Terry H. Schwadron
Feb. 11, 2018
In pursuit of the agenda he has for the country and himself, President Trump’s White House manages to move with the grace of a bull in a china shop, leaving a wake of broken individual lives and not-very-clear policies about anything but the president’s own well-being and political protection.
I am fighting a measureable sense of futility that I sense is shared as I see a daily darkening around us. Curiously, the president speaks and acts when we don’t need him, as in defending men accused of abuse against women, and stays silent when we do, as in trying to calm fears of a tanking stock market.
Trump has been successful at one thing only: Making himself and his White House the center of American values and policy-making, whether for good or evil. Or even for making things feel more confused. He stands for little beyond America First, which he has defined as Me First, and a perch from which to issue insults to all who decline to bow their heads to his leadership.
Consider the breadth of things that all happened basically in the same 24 hours:
— The Olympics opened in South Korea, with the biggest cheers for a united North Korea-South Korea team joining the parade of nations, a sign of some true hopefulness. Vice President Mike Pence and wife were seated, along with the South Korean president and the Japanese Prime Minister in front of the visiting North Koreans, including Kim Jong Un, sister of the North Korean leader. It was a perfect opportunity to say something pleasant, to disarm, to show we are all human, at least for the moment of recognizing one another, before we return to our fighting corners; instead, Pence ignored Kim, maintaining icy — and dangerous — distance, preserving White House purity, but showing himself to be a haughty autocrat there to rebut the North Korean charm offensive. Meanwhile, the unified team drew cheers and supportive remarks from the Olympics officials as a sign of peace-seeking, however fleeting. The moments of the opening ceremony must have been excruciating. The question is why Pence was sent altogether; the president said he was sending Pence to fight any notion of using the Olympics to show off good North Korean charms. Seeing it, I was left wondering whether we will face down a North Korea that South Korea will end up wanting to embrace. We are not safer because of the White House choices in this incident.
— The president rejected the request to publish a Democratic rebuttal to the Devin Nunes (R-CA) memo that cherry-picked committee information about missteps by the FBI in seeking FISA warrants for surveillance of Trump associate Carter Page. The cited reason was the need to eliminate some of the classified references in the Democratic version; Trump said the response was “very political” and that the lawmakers knew information in it would need to be “heavily redacted.” Of course, Democrats already had vetted the memo with FBI and Justice Department personnel before sending it to the White House, and House Intelligence Committee members voted unanimously to release it. So, the clear reading here was that this is another slap at foes who question the president in any way. As one Slate magazine writer said, “Trump’s ‘inability’ to release this particular classified information appears entirely dependent on the president’s own personal determination of what information he considers ‘properly classified and especially sensitive.’ Despite “grave concerns” about disclosures of classified information in the Nunes memo by the FBI, Trump quickly declassified its contents and used it to declare “total vindication” for himself in the all-things-Russia investigation. Again, I’m struck by the use of White House power to protect the president politically, and not to get to the bottom of Russian influence in the U.S. elections or to any missteps by the FBI. We are not better as a country, nor are our 2018 elections safer, when the president throws shade.
— Rachel Brand, the third in line at the Justice Department, called it quits, taking her out of potential cross-hairs of a possible “Saturday night massacre” scenario. Though she did not point at the president, Brand, a Republican who oversaw wide swaths of the Justice Department, including civil rights, she has been among those at Justice who have been at the sharp end of Trump insults as enemies seeking to undermine him. Her departure makes it easier for Trump to move against Justice; by firing her boss Rod J. Rosenstein, the president has a means of getting to Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller. But in firing Rosenstein, he would have faced Brand, another solid attorney who does not get up each morning to salute Donald Trump. It is another in a long series of personnel moves that are designed around the issue of personal loyalty to himself rather than to the cause of justice, in this case. We are not a fairer or more curious society as the result of this presidency.
— The threat of resignation by John F. Kelly Jr. as chief of staff over his poor handling of the Rob Porter scandal suggests that even loyalty cannot shield the president’s anti-woman message. Rather than talk directly to Kelly, however, the president has been talking with others about an eventual Kelly replacement. Communications director Hope Hicks, who has been dating Porter as well as writing the White House note defending him, has also been targeted, according to reports. Even in his summary dismissal of the Porter incident, the president took note that Porter has professed innocence in separate incidents of domestic violence against two ex-wives rather than reflecting on the pain that the women feel, and he doubled down yesterday, saying “lives are being shattered and destroyed by mere allegations.” The president has likewise defended Roy Moore Jr. in Alabama during that Senate race, citing his protestations of innocence. And, of course, he himself denies that he has committed acts of harassment, groping, or even consensual sex with porn star Stormy Daniels. Now, there is a second departure from the White House of a speechwriter who also says he is innocent of allegations from an ex-wire who said he had been violent and emotionally abusive. It seems apparent that women’s feelings or reputations don’t count in the Trump White House.
— Lastly, the disclosure that the president avoids reading written intelligence briefing materials to his preference for an oral presentation that necessarily hits selected highlights, seemed a perfect capper to the week. We have a clear picture of an over-weaning narcissist in the White House, acting on selected information that he chooses to take in, without full context, who leans on Fox and Friends discussions as if they were part of his classified briefings, who worries about his standing and personal comfort, making policies about the economy, the environment, education and immigration. I’m unnerved by the confirmation that this president operates by gut rather than information.
Outside, it is gray and raining. Inside, it is too.