Nearly every day of the past two weeks has brought a development that, by itself, would have been a major substantive and political event in other times. As a benchmark and reminder, a reckless move by a Democratic president after he had left office, and a glib off-hand comment by a Republican president while he was still serving, remain vivid, years after they happened, as axes of political, legal, and press consequences.
For the Democrats, the instance was the decision by Bill Clinton, then 16 years out of office and husband of the Democratic candidate, to walk across the tarmac at the Phoenix airport in June, 2016, and talk with Loretta Lynch, who was Barack Obama’s attorney general. From that encounter grew Republican complaints that Clinton was “interfering” with the Justice Department’s investigation of the Hillary Clinton email “scandal,” then Lynch’s recusal from the case, then its effective transfer to James Comey, the FBI director, and then—you know the rest.
For the Republicans, the moment came three days into the Hurricane Katrina disaster in New Orleans, in 2005. On a visit to the drowning city, George W. Bush told Michael Brown, then head of FEMA, “Brownie, you’re doing a heckuva job.”
Four years after the Lynch episode, anyone involved in politics remembers its role in making the phrase “But, her emails...” central to a presidential election. Fifteen years after Katrina, “Heckuva job” remains a part of the standard mocking vocabulary of public life.
But almost every 24-hour span in public life, circa 2020, brings comparable developments. They risk being lost to memory, because of the Iguazu Falls-scale torrent of shocking-but-not-surprising assaults on civic, logical, and governing norms.
Just as an unelaborated list, here are a few of the things that occurred over the days when the U.S. death toll from the pandemic was rising from nearly 70,000 to nearly 90,000. At least half-a-dozen of these would, in normal times, be front-page developments on their own.
Starting two weeks ago, we have:
- May 6: Trump and his administration essentially declared “Mission Accomplished” about the pandemic, and shifted from an emphasis on public-health effects to saying that the economy should be the real focus.
- May 7: Trump’s complaisant attorney general, William Barr, had his Justice Department drop charges against Trump’s first national-security adviser, Michael Flynn, who had already pleaded guilty to two counts of lying to federal agents.
- May 8: Unemployment claims increased by 20 million, and the unemployment rate reached the highest level since the 1930s.
- May 11: Trump told a Chinese American CBS News reporter that she should “Ask China” about why the pandemic has done so much damage. More here.
- May 12: Anthony Fauci (described one month ago here) offered downbeat testimony about the pandemic to a Senate committee, at odds with Trump’s own “We’ve done great!” statement the previous day.
- May 12: The Supreme Court, in a phone-based remote session, heard arguments on whether Donald Trump had absolute immunity from congressional scrutiny into his tax records from before he ran for office.
- May 13: Trump criticized Fauci, saying that his answer about a timetable for opening schools was “not acceptable.”
- May 14: Richard Burr, a senator from North Carolina who has been chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, resigned from that committee post (but not from the Senate) after the FBI seized his phone and other documents, in an investigation on whether had traded on inside information about the pandemic.
- May 14: Rick Bright, formerly a senior vaccine-development official and now a whistleblower, testified on why he had been pushed out of his job for insisting that scientific standards be applied to some of Donald Trump’s drug recommendations.
- May 15: Late on Friday night, the administration announced that it had fired the State Department inspector general who had been looking into possible financial irregularities involving Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state, and his wife. This was the latest in a long series of internal watchdogs whom Trump and his associates had removed.
- May 16: Trump tweeted out his support for people in New York who were badgering and harassing local reporters. “People can’t get enough of this,” Trump wrote. “Great people!”
- Also on the evening of May 16, Barack Obama delivered his video message to the graduating class of 2020. Obama was deliberate in not criticizing Trump directly—in contrast to his notorious ridicule of Trump at the White House Correspondents Dinner in 2011, which arguably humiliated Trump so comprehensively that it fueled his desire to run for office. But Obama’s implicit message could not have been clearer.
As a speechwriting note: Every time a leader addresses a community in time of trouble, the message needs to include these three elements, in order. First, empathy: I know this is hard, I know that you have suffered and are afraid. Second, confidence: We’ve been through tough times before, we will come out of this ahead. Third, a plan: Here are the next specific things we are going to do. You can look at any effective “time of trouble” speech, from Lincoln to FDR and onward, and see just this approach. Obama applied it in his brief address. Trump never does, since his messages always are: 1) I am doing such a great job, and 2) Everyone else is so unfair to me.
Not every one of these items would qualify as a standalone, discussion-focusing, campaign-shifting, reputation-changing event, in normal times. But most of them would.
On May 14, The Financial Times published a long, reported piece by its correspondent Edward Luce, about the character of the man leading the federal effort. Its closing words, quoting the lawyer (and Trump critic) George Conway, were:
Without exception, everyone I interviewed, including the most ardent Trump loyalists, made a similar point to Conway. Trump is deaf to advice, said one. He is his own worst enemy, said another. He only listens to family, said a third. He is mentally imbalanced, said a fourth. America, in other words, should brace itself for a turbulent six months ahead—with no assurance of a safe landing.
On May 17, Lachlan Cartwright, Asawin Suebaeng, and Lachlan Markay of the Daily Beast published another long, reported piece saying that Peter Thiel—Facebook board member, and co-founder of PayPal, who had given a nominating speech for Trump at the 2016 Republican convention in Cleveland—was souring on Trump. It included this quote, parallel to what Luce had reporterd:
“Everybody goes into the Trump relationship woodchipper,” said Trump’s former White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci, who worked on the Trump presidential transition team with Thiel and who had his own falling-out with the president. “You either come out on the other side with your dignity and your personal story intact or you’re reformed as Trump compost and you’re fertilizer under his shoe. You have to make a decision and it happens to everyone.”
These were the realities of two weeks in May, five-and-a-half months before the election.
And for the future of the republic, the most important reality may be the continued silence of the congressional Republicans. A few of them spoke up after the Friday-night firing of the State Department inspector general. Mitt Romney, notably, wrote that it was “ a threat to accountable democracy.” Susan Collins, as if immune to self-parody, tweeted out her concern. But as a group, they are silent. They know, and they choose not to speak.