That’s how the work week ended at the White House.
President Donald Trump was “volcanic,” White House insiders said, about an unsigned, sharply critical New York Times op-ed, purportedly written by a “senior member” of President Trump’s own administration.
The op-ed left Vice President Mike Pence and other top aides sounding like Trumpian replays of Shaggy’s “It Wasn’t Me.” The essay describes a “resistance” force of high-ranking aides busily trying to constrain, steer, manipulate, coddle or simply ignore the directives of a president who seems at times to be quite unhinged and barely in control of his own White House.
Similarly unsettling scenarios are detailed by Bob Woodward of Pulitzer Prize-winning Watergate-reporting fame in “Fear,” his new book on the Trump administration. It details efforts to rein in Trump’s erratic impulses and sometimes defy, slow-walk or sidetrack his orders.
So what else is new, you might ask? Both the book and the op-ed are notable less for what they report than for who is reporting it.
Both reinforce, for example, the narrative of dangerously erratic, shortsighted and self-centered leadership described in various media accounts and earlier tell-all books by Michael Wolff and Omarosa Manigault Newman in recent months, but without the credibility questions they raised. Woodward, an associate editor at The Washington Post, is viewed as the gold standard of reporting the first polished drafts of presidential history.
Yet, it is particularly disturbing to read his account of how then-economic adviser Gary Cohn heads off a major diplomatic change — U.S. withdrawal from the North American Free Trade Agreement — by simply removing the documents from Trump’s Oval Office desk. Sure enough, according to the account, after Trump returns, his short attention span has already rendered it forgotten.
The president’s response to all this hasn’t done much to disabuse us of the notion that his unorthodox approach to politics feebly attempts to mask his utter incompetence.
“If the failing New York Times has an anonymous editorial — can you believe it? Anonymous,” he told a gathering of sheriffs in the White House East Room as television cameras rolled. “Meaning gutless — a gutless editorial. We're doing a great job,” he continued. “The poll numbers are through the roof. Our poll numbers are great, and guess what? Nobody is going to come close to beating me in 2020 because of what we've done.”
Say, what? His poll numbers were hardly “through the roof.” The RealClearPolitics average of major polls finished the week with his approval rating at 41.6 percent and his disapprovals at 54.1 percent. It is not a good idea to rebut charges that you tell untruths by telling more untruths. But, as even casual observers know by now, this president has a casually elastic relationship to facts.
Yet, Trump’s “gutless” charge doesn’t sound totally inappropriate, in my view. Why, I cannot help but wonder, does the writer continue to hide his or her identity if the plan is to carry on a secret alt-administration? Isn’t he or she giving away the game by writing about it?
In the quest for the leaker’s identity, speculation immediately turned to Vice President Pence, especially after the word “lodestar” showed up in the essay. That word, unusual for most of us, is a well-known favorite of Pence’s. If he or any similarly high-ranking member of Team Trump resigned and revealed what the op-ed discloses, it would effectively have historic impact while also distancing the leaker from Trump’s excesses without looking like he or she was trying to have things both ways. That would take real guts.
It also would put proper focus on a big question raised in the op-ed. “Given the instability many witnessed,” it says, “there were early whispers within the cabinet of invoking the 25th Amendment, which would start a complex process for removing the president.”
That option was put aside because “no one wanted to precipitate a constitutional crisis.” But, if the op-ed is true, we already have one.
Democratic Rep. Jamie Raskin of Maryland introduced a “25th Amendment bill” that has more than 50 co-sponsors, so far. It would establish a congressionally-appointed body the amendment calls for to determine presidential capacity.
Procedurally, we’re a long way from calling that body together. But, as Raskin says, it’s not too soon for us to be prepared for it.