There’s a story about Donald Trump during the 2016 election campaign that, apocryphal or not, explains why he’s now facing a Congressional impeachment inquiry. Trump got some debate prep from Roger Ailes, the former boss of Fox News, and someone who had been helping to run presidential campaigns since he was Nixon’s ‘TV wunderkind’ in 1960. But Trump wouldn’t open his briefing books, wouldn’t practice, wouldn’t be told anything at all. It was so bad that Ailes, Paul Manafort (the campaign manager) and Hope Hicks (the campaign flack) would follow Trump around his golf course at Bedminster holding up little, typed cue cards, hoping he’d absorb something – anything – in between holes. Ailes was exasperated and, fearing he’d be blamed for the inevitable disaster he saw coming, he quit.
That was the rational thing to do. Any normal person about to debate Hillary Clinton, the human briefing book, would have been desperately cramming to avoid the humiliating gotcha! moment that loses the candidate the debate, the election, and their self-respect, and maybe defines them ever afterwards. (Remember Dan Quayle, ‘Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy;’ Gerald Ford, ‘There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe;’ and most beautifully of all Rick Perry, ‘Oops’.) But Trump was supremely confident in his own abilities and, though not always in command of the facts, he often bulldozed Clinton out of the way by sheer force of personality. This was the way he lived his life before presidency and it’s the way he conducts business now in the White House. But you might argue that if the Ukrainian affair shows anything, it’s this: you can’t half-ass the presidency.
Would any other president so blithely have asked a foreign leader for dirt on a political opponent? President Trump plowed ahead – to ask President Volodymyr Zelensky for kompromat on the Democratic frontrunner, Joe Biden – and seems surprised that a member of his own intelligence staff was troubled enough to report this. ‘I would like you to do us a favor,’ Trump said, sounding like a character from Goodfellas. Why wouldn’t he leave this to his legal ferret, Rudy Giuliani? That would have been deniable. Did he blunder into this conversation ignorant of the implications of what he was doing, or did he know but not care? Exactly the same questions were asked when Trump told the White House counsel, Don McGahn, to get Robert Mueller fired – it might have been only McGahn’s refusal to do so that saved Trump from being impeached for obstruction of justice. (Trump supposedly called McGahn a ‘lying bastard’ after this story came out but the Mueller report says otherwise.)
For Trump’s critics then, the debate is over whether Trump is too stupid to be president, or too wicked. His former secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, reportedly thought Trump was a ‘fucking moron’ (for telling a closed meeting at the Pentagon he wanted a ‘tenfold’ increase in America’s nuclear arsenal); his former attorney, John Dowd, reportedly thought he was a ‘fucking liar’ (for his unconvincing performance in a mock deposition during the Mueller inquiry). No doubt Congressional Democrats looking for ways to impeach Trump will come down simultaneously on both sides of this question: unfit by way of both incompetence and corruption.
For his part, the president continues to insist he did nothing wrong. He has tweeted that the Deep State is ‘spying’ on him:
….In addition, I want to meet not only my accuser, who presented SECOND & THIRD HAND INFORMATION, but also the person who illegally gave this information, which was largely incorrect, to the “Whistleblower.” Was this person SPYING on the U.S. President? Big Consequences!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 29, 2019
He has tweeted that the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Adam Schiff, should be arrested for treason:
Rep. Adam Schiff illegally made up a FAKE & terrible statement, pretended it to be mine as the most important part of my call to the Ukrainian President, and read it aloud to Congress and the American people. It bore NO relationship to what I said on the call. Arrest for Treason?
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 30, 2019
He has tweeted approvingly remarks by one of his supporters that the country will be plunged into civil war if he is impeached:
“Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats can’t put down the Impeachment match. They know they couldn’t beat him in 2016 against Hillary Clinton, and they’re increasingly aware of the fact that they won’t win against him in 2020, and Impeachment is the only tool they have to get….
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 30, 2019
His decision to release the official notes from his call with his Ukrainian counterpart might be evidence of his innocence. Or it might be a sign that there is far worse to come and the White House is trying to deflect attention.
The notes from the Ukrainian call were kept on a special, more classified server in the White House. The intelligence ‘whistleblower’ says this was part of a cover up, that there was no national security reason why the records should have been stashed away like this. Kellyanne Conway, Trump’s most loyal public defender, says a lot of sensitive records were moved to this restricted server after conversations between Trump and the leaders of Mexico and Australia were leaked. That’s a reasonable explanation. Nevertheless, the Democrats will seek to investigate the server and will ask what else might be on it – supposedly it includes records of Trump’s conversations with the Russian leader, Vladimir Putin. Will Trump, like Nixon, come to wish he had set fire to the tapes on the White House lawn?
Nixon came unstuck and eight years as vice president and four as president. He was deeply experienced in both government and politics. Trump sometimes seems as if he can’t pass a rake in the Rose Garden without stepping on it. His inexperience threatens to turn every challenge into an existential crisis. If he hadn’t asked Comey to ‘go easy’ on Flynn, he wouldn’t have had to fire Comey; if he hadn’t fired Comey, there would have been no Mueller. Some people think Trump creates these moments deliberately. The New York Times TV critic, James Poniewozik, has written a book describing how Trump learned as a reality star that incessant controversy was the way to get ratings. ‘He is very successful at is just knowing what stimulates a camera and what keeps the red light of the camera on.’ Poniewozik argues that the presidency as reality TV show isn’t just a metaphor, it’s literally how we should understand what Trump is doing, since that’s how he understands it himself: there is no logic, skill or strategy underlying the decisions, just the need to keep the red light on. Treason! Spying! Civil War! We’ve just had the episode in which Trump abuses the power of the presidency to conspire with a foreign government against a political opponent – what could possibly top that in the ratings?
Paul Wood is a BBC correspondent.
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