WASHINGTON – This is indeed “Crazytown,” as a quote from Bob Woodward’s new book describes it, and we are watching a “nervous breakdown.” The problem is that it afflicts the country as a whole, and not just our narcissistic chief executive.
President Trump has drawn America with him into “the devil’s workshop,” as Woodward quotes former White House chief of staff Reince Priebus’ description of the presidential bedroom where Trump watches cable TV and composes his late-night and early-morning tweets. These missives spin the administration, the news media, the country and the world – like yo-yos on a string.
America as a nation is caught in the president’s destructive self-obsession, and this must stop. But how can this detoxification be accomplished constructively, in a way that protects the nation rather than making the damage worse? That’s the question at the end of another manic Washington week.
We are a democracy, blessed with many sound remedies to deal with the Trump problem. Members of Congress can refuse to pass bad legislation; they can exercise better oversight; courts can block illegal orders; voters can elect new legislators to replace spineless ones; and Congress can take the ultimate step of removing the president through impeachment.
Government officials can also protect the country by tempering improper or ill-considered directives. This gets trickier, because in a democracy, lawful orders by elected leaders must prevail. But since Trump’s inauguration, many Cabinet officials have ignored presidential tweets or impulsive comments and waited for formal orders, which never came. They weren’t disobeying the captain, just letting the momentum of the ship of state carry forward.
The fact that senior officials have checked what I’ve called Trump’s “iron whim” has hardly been a secret. I have asked top officials if they would obey what they saw as improper orders, and they’ve all said no. Several top officials told me how they let tweets pass until the real course of policy was clearer. They also agreed that presidential tweets can be damaging but said efforts to curb them had failed.
All these senior officials, I should note, have also stressed that Trump was elected president, and that legitimate, formal orders must be obeyed.
Another way that officials can deal with life in Crazytown is by leaking to the media. This serves as a check on bad governance, and sometimes it’s essential. But this is probably the least constructive way of expressing dissent. Anonymous leaks come from people who want to shape policy, or retaliate against enemies, or help friends – but don’t want to leave any fingerprints. They’re part of the process of accountability, but they also inflame public mistrust and partisan division.
And it must be said, leaks and the media frenzy they often generate seem to be serving Trump’s governing style of disruption. He wants to dominate every news cycle, and he doesn’t seem to care how. We in the news media play Trump’s game; we take the bait every time. And our standing with the portion of the public that doesn’t oppose Trump is in worrisome decline.
America’s Trump-induced national fever spiked this week thanks to two works of journalism that served essentially the same function: to underline what we know about Trump and add an exclamation point.
Woodward’s book “Fear” carefully gathered mostly anonymous accounts of Trump’s dysfunctional behavior. Many of Woodward’s anecdotes portray officials trying to ignore or subvert Trump’s government by temper-tantrum. This book, like all of Woodward’s White House reporting over 45 years, is a reliable guide to the mood and backstage discussion surrounding presidential decision-making.
The New York Times then published an op-ed piece by an anonymous “senior official” that savaged Trump’s “half-baked, ill-informed and occasionally reckless decisions” and posited that the country should be reassured that senior officials “are working diligently from within to frustrate parts of his agenda and his worst inclinations.” The op-ed reinforced what most close observers of the Trump presidency already suspected.
How can America deal with this toxic presidency wisely, in a way that avoids making the country as damaged and dysfunctional as the man in the Oval Office? The answer is that it’s on us, and I don’t mean journalists. Accountability begins with voters; from them, it passes to elected officials and judges who oversee the executive branch; and to executive officials themselves who swear oaths to the Constitution, not the president.
Trump called the leaker “gutless,” and sometimes they are. But the charge really applies to members of Congress, administration officials and, yes, even voters who see that something is disastrously wrong and do nothing to stop it – protecting party or personal interests rather than the nation.