The Greatest Disappointment of the Trump Presidency – James Fallows | The Atlantic

The Greatest Disappointment of the Trump Presidency

The institutional fabric of the United States has proven more tenacious and resilient in responding than many feared. The Republican Congress has not.

James Fallows | The Atlantic

In late January 2018, 12 months into the Donald Trump era, the military scholar Eliot Cohen looked back at an assessment he had written for The Atlantic in late January 2017, soon after Trump was sworn in.

In his second piece, Cohen pointed out that for most writers, most of the time, the prospect of revisiting old works of journalistic analysis is uninviting.

Journalism is the process of offering the best interpretation you can by deadline time. By definition, you know more when you look back than you did when you were hammering away to meet the deadline.     

More about the basic facts, more about what happened next, more about the context of the events you were doing your best, under time pressure, to comprehend.

In nearly all cases, the passing days or weeks have given you ideas of better, sharper ways in which you could have made your point.

This is why newspaper articles, blog posts, and tweets generally aren’t, or shouldn’t be, collected in books. They are valuable as slice-of-time samplings of what people thought, wondered, feared, or assumed from the facts then available to them.

It was explicitly in this slice-of-time spirit that I put together my Trump Time Capsule series over the course of the 2016 campaign. The existence of a whole special vocabulary for insights you wish you’d had the first time around — pentimento for the sketches beneath finished paintings, esprit de l’escalier for the devastating repartee you think of 10 minutes too late, the term rough draft itself — illustrates the tension between expressing things as quickly as possible, and expressing them as well as you would like.

But when it came to Donald Trump, Eliot Cohen said in his later post, the normal pattern didn’t apply. In reckoning with the man, his capacities, and his effects, early impressions held up later.

What Cohen thought at the beginning of Trump’s term, he believed all the more strongly a year further on: “I think now as I did then that Trump will not grow into his job, ‘because the problem is one of temperament and character,’” he wrote, quoting himself from one year earlier. “There is nothing great about the America that Trump thinks he is going to make; but in the end, it is the greatness of America that will stop him.”

The immediate news frenzy surrounding Trump this past week has made me, too, think back on evolving assessments of the man and his times. I’ll think of this as a “Looking Backward” installment, mainly because I’m always looking for ways to call attention to Edward Bellamy’s Gilded Age novel of that title. What we’ve learned about Donald Trump in his time in office is surprisingly little. What we are learning about our country is significant, for better and worse.

Of the man himself, even the latest dramatic news has been remarkably unrevealing, because so much was there in plain view by Election Day. Here I’ll follow Eliot Cohen’s lead and quote something I wrote just over a year ago, in July 2017, after returning to Washington, D.C., from six months away — away from the city, and deliberately away from national news — while writing a book:

The fact that Donald Trump wound up as president is a surprise in historical terms — and to me, since I asserted in mid-2015 that no one so inexperienced could be elected. Of course, I was wrong and stopped making any predictions about him after that. But nothing Trump has done as president should qualify as surprising. For any step he’s taken in these past six months — the tweets, the public feuds, the lurches back and forth in policy, the norm-breaking and information-gaffes — there’s a link back to some moment during the campaign. What the Atlantic said in its editorial urging a vote against him was based on what Trump had shown as a candidate but has borne out through his time in office:

“We believe in American democracy, in which individuals from various parties of different ideological stripes can advance their ideas and compete for the affection of voters. But Trump is not a man of ideas. He is a demagogue, a xenophobe, a sexist, a know-nothing, and a liar. He is spectacularly unfit for office, and voters — the statesmen and thinkers of the ballot box — should act in defense of American democracy and elect his opponent.”

I have given up being upset or surprised by Trump. It is like being upset at a toddler for throwing his food. He cannot help himself, or what he does. He is the man we knew him to be.

The ongoing surprises involve reactions to this flawed and impulsive figure. A year ago, I argued that there were reasons for optimism about parts of American’s institutional response to Trump — and also reasons for concern bordering on despair.

The optimism comes from the parts of America’s formal and informal check-and-balance structure that were not overturned staring in January 2017. I think this assessment by me, from six months into Trump’s tenure, stands up now — and is strengthened by the felony convictions of Trump’s 2016 campaign chair, Paul Manafort, and the guilty pleas to felony charges by his long-time personal lawyer, Michael Cohen.

More parts of the formal and informal U.S.A. constitutional system are still functioning more normally than might have been expected six months ago. Members of the judiciary are applying standards that predate this administration, and administration officials have complained but complied. A special counsel is building his staff and pursuing his work, with every indication that if Donald Trump were to fire him, some Republicans, along with all Democrats, would object and resist …

As for the non-governmental parts of civic structure, the press has — overall — worked harder and more successfully to pick its way through this new terrain than most people might have foreseen, or feared …

And the signs of engagement by Americans who, unlike reporters or civil servants aren’t paid to concern themselves with public affairs, are unmistakable: Demonstrations and protests around the country to resist the proposed health-care law or to protect immigrants and refugees. Mayors and governors vowing to pursue climate-policy goals, even if the national government does not. Organized movements and individual decisions attracting new candidates for the hard work of running for office, at levels from Congress down to state and city elections, and including larger numbers of women and veterans of our recent wars.

That’s the good news. Tentative. Fought out every day. Still potentially jeopardized by the next authoritarian spasm from the man in charge of the executive branch. Not enough to offset damage that has already been done, in realms ranging from environmental protection, to domestic race relations, to whatever other areas you might name.

Still: The struggle for the country’s values and future continues, as a struggle, rather than as a settled and tragic result. The complex institutional fabric of the country has proven more tenacious and resilient than many people might have guessed or feared.

A generation from now, the verdict on our era could be: IRRECOVERABLE TRAGEDY.

Is there a surprise, a disappointment, and a settled tragedy so far? There is. It is the same one I described last year, in the first summer of the Trump age:

The major weakness these six months have revealed in our governing system is almost too obvious to mention, but I’ll name it anyway. It is the refusal, so far, by any significant Republican figure in Congress to apply to Donald Trump the standards its members know the country depends on for long-term survival of its government. A system of checks and balances relies on each of its component branches resisting overreach by the others. The judiciary has done its part; Paul Ryan’s House and Mitch McConnell’s Senate have not. We’re seeing the difference that can make.

At that time, McConnell’s Republicans held 52 seats in the Senate. To constitute a 51-vote Senate majority, which in turn could have begun to put some limit on Trump by authorizing hearings or issuing subpoenas, three of them would have had to switch their votes.

That’s a relatively tall order, especially early in any president’s term. But with Doug Jones’s victory in the Senate race in Alabama, the Republican count has shrunk to 51. And with John McCain’s terminal illness, only 50 Republican senators are available to vote under normal circumstances, while the Democrats and independents together number 49.

This means that just one Republican senator joining the Democrats and independents would give them 50 votes, against only 49 Republicans, on days when McCain did not vote. And in any circumstances, a total of two Republican senators have it in their power to create a Senate majority and impose limits on an executive they know to be out of control.

Congress now confronts a president who has been named in a felony guilty plea as having directed criminal activities – It didn’t get this far or this crystal-clear with Richard Nixon.

Congress now confronts a president who is routinely discussed as a potential security risk by his own military and intelligence-agency officials.

Congress now confronts a president who ridicules their former Senate colleague for not bending fully to his will as attorney general.

Congress now confronts a president who is manifestly unable to contain his impulses and resentments, while holding a job whose most important qualification is temperamental control. Who …

… The list of “who”s could go on, and any one of those 51 senators could complete it. But not a one of them will take a stand against this man, with a vote. Some give speeches. Some write op-eds. Many are “concerned”. Talk is something, but talk is not a vote.

The first-term GOP Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska gave an illustration last night of the powers that these 51 senators might exercise, if only they dared move beyond talk.

But Thursday afternoon, on the Senate floor, Sasse said that he would “find it really difficult to envision any circumstance to confirm a successor to Jeff Sessions if he is fired because he is executing his job rather than choosing to act like a partisan hack.”

That is, he issued a warning shot to Trump not to fire Sessions, converted by the politics of these times into an improbable rule-of-law tribune, for fear of running into resistance in the Senate.

It wasn’t an actual vote, but it was at least a hypothesized threat of one. The moment was like a baby bird discovering its wings.

Imagine if Sasse thought to apply such powers on behalf of Robert Mueller, as opposed to just another Senate colleague.

Imagine if Sasse or any of his colleagues decided to use the potentially enormous powers of any single senator, let alone a group of them, to insist that a sitting president release his tax returns, or that his officials testify about mounting felony allegations.

In any circumstances, the Senate’s arcane procedures mean that lone senators, determined to make a stand, can hold up business or block nominees to get their way.

When the ruling party holds only 51 seats, the power of any one or two members goes up astronomically.

With great power comes great responsibility — a responsibility that in the current crisis the governing party has chosen to shirk.

Let’s hope that, when looking backward, this final sentence is one I have occasion to revise.

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  • Clyde Duncan  On August 26, 2018 at 12:25 am

  • Clyde Duncan  On August 26, 2018 at 4:24 am

    Why Trump Supporters Believe He Is Not Corrupt

    What the president’s supporters fear most isn’t the corruption of American law, but the corruption of America’s traditional identity.

    Peter Beinart | The Atlantic

    On Wednesday morning, the lead story on FoxNews.com was not Michael Cohen’s admission that Donald Trump had instructed him to violate campaign-finance laws by paying hush money to two of Trump’s mistresses. It was the alleged murder of a white Iowa woman, Mollie Tibbetts, by an undocumented Latino immigrant, Cristhian Rivera.

    On their face, the two stories have little in common. Fox is simply covering the Iowa murder because it distracts attention from a revelation that makes Trump look bad. But dig deeper and the two stories are connected: They represent competing notions of what corruption is.

    Cohen’s admission highlights one of the enduring riddles of the Trump era.

    Trump’s supporters say they care about corruption. During the campaign, they cheered his vow to “drain the swamp” in Washington, D.C.

    When Morning Consult asked Americans in May 2016 to explain why they disliked Hillary Clinton, the second-most-common answer was that she was “corrupt”.

    Yet, Trump supporters appear largely unfazed by the mounting evidence that Trump is the least ethical president in modern American history.

    When asked last month whether they considered Trump corrupt, only 14 percent of Republicans said yes. Even Cohen’s allegation is unlikely to change that.

    The answer may lie in how Trump and his supporters define corruption. In a forthcoming book titled How Fascism Works, the Yale philosophy professor Jason Stanley makes an intriguing claim.

    Stanley suggests, “Corruption, to the fascist politician is really about the corruption of purity rather than of the law. Officially, the fascist politician’s denunciations of corruption sound like a denunciation of political corruption. But such talk is intended to evoke corruption in the sense of the usurpation of the traditional order.”

    Fox’s decision to focus on the Iowa murder rather than Cohen’s guilty plea illustrates Stanley’s point.

    In the eyes of many Fox viewers, I suspect, the network isn’t ignoring corruption so much as highlighting the kind that really matters. When Trump instructed Cohen to pay off women with whom he’d had affairs, he may have been violating the law. But he was upholding traditional gender and class hierarchies.

    Since time immemorial, powerful men have been cheating on their wives and using their power to evade the consequences.

    The Iowa murder, by contrast, signifies the inversion — the corruption — of that “traditional order”.

    Throughout American history, few notions have been as sacrosanct as the belief that white women must be protected from non-white men.

    By allegedly murdering Tibbetts, Rivera did not merely violate the law. He did something more subversive: He violated America’s traditional racial and sexual norms.

    Once you grasp that for Trump and many of his supporters, corruption means less the violation of law than the violation of established hierarchies, their behavior makes more sense.

    Since 2014, Trump has employed the phrase rule of law nine times in tweets. Seven of them refer to illegal immigration.

    Why were Trump’s supporters so convinced that Clinton was the more corrupt candidate even as reporters uncovered far more damning evidence about Trump’s foundation than they did about Clinton’s?

    Likely because Clinton’s candidacy threatened traditional gender roles. For many Americans, female ambition — especially in service of a feminist agenda — in and of itself represents a form of corruption.

    “When female politicians were described as power-seeking,” noted the Yale researchers Victoria Brescoll and Tyler Okimoto in a 2010 study, “participants experienced feelings of moral outrage (i.e., contempt, anger, and/or disgust).”

    Cohen’s admission makes it harder for Republicans to claim that Trump did not violate the law. But it doesn’t really matter. For many Republicans, Trump remains uncorrupt — indeed, anti-corrupt — because what they fear most isn’t the corruption of American law; it’s the corruption of America’s traditional identity.

    And in the struggle against that form of corruption — the kind embodied by Cristhian Rivera — Trump isn’t the problem. He’s the solution.

  • Clyde Duncan  On August 26, 2018 at 6:55 am

  • Clyde Duncan  On August 26, 2018 at 8:13 am

    How heartening to see a still robust USA constitution as the net closes on Trump

    Michael Goldfarb | The Guardian UK

    “Humankind cannot bear very much reality.” America today is proof of TS Eliot’s assertion.

    The USA is riven by competing media-created realities and led by a reality TV star. Result: The society seems to be coming apart.

    But on Tuesday a reality that is based in fact and evidence asserted itself – with the simultaneous, split-screen announcements of guilt of Donald Trump’s former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, in a Virginia courtroom; and his personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, in New York.

    This demonstrated that, for all the fear that the USA is on some irreversible glide-path to authoritarian autocracy, the reality is that enough of its legal institutions still function. An indication we are not there yet.

    There has been a sea change. Last August, anti-Trump forces – in other words, the majority of Americans – mistook wishful thinking for reality.

    It seemed the president was on the rocks. After the Charlottesville outrage, he wouldn’t condemn the white supremacists who caused murder and mayhem. The outcry was enormous. He had to fire Steve Bannon. He was openly feuding with his attorney general, Jeff Sessions. It seemed Trump couldn’t last another month.

    But he not only survived, he brought the Republican party completely under his thumb.

    This August is different. A white supremacist rally in Washington to mark the Charlottesville anniversary mustered only around two dozen participants. Sessions is still being attacked by Trump, but he is much more aggressively asserting his independence and that of the justice department.

    And despite persistent rumours that Trump will fire Robert Mueller from the investigation into links between Trump’s election campaign and Russia, the special counsel is still at work and the legal process is far from finished.

    Mueller is building his case in the classic fashion that Trump’s current consigliere, Rudy Giuliani, used in the 1980s when he made his reputation as a federal prosecutor in the Southern District of New York.

    That’s the same office that investigated Cohen – Mueller cleverly handed off that portion of the investigation – and got him to plead guilty to breaking campaign finance laws when paying hush money, at Trump’s request, to porn star Stormy Daniels and Playboy model Karen McDougal.

    Mueller is prosecuting the small fish and getting them to flip on those further along the Trump regime food chain by offering reduced jail time.

    The president understands what is going on. He was on the make in 1980s New York, vying for celebrity coverage in the city’s tabloids with Giuliani, as the latter took down, first, the mafia and then Wall Street insider-trading legend Ivan Boesky. Giuliani, also, cast his net wide and worked his way to the main man.

    Trump knows he’s in trouble. That’s why he went on Fox News on Thursday, bleating: “I have seen it many times. I have had many friends involved in this stuff. It’s called flipping and it almost ought to be illegal.”

    But it isn’t. From the founding of America, checks have been put in place on presidential power. The legislative branch of government – the Congress – is set up in the constitution to be the equal of the executive, for example.

    This doesn’t always work: today’s legislative branch, with Republican majorities in both houses seemingly in thrall to Trump, has ceded its authority.

    But, over the centuries, other checks have been created, such as the statutes establishing independent special prosecutors such as Robert Mueller.

    There is also the power of the individual, patriotic citizen. The Watergate scandal might not have reached its conclusion if Judge John Sirica, a conservative Republican, hadn’t forced the handover of the tapes that provided the evidence to convict all the president’s men and force Richard Nixon’s resignation.

    In the unfolding story of the Trump presidency, deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein is playing that role.

    After his boss, Sessions, recused himself, he appointed Mueller and gave him a brief to investigate Russian interference in the 2016 election “and any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation”.

    Sessions, who worked on Trump’s campaign, twice met the Russian ambassador while this was going on.

    The events of the past week make it easier to see the new reality facing Trump.

    Mueller, via Manafort, is moving inexorably towards the meeting between representatives of Trump’s campaign and the Russians at Trump Tower on 9 June 2016. Manafort was there. So were the president’s son Donald Jr and son-in-law, Jared Kushner.

    Don Jr has already been caught in a lie about the meeting. Trump himself has tweeted acknowledgement that the meeting was about finding dirt to use on Hillary Clinton.

    So far, Mueller has not interviewed the young Don. But how long can that last?

    And, since his brief empowers him to look at “any matters”, how long will it be before he focuses on the president’s finances and how many connections to Russia they reveal and whether his tax returns contain false statements.

    YOU CANNOT FAST-FORWARD REALITY and Mueller may well end up getting fired before he uncovers all the facts.

    Nixon fired Archibald Cox, the special counsel investigating Watergate, in what became known as the Saturday Night Massacre. But, in the end, Nixon still had to resign and it seems clear, after last week, that the game is also up for Trump, not right away but in a future that is coming into focus more clearly.

    Not that Trump’s departure will make the USA whole. He is the end product of 40 years of social and civic disintegration. The Republicans are no longer a modern political party but a FACTION.

    James Madison, a primary author of the US constitution, defined faction in The Federalist Papers as, “a number of citizens, whether amounting to a minority or majority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, ADVERSE TO THE RIGHTS OF OTHER CITIZENS, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community”.

    The Republican majority in Congress and those in control of most state governments govern only on behalf of themselves, NOT the whole community.

    But there is a real event on 6 November 2018 that may shake them: THE MIDTERM ELECTIONS.

    The polls are beginning to indicate that the results will be a reality they will find absolutely too much to bear. And that’s when the countdown for Trump will begin.

  • Clyde Duncan  On August 27, 2018 at 5:22 am

    Trump ‘rejected White House tribute’ to John McCain

    David Charter | The Times UK

    President Trump blocked the publication of a White House statement paying tribute to John McCain’s military and political service, it was reported last night.

    Senior US Democrats and Republicans united in paying tribute to Mr McCain yesterday, with some drawing pointed contrasts with the divisive and scandal-prone Trump presidency.

    Mr McCain — who served six terms as senator for Arizona, survived five years of brutal captivity in Vietnam and ran against Barack Obama in the 2008 election — died on Saturday from brain cancer. He was 81. Warm tributes from around the world were paid to him.

    There was one notable exception: President Trump, who found Mr McCain a resolute adversary, limited his remarks to “deepest sympathies and respect” for his family.

    A warmer statement was drafted by the White House before his death and supported by aides including Sarah Huckabee, the press secretary, and John Kelly, the chief of staff, according to The Washington Post.

    It was said to highlight Mr McCain’s service and describe him as a hero. Mr Trump opted instead for a 21-word tweet which did not refer to him directly.

    The president’s agenda may benefit from the loss of one of his fiercest Republican critics:

    Mr McCain chaired the Senate armed services committee and was strongly committed to NATO and tough on Russia. That chairmanship is now likely to switch to a Trump loyalist.

    Mr Trump’s closest confidants and family were not so selfish, inconsiderate and vindictive.

    Mike Pence, the vice-president, honoured Mr McCain’s “lifetime of service to this nation in our military and in public life”.

    Ivanka Trump, Mr Trump’s daughter and an unpaid administration official, said that Mr McCain “served our nation with great distinction”, and Melania Trump, the first lady, gave thanks “for your service to the nation”.

    Theresa May said Mr McCain “embodied the idea of service over self” and President Macron of France saluted “a true American hero”. Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, called him “one of the great political figures of our time who fought tirelessly for a strong transatlantic alliance”. Justin Trudeau, the Canadian prime minister, said that he was an inspiration to millions.

    Hillary Clinton, the Democrat defeated by Mr Trump in 2016, was among those who highlighted Mr McCain’s “country first” bipartisan approach on matters of international and constitutional importance. “Our institutions are being severely tested right now, including his beloved Senate. He was, in every way he knew how, trying to sound the alarm,” Mrs Clinton said.

    Asked whether Mr Trump being president made the loss of Mr McCain more difficult, Jeff Flake, his Republican Arizona colleague, who has also been a critic of Mr Trump, said: “We certainly needed John McCain’s voice over the past year.”

    Mr McCain’s sharpest recent censure of Mr Trump came after the meeting with President Putin in Helsinki last month. “No president has ever abased himself more abjectly before a tyrant,” he stated after Mr Trump said he believed Mr Putin’s word above that of the US intelligence services pertaining to Russian interference in the 2016 election.

    Mr Trump had scorned Mr McCain in 2015 for his capture in North Vietnam in 1967. “He’s not a war hero. He’s a war hero because he was captured. I like people that weren’t captured,” Mr Trump said. Mr McCain had been repeatedly tortured after refusing the chance of early release because it would be used as propaganda against the USA.

    It was reported that Mr McCain had not wanted Mr Trump to attend his funeral.

    Mr McCain will lie in state in the US Capitol, an honour accorded to notable Americans, including presidents John F Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, and the civil rights champion Rosa Parks. His body will also lie in state in the Arizona Capitol, the state he represented for 35 years.

    His funeral is expected to take place in the Washington National Cathedral before he is laid to rest according to his wishes at the Naval Academy in nearby Annapolis, Maryland.

    George W Bush, who beat Mr McCain to the 2000 Republican presidential nomination, and Barack Obama are expected to speak at the funeral. Mr Pence is expected to represent the White House.

    Mr McCain’s successor as senator until elections in two years’ time will be chosen by Doug Ducey, Arizona’s Republican governor. Cindy McCain, 64, the senator’s widow, who has no experience of high political office but is a humanitarian campaigner, is among the contenders.

    Aide’s Comb Eulogy

    When Mark McKinnon joined John McCain’s team as a political aide he was given a bag with a comb and hairbrush. He wrote that Mr McCain turned to him and leant forwards.

    “Then it dawned on me: You could not comb your own hair. Because of your arms being repeatedly broken as a PoW, you could not raise them above your shoulders. Then you turned into the crowd. I turned away with tears in my eyes.”

  • Clyde Duncan  On September 1, 2018 at 1:28 pm

  • Ron Saywack  On September 1, 2018 at 2:40 pm

    This is the other fella J.M. handpicked to speak at his end:

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