Graydon Carter on Trump’s Constitutional Crisis, Ruskiegate, and the Worst First 100 Days in Presidential History
The president has become a farce to be reckoned with.
The media, the opposition, the resistance, and indeed the rest of the Free World are playing by outmoded rules of engagement with regard to the man in the White House. The thing is, you cannot rise above Donald Trump, you cannot go under him, and you cannot engage him in a conventional way. Before he became president, you could basically ignore him—he was a local joke, after all. Now that he’s commander in chief, you must resist him, with everything that is in you and in every way you can. As anyone who has followed his jerry-rigged career from the 1980s onward will tell you, Trump just drags you to the bottom of the pond every time. Decades ago, he was a short-fingered vulgarian tooling around town in a mauve stretch limo, reeking of Brut. In those days, competitors, subcontractors, politicians, and wives were the ones who found themselves mired in the Trump muck. Now it is the country that’s up to its knees in it.
With Trump, everything past is prologue. On the day after his inauguration, while millions in the U.S. and around the world protested his improbable election, Trump went to C.I.A. headquarters, in Langley, Virginia. The ostensible purpose of the visit was to patch things up after he had repeatedly trashed the intelligence community in the weeks leading up to his swearing-in. Trump’s speech was short, just 15 minutes, but even here, after paying lip service to the C.I.A. and its heritage, he went off piste, claiming that his beef with the intelligence community was a figment of the media’s imagination—as was the slim size of the crowd at his inaugural. These complete fabrications were made despite all printed, oral, and visual evidence to the contrary. That he spoke these words standing before the marble wall of 117 stars representing the lives of the men and women from the agency who had died in the line of duty was troubling enough. Across the hall from him, however—and in plain sight—was another marble wall, with a clearly visible quote from John 8:32 put there by former C.I.A. director Allen Dulles: AND YE SHALL KNOW THE TRUTH AND THE TRUTH SHALL MAKE YOU FREE.
Had Trump heeded those words, his presidency wouldn’t be so trussed up in the Gordian knot of his appalling lies, contradictions, and deceptions. His presidency is effectively doomed—it’s only a question now of how and when it will end. Treason? Impeachment? Incapacity? Until that day, you should be forgiven if you think you are suffering from extreme, full-blown P.T.S.D.—President Trump Stress Disorder. You are not alone. A serial liar in the office or home is one thing—and stressful enough. But a serial liar in the highest office in the land is something else altogether. Couple that with an erratically fragile ego, a severely diminished mental capacity, a lacerating temper, and access to the nuclear codes, and it’s going to get a whole lot hotter in here.
If you think you are having a tough time of it since the election, please have some sympathy for the journalists, career civil servants, and White House supplicants who have to deal with Trumpian levels of insanity on a minute-to-minute basis. Trumpian! The word “trump” formerly was a verb used in polite bridge and whist circles. Trump, the man, is now up there with Hercules and Sisyphus with his own branded adjective. I’m not completely sure what it stands for. But when it finally settles into the lexicon, I’m certain that it will be a disconcerting combination of petulant, preening, ignorant, shameless, vulgar, paranoid, vainglorious, reckless, imperious, impulsive, unhinged, callous, corrosive, narcissistic, intemperate, juvenile, disloyal, venal, chaotic, squalid—what have I forgotten? Oh, yes!—and just mind-numbingly, epically incompetent.
In removing not only F.B.I. director James Comey but also Sally Yates, the acting attorney general, in the middle of sweeping investigations into Trump’s links to the Russians as well as their role in the election, the president committed about as open-and-shut a case of obstruction of justice as you are going to find outside of a banana republic. Comey’s contemporaneous notes to himself of an Oval Office meeting involving the investigation of former national-security adviser Michael Flynn—“I hope you can let this go,” the president urged—are merely proof of what was already clear. I suspect we’ll be seeing a lot more of Comey’s detailed and verbatim accounts; he will not be an unpublished author for long. In the olden days, when Trump sent threatening legal letters to competitors or journalists (and I was on the receiving end of a number of them), they were generally first sent to the New York Post’s “Page Six,” which is where most of the targets read his complaints about them for the first time. When Comey learned from a television report that he had been sacked, it came as no surprise to serious Trump scholars. The F.B.I. chief was just the most recent victim of the president’s rules of combat. The Oval Office cameos the day after the Comey firing, by the Russian foreign minister and ambassador, followed by Richard Nixon’s Angel of Death, Henry Kissinger, added a Marx Brothers Night at the Opera element to the whole episode. It was later revealed that only a TASS photographer had been allowed into the Russkifest and that Trump had divulged classified information about ISIS to the Russian guests, compromising the source and jeopardizing a key intelligence relationship. A different Marx—not one of the brothers—had a famous remark about history repeating itself first as tragedy, then as farce. Trump has it the other way around.
As the country emerged from the ill-fated first 100 days of the Trump presidency, the odor of permanent scandal was already palpable. The Comey firing, the Comey memo, the secrets spilled by Trump to his Russian visitors, and the appointment of Special Counsel Robert Mueller were merely the capstone to weeks of chaos and conflict of interest. Gobbling up headlines before Comeygate were Flynn’s paid links to Russian president Vladimir Putin and the Kushner family’s craven attempt to lure Chinese investors to a New Jersey luxury-apartment project with the promise of EB-5 visas and a tacit connection to the White House. When it comes to the president’s extended family, if this is what they think they can get away with out in the open, you can only imagine what they are up to in the shadows. Trump says that he has no business dealings with the Russians. My guess is that this is an out-and-out lie. If, on the outside chance, he doesn’t actually have Russian investors, it certainly hasn’t been for lack of trying. And it would prove that even Russian oligarchs have their standards.
In describing the events surrounding Russkigate, making any sort of reference to Seven Days in May—John Frankenheimer’s Cold War thriller about the attempted overthrow of a president going easy on the Soviet Union—is almost too obvious. Instead, you could cast the entire Comey affair with actors from Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington: Jimmy Stewart as Comey, Claude Raines as Jeff Sessions, Eugene Pallette as Steve Bannon, Guy Kibbee as Sean Spicer, Porter Hall as Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, and devilish old Edward Arnold as Trump himself. Sadly, though, the Trump administration is no Capra movie. If anything, it will probably end up being more like a Quentin Tarantino film—the final act being a Mexican standoff with all the participants’ lawyers in a circle, aiming their guns at one another.
Far and away the most unfit man ever to hold the nation’s highest office, Trump has crammed so much into his first few months that most of us have trouble keeping track of the quotidian acts of executive mayhem. He has no foreign or domestic policy to speak of—he bases most of his decisions on what will play best to his base out there among the Twitterati. He cozies up to dictators and fellow strongmen, flattering them and giving them unwarranted credibility, while running roughshod over traditional allies. He has signed executive orders that attempt to slash decades of advancement in educational, medical, and environmental protections. The torrent of hate that Trump has so cavalierly unleashed has moved attacks against Jews, Muslims, Hispanics, and African-Americans from the margins toward the mainstream. Both the Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center report spikes in hate crimes and bias-related incidents since Trump’s election. And he has stuffed agencies with Trump loyalists—stooges, really—hired on the basis of their fidelity to the president rather than their qualifications. At the same time, whether through negligence or ineptitude, or both, he is letting vital positions necessary to run the government go unfilled. A hack of unprecedented scale hits 150 countries, and, still, top cyber-security jobs remain vacant.
In one randomly vindictive act, Trump wants to do away with the initiative by former First Lady Michelle Obama to make the nation’s school lunches healthier. This was a balm for the trade group the School Nutrition Association, whose sponsors, in true Orwellian fashion, include a number of companies that sell less-than-healthy food to school districts. (The S.N.A. has argued against the requirement that schoolchildren choose half a cup of fruits or vegetables.) Trump did his own bit for nutrition when he had three Time staff members to dinner and served them a more dietetic single scoop of ice cream for dessert, while he selflessly had two scoops.
As an executive, Trump is a shambles. Can you imagine a company in America that would hire Trump as its C.E.O.? (Enron doesn’t count: it’s no longer in business.) He’s not a true leader in any proper sense of the word; he’s a ringmaster of a heaving, leaking White House that is much closer to the Circus Maximus or a traveling carny show than any traditional government operation. When he told NBC News that Comey was “a showboat” and “a grandstander,” what he really meant was that there was room for only one of those in this town. The Republican rank and file, or at least the more aware ones—that’s excluding quislings like Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan—are already eyeing the exits. A West Wing housecleaning may only make things worse for the top man. Releasing the likes of his chief strategist into the wild is a particularly dangerous move. When it comes to Visigoths like Steve Bannon, it’s best to keep them inside the fortress peeing on the underlings, rather than outside with their torches and battering rams.
What the Kardashians are to authentic glamour the Trumps are to authentic executive acumen. To paraphrase Fran Lebowitz, Trump is an unsuccessful person’s idea of a successful person. His son-in-law, the all-purpose Secretary of Everything, Jared Kushner, is cut from similar cloth. An heir to a sizable New Jersey real-estate concern, he has two signature business initiatives under his belt. In one case, he burdened his family with staggering debt by paying a record price for a badly located office tower at 666 Fifth Avenue. And he bought The New York Observer (a paper I ran at one point), and through boneheaded firing and hiring, and routine mismanagement, he ran this religiously read weekly right into the ditch.
From all outward appearances, Trump is not a well man, physically or mentally. He has the limited vocabulary and shockingly nonlinear sentence structure of an immigrant new to English. You can only imagine what mornings are like up there in the White House private quarters: the sleeping garments, the personal-grooming routine, the bronzer, the spray volumizer, and the careful hair placement, interspersed with continual tantrums over what the morning television shows are saying about him. Actually, put all those thoughts out of your mind. I’m sorry I even brought them up.
In a rare instance of blinding insight, Trump knows that the world, the Establishment, and most business and government acquaintances think he is an illegitimate president who will forever carry an asterisk after his title. And it is clearly driving him nuts. He says that he doesn’t care—but, oh, you know he cares. He cares the way a teenage boy cares about the reasons his first girlfriend dumped him. (“Your hands are just too small!”) And to compensate for all of this, Trump travels with the imagined magnitude of his tarnished victory and his inaugural audience like a length of toilet paper stuck to the heel of his shoe. Regardless of the event, whether the National Prayer Breakfast, or that first meeting at the C.I.A., or an N.R.A. rally, or in a formal setting with foreign diplomats, he suddenly goes off message, and with hands circling sassily in the air, he reverts to the size of his victory, the size of his crowds.
It’s hard not to sympathize with the plight of Trump’s “fans,” as V.F. Contributing Editor Lili Anolik likes to call his followers. In Joan Williams’s book White Working Class: Overcoming Class Cluelessness in America, Williams lays out the values that the great swath of U.S. voters prize. They include hard work, community, self-reliance, and interdependence—all attributes that helped build this country. That these Americans—the nation’s backbone—would hitch their wagon to a man so at odds with all of those values (along with many more, like modesty, honesty, fairness, fidelity, generosity, and general decency) is a mystery, and a testament to how out of touch the Democratic Party has become.
Trump has spoken of the media’s trying to muddy his message of unifying the country. With his brazen attempts to gut government entities like the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Energy, and the State Department, as well as his plans to roll back financial legislation such as Dodd-Frank, among so many others, about the only people he is uniting are scientists, economists, environmentalists, health-care professionals, diplomats, career civil servants, parents, children, educators, and other afflicted groups. They have come together in historic droves as they resist the rules of engagement and the reign of terror of the petulant man-child in the Oval Office. And in the end, they will win the day.