WASHINGTON – A storm is gathering.
The voices raising alarms about President Donald Trump’s temperament, steadiness and attitude toward the competing power centers of a democracy aren’t new; they date to his days as Candidate Trump. But the new authors of those arguments are making those concerns louder and more credible.
The consequences ahead – the speed and direction of the storm – aren’t set, at least not yet. But the stakes are pretty clear, and they could include Trump’s presidency.
Consider the past week.
Last Saturday, two former presidents, Democrat Barack Obama and Republican George W. Bush, spoke at Arizona Sen. John McCain’s memorial service with words that were hard to interpret as anything but castigation for the current occupant of the White House, though Trump’s name was never mentioned. The Washington establishment, past and present, listened in the pews of the National Cathedral.
McCain, who was perhaps Trump’s most persistent critic within the GOP, “could not abide bigots and swaggering despots,” Bush declared.
Then Obama spoke.
“So much of our politics, our public life, our public discourse, can seem small and mean and petty, trafficking in bombast and insult, in phony controversies and manufactured outrage,” he said. “It is politics that pretends to be brave, but in fact is born of fear.”
Tuesday, details from a explosive new book by journalist Bob Woodward, published in The Washington Post, described a “nervous breakdown” in the Trump administration as top aides maneuvered to prevent the president from making disastrous and impulsive missteps.
And Wednesday, there was jaw-dropping confirmation of Woodward’s point when an anonymous “senior administration official” wrote an op-ed in The New York Times, describing himself or herself as a member of the internal resistance. “Many of the senior officials in his own administration are working diligently from within to frustrate parts of his agenda and his worst inclinations,” the essay said.
Shortly after President Trump caught wind of an anonymous senior official criticizing his administration, the president fired back against the New York Times and other “phony media outlets.”
At least two potential constitutional crises could follow – from one side, over questions about the president’s fitness for office, and from the other, over the notion of what Woodward calls “an administrative coup d’etat.”
Unelected officials, however well-meaning, stand on perilous legal ground when they presume on their own to undermine the decisions of a duly elected president.
“TREASON?” Trump tweeted to his 54 million Twitter followers Wednesday evening.
This uproar doesn’t necessarily mean that congressional Republicans or others who have stayed in the president’s corner are about to speak out against him, or more seriously to consider articles of impeachment or the 25th Amendment, both ways to remove a president from power. Trump retains solid support among Republican voters – 89 percent of them in last week’s USA TODAY/Suffolk University Poll.
He was characteristically defiant Thursday morning. “The Deep State and the Left, and their vehicle, the Fake News Media, are going Crazy – & they don’t know what to do,” he wrote, then ticked off what he says are his greatest achievements: “The Economy is booming like never before, Jobs are at Historic Highs, soon TWO Supreme Court Justices & maybe Declassification to find Additional Corruption. Wow!”
The most piercing assault Trump faces isn’t ideological, however. It’s not over his deregulatory agenda at government agencies or over the conservative stance of his Supreme Court nominee, although Brett Kavanaugh is facing a pounding from Democrats in Senate Judiciary Committee hearings.
This debate is much more personal, centering on Trump’s judgment and character, and it is much more unusual.
Presidents have faced questions about their fitness for office before, including Bill Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky investigation and Richard Nixon during the Watergate scandal. The clarity of Ronald Reagan’s thinking was a concern for some during his final days in office.
But the spectacle of a president’s own top aides, in the Woodward book and in daily news stories, describing a toxic workplace and an erratic boss is stunning. So is the need Vice President Mike Pence apparently felt to deny he was the op-ed’s author. “The Vice President puts his name on his Op-Eds,” Pence communication director Jarrod Agen said. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, traveling in India, said, “It’s not mine.” Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats issued a similar denial.
The furor sets the stage for whenever special counsel Robert Mueller delivers his report on whether the president’s campaign colluded with Russian meddling in the 2016 election and whether the president tried to obstruct the investigation. It makes it harder for Trump to dismiss whatever Mueller concludes as fraudulent or unimportant.
It increases Mueller’s credibility. It erodes Trump’s. And it fuels the storm.
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