The Trump Presidency Falls Apart

After an extraordinary 10 days, the tenure of the chief executive may have deteriorated beyond his ability to repair it.

Yuri Gripas / Reuters

After an astonishing week of revelations, Donald Trump’s presidency appears to be on the verge of collapse.

Consider what has happened just in the last 10 days: a string of damaging stories about a president unprecedented since at least the Nixon administration.

On May 8, former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates appeared before Congress, offering testimony under oath that contradicted White House statements about Michael Flynn’s firing as national-security adviser, and which indicated Trump had waited 18 days after learning Flynn had lied to the vice president and might be subject to Russian blackmail before firing him.

On May 9, Trump abruptly fired FBI Director James Comey, who was overseeing an investigation into Russian interference in the election and possible Trump campaign collaboration on it. Trump cited a recommendation from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who criticized Comey’s handling of an investigation into Hillary Clinton as too harsh. But that rationale was nonsensical on its face, because Trump had argued Comey was too lenient.

On May 10, amid reports that Rosenstein was livid about being fingered as the motivation for Comey’s firing, the White House changed its account and said there were other factors. Meanwhile, a flood of press reports indicated that Trump had actually fired Comey because he was upset about the Russia probe, and angry that Comey had told Congress that Trump’s accusation of “wiretapping” against Barack Obama was bogus.

On May 11, The Economist published an interview with Trump in which he betrayed near illiteracy about key economic issues facing the White House and his own proposed policies on them. Later that day, the president gave an interview to NBC News’s Lester Holt in which he directly contradicted the vice president and White House spokeswoman, admitting that the Russia probe was a factor in Comey’s dismissal. Trump also said that Comey told him three times he was not under personal investigation, and had asked Trump to meet for dinner in an attempt to keep his job. Later that day, Comey associates told the press that the president had lied, that Trump had invited a reluctant Comey to the meal, and further that Trump had demanded (but not received) a pledge of personal loyalty from the FBI director.

On May 12, Trump appeared to threaten Comey, saying he “had better hope that there are no ‘tapes’” of their conversations. The administration then refused to confirm or deny the existence of recordings made in the White House, claiming (preposterously) that the president’s position was clear. Later that day, Trump released a letter from lawyers that was intended to prove he had no business dealings in Russia. But the letter was widely mocked for writing off more than $100 million in income as “a few exceptions,” and tax experts said the letter proved nothing.

The weekend was eerily quiet.

On May 15, Politico published a story about Trump’s news consumption that indicated his staffers were routinely passing him fake news stories, both to manipulate him and out of fear that giving him real news might upset him. Politico also said Trump was unable to tell real news from fake, falling for a photoshopped Time cover before his staff intervened to tell him it was forged. Later that day, The Washington Post broke the news that during a meeting with the Russian foreign minister and ambassador, Trump had shared highly sensitive classified information obtained from an ally who had not authorized its sharing.

On May 16, The New York Times and others reported that the source of the intelligence is Israel. Later in the day, the Times was the first to report on a memo that James Comey wrote after meeting with Trump on February 14 (the day after Flynn’s firing), in which Comey quotes Trump as asking him to drop the FBI investigation into Flynn and his ties to Russia. “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go,” Trump reportedly told Comey. “He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.”

It is difficult to assess the relative danger of each of these stories, because in any normal administration any of them could consume weeks if not months of attention as the press and politicians ferreted out each loose end. In this case, each seems to be supplanted by a new self-inflicted casualty within hours. Nonetheless, the Comey memo revealed Tuesday might be the biggest.

For one thing, it ties together several of the Trump scandals. It takes in the questionable ties to Russia, Trump’s alleged tampering with investigations into his own aides and administration, and even his obsession with leaks—before he was blurting sensitive intelligence to Russian officials, he was reportedly telling Comey that reporters who received leaks from his government ought to be jailed.

For another, it might offer the most solid proof of clear wrongdoing on the part of the administration. Time and again, Trump’s errors have been dismissed—even, incredibly, by his own aides and defenders—as the work of a man who simply has no idea what he’s doing. He doesn’t understand the gravity of Flynn’s duplicity. He didn’t think firing James Comey would be a big deal. He didn’t intend to make a liar of his vice president; it just slipped out! Even in the case of the classified information, National-Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, while refusing to state that what Trump shared was classified, said the president wouldn’t have known its status either way. These repeated lapses, taken together, create a case that Trump is simply not up to the job of the presidency.

Yet if Trump did in fact ask Comey to drop an investigation into Flynn, it crosses a line from simply bumbling into potential criminal action. As my colleague Matt Ford writes, the memo has fed into “a growing consensus among legal scholars that the president may have committed obstruction of justice, an impeachable offense.” Obstruction of justice was one of the charges in Bill Clinton’s 1998 impeachment, and if Richard Nixon had not resigned, it would have been a charge against him as well.

The Trump administration issued a weak, unsigned denial Tuesday night, saying that the memo did not accurately record what happened. (Wednesday morning, a “senior White House official” told NBC that Trump wasn’t really telling Comey to end the investigation, an excuse that directly contradicts Tuesday night’s spin.) That statement effectively dared Comey to prove the White House wrong. It also dared Congress to subpoena the memo and to ask Comey to testify, and members are already moving forward on both counts.

The prospect of impeachment remains far away, though the willingness to speak the word has gravitated from wild-eyed left-wing blogs to off-the-record conversations with lawmakers. Representative Justin Amash, a Michigan Republican, said that if the allegations in the Comey memo are true, they are grounds for impeachment. Senator John McCain, a Republican, said at a dinner Tuesday that the Trump revelations had reached “Watergate size and scale.”

Well-sourced White House reporters are filling column inches up with ever more dire and despairing quotes from administration staffers. “I feel like running down the hallway with a fire extinguisher,” one told The Daily Beast, while another said, “I don’t see how Trump isn’t completely fucked.”

The problem Trump faces is that investigations, once begun, tend to snowball—even if one asks the FBI director to kill them and then fires him. Consider the Clinton administration: While a special prosecutor appointed to investigate the 1978 real-estate deal known as Whitewater found no wrongdoing on that count, that investigation eventually led to Clinton’s impeachment in the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Already, each new Trump scoop seems to beget still more salacious news.

The president does not help his own case. While it is fashionable to compare Trump to Nixon—a comparison Trump recently seems to be courting, from his hobnobbing with Henry Kissinger to his “tapes” threat—Nixon was a far more careful, strategic operator. His lies took time, and secret tapes, to unspool. Trump, however, keeps confirming his critics’ suspicions to the entire world. When the White House insisted Trump had not fired Comey over the Russia probe, Trump said he had. When the White House rebutted the classified-info disclosure, Trump implicitly admitted it, tweeting that he had an “absolute right” to do so. Where Nixon insisted he was not a crook, Trump boasts of his crookedness 140 characters at a time.

Even a hypothetical impeachment is far away. After all, it took more than two years from the first Washington Post story on Watergate until Nixon’s resignation. But even without formal removal, it is difficult to see how the Trump presidency moves forward at the moment. The president’s first major legislative initiative, a repeal and replacement of Obamacare, collapsed ignominiously, an unprecedented loss for a new president. The White House has since tried to revive the bill, which narrowly passed the House and now awaits action in the Senate, though its prospects were unclear even before the fearsome fortnight of bad news. No one now believes an overhaul of taxes, the second priority, will happen any time soon. Congress also seems deeply reluctant to fund Trump’s top campaign promise, a wall on the border with Mexico. Meanwhile, Trump’s initiatives from the executive branch, particularly on immigration, have been repeatedly smacked down by federal courts.

For the time being, the pace in Washington will only get worse for Trump. Democrats are emboldened to throw sand in the gears. Republicans, who have stuck with Trump through a series of crises, are starting to break with him. Even if he is not in personal jeopardy, the president risks being a lame duck less than four months into his first term as president. Trump is in no position to save himself. He knows little about his work and shows little interest in learning it—Reuters reports that National Security Council staffers insert his name at periodic intervals into briefing papers to keep his attention—and his staff, an oddball mix of true believers, political rookies, and fourth-rate hangers on, does not have the chops to whip him into shape.

Trump has nearly run out of credible defenders. Because the White House has lied or drastically changed its story about so many things—from the inconsequential, like crowds at the inauguration, to the crucial, like Comey’s firing—its staff and spokespeople carry next to no credibility. Even if they did, rumors that Trump will fire several of the principals pop up weekly. (He is reportedly furious even at his son-in-law Jared Kushner.)

McMaster, a decorated lieutenant general who was drafted as national-security adviser in the wake of Flynn’s firing, is the most respected Trump staffer, in part because of his perceived independence. But McMaster’s attempts to spin the classified-information fiasco, which were legalistic at best and misleading at worst, have undermined even him, my colleague Rosie Gray reports. (Even as he rubs the press the wrong way with his defenses of Trump, McMaster is reportedly grating on the president as well.) Vice President Pence has been a near non-entity in recent weeks, and his most notable moments have been when Flynn made a liar of him in January and then when Trump made a liar of him on the Comey affair last week.

It has become clear that Flynn should never have been hired as national-security adviser. He was known to be a bad manager, espouses conspiracy theories, and failed to declare overseas lobbying work as legally required. President Obama personally warned Trump not to appoint him to the post, and Flynn was eventually fired for lying. Trump’s continued fidelity to Flynn, to the point of endangering his presidency, is a great mystery.

All of this may be overstated. The avalanche of bad news has come so quickly that it is difficult to catch a breath and assess the seriousness of the stories, or where they are headed.

Moreover, we’ve seen this all before. On August 3, this magazine—and this writer—announced, “The Donald Trump campaign is unraveling.” It was true, and yet it didn’t matter. Despite the turbulence, and thanks to a well-timed letter to Congress from none other than James Comey, Trump managed to win the presidential election in November, losing the popular vote but easily winning the electoral vote. The campaign showed that Trump is incredibly resilient. He survived a succession of crises that would have ended the candidacy of any other presidential hopeful—especially the release of a tape in which he bragged about committing sexual assault.

In part, Trump benefits from a double standard. Because he is not a career politician and because his reputation for crassness was well-established before he ran, he received a pass for some of his actions. This is true even now. While Hillary Clinton’s careless handling of classified information was perhaps the decisive factor in her November loss, Donald Trump appears to have handled far more sensitive information far more carelessly, even if, as he says, he was within his legal rights to do so. Yet although his position is precarious he is not finished. It is much harder to remove an elected president than it is to defeat a candidate, for reasons both legal and cultural.

And yet it’s hard to see clear seas for Trump in the near future. Trump will soon depart for his first foreign trip as president. He has reportedly expressed “dread” about the tour and asked to have it shortened. It’s no wonder. Trump has repeatedly shown himself to be a pushover in face-to-face encounters with foreign leaders, and this series of meetings should be especially fraught.

He will first head to Saudi Arabia, where he will give a speech on Islam that is sure to court controversy, and where he might attend a meeting with the president of Sudan, an accused war criminal. From there he goes on to Israel. Although he has positioned himself as a great friend of the Jewish state, his administration was embroiled in a series of diplomatic controversies—over the location of the U.S. embassy, control of the Western Wall, and a speech at Masada—even before reports that Trump had leaked Israeli intelligence to Russia, realizing a long-held fear of Israeli spymasters.

Later in the trip, Trump will attend a summit of NATO leaders. Although it is typically a stronghold of American friends, Trump has lambasted the alliance and developed a chilly relationship with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

The bad domestic news will not rest while Trump is abroad. The investigation into Flynn, in particular, seems to be moving at a more rapid pace. A grand jury in Virginia has recently issued subpoenas for some Flynn records, and members of Congress have effectively accused him of breaking the law by failing to ask permission for or retroactively declare payments from the Russian and Turkish governments. Federal prosecutors have also sought records from Paul Manafort, who documents show lobbied for the Russian government before serving as Trump’s campaign chairman for a spell in summer 2016. Carter Page, another former Trump aide who is the subject of multiple investigations, is publicly dueling with law enforcement via lengthy letters that cite Maroon 5 lyrics. You couldn’t make it up—though given how bizarre the real news has been, why would you even try?

This drip-drip of legal developments hints at why Trump faces a different challenge in recovering from his present situation than he did from bouncing back on the campaign, or during his famously up-and-down business career. As a businessman, Trump could cut bait or declare bankruptcy and start over again. As a candidate, he could simply change the subject, or wait for Hillary Clinton to hand him a gift. As president, however, there is no bankruptcy and no way to walk away. Legal investigations are slow and methodical, but they are also harder to distract than voter attention. If anyone can survive the present crisis, it must be Trump. But he seems increasingly frustrated and hard-pressed for ideas that don’t make his situation worse.