The District of Columbia—and much of the rest of America—will grind to a halt on Thursday when fired FBI director James Comey takes the stand to testify before the U.S. Senate. Comey’s testimony—and, more importantly, the investigation being led by special counsel Robert Mueller—will cast a shadow over this presidency and its prospects for success. But for me, this past fortnight has been the most worrying of this presidency for what it says about the judgement and decision-making of the president himself. And America’s elected officials cannot wait for the investigation to run its course.
From the very beginning, moderate and conservative hopes for Donald Trump have centered around the idea that the president, an accomplished businessman, might not know a lot about how the levers of government work but would surround himself with a top-notch team to whom he would defer on matters of grave importance to the nation and its security. This is what I heard from folks back home in Tennessee who voted for the president, and in the weeks after his election, I was flooded with excited emails forwarded by my father telling me all kinds of apocryphal (and some true) tales about Trump aides—Jim Mattis in particular.
There were problems with this notion from the start, like the idea that the president was a successful businessman or that he would actually appoint the most qualified people for positions of power instead of, say, Ben Carson and Betsy DeVos.
Nonetheless, on national-security issues, the president did appoint a number of men and women that Washington began to refer to as “the adults in the room.” These adults included the president’s secretary of state, his secretary of defense, and the man who replaced Mike Flynn as the national-security adviser, H.R. McMaster.
But to paraphrase Politico’s Susan Glasser, the problem with the adults in the room is that they’re not actually in the room. On three separate issues over the past two weeks—the decision not to affirm Article 5 of the NATO charter, the decision to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accords, and the tweets that placed the United States on the side of the Saudis and Emiratis in their spat with Qatar—the president took actions either without first consulting his advisers, or which contradicted their advice.
Under our system of government, the president has every right to disregard the counsel of his advisers—as President Obama did, for example, when he elected not to strike chemical-weapons sites in Syria in 2013 before first consulting the Congress. But supporters of this particular president—who were assured his own callowness would be offset by the sage advice of others—have more right than most to feel misled.
Or do they?
As the longtime Trump-watcher Maggie Haberman noted, “What is amazing is capacity of people who watched the campaign to be surprised by what they are seeing. Trump is 70. Ppl [sic] don't change.”
Put another way, and as I have argued before, the principal challenge for this presidency was never going to be process or staffing—though both remain an issue. The principal challenge for this presidency is the temperament and character of the president himself, and no one who has watched Donald Trump over time—or even over the course of 2016—can claim to be shocked or disappointed by what they are seeing now.
Over the past two weeks alone, Donald Trump has turned his back on the most successful military alliance in history in the face of renewed Russian aggression, abdicated global leadership on climate to the Chinese, and served notice to the Gulf emirate out of which the United States and its coalition partners are running the air wars over Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan.
The only people who have benefitted from the president’s actions are America’s enemies.
Thus far, the Republican reactions to Trump’s actions have ranged from tepid support to silence to—at the harshest—an exasperated shake of the head from the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Many Republicans still view Trump as the flawed vessel through which they can carry out their domestic agenda.
Worse, some conservative writers and thinkers—the so-called anti-anti-Trumpers, many of them I know to be men and women of deep moral convictions—have elected not even to try defending the indefensible and to instead have decided to aim their criticisms at Trump’s critics or the media. This is how we end up spending three days discussing Kathy Griffin instead of, say, the appropriateness of obstruction of justice charges against the president. It’s a morally bankrupt way to approach this president, and it was never going to be a sustainable approach for the duration of Trump’s time in office.
But elected Republicans need to step up their game in criticizing this president, and do it where it matters most: on the cable news channels to which—like many old white men—he is perpetually glued. Republicans, for the sake of their country, need to stage a very public and televised intervention with the man to whom they have pinned their electoral and political hopes. The president may not listen to his national-security adviser or to the secretary of defense, but we know he listens to Fox & Friends. So Republicans need to start going on Fox and MSNBC’s Morning Joe and loudly speaking truth to power.
Surely they’re not too scared to do that?