“Nothing suffices to the disaster,” wrote the dour French philosopher Maurice Blanchot in his seminal late work The Writing of Disaster. “This means that just as it is foreign to the ruinous purity of destruction, so the idea of totality cannot delimit it. If all things were reached by it and destroyed—all gods and men returned to absence—and if nothing were substituted for everything, it would still be too much and too little.” Blanchot, of course, was talking about *bong rip* life, man, but if he were alive today he could just as easily be talking about the American Health Care Act—and President Donald Trump’s ninth week in office.
It was by far the most important week of his young presidency. It involved his first meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, a hearing for Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch, another hearing on Russia’s involvement in the 2016 election, and, most importantly, a vote on the American Health Care Act. On Monday, Axios Presented By United Fruit Company wrote that the Trump administration hoped to “put points on the board”: “Trump has a new runway for showing capacity to lead, govern and cut deals—a chance for the Art of the Donald to prevail over the self-inflicted din. Allies pray that past performance is not an indicator of future outcomes.”
But by every conceivable metric, Trump failed and failed miserably this week. The only possible exception was the Gorsuch hearing, the one thing beyond Trump’s control, but even there he ran into surprisingly determined Democratic resistance. Not only did Trump fail—most spectacularly with the failure of the American Health Care Act—but he also showed no capacity to lead. When the going got tough, Trump packed up his toys (in this case, a tractor trailer) and went home.
His very bad week started off on a fitting note—which is to say that it started out badly. He screwed up two of America’s most important alliances. The British were understandably pissed after Press Secretary Sean Spicer read a report by (practically) fake judge Andrew Napolitano that claimed that the Obama administration used British intelligence (GCHQ, which stands for “Her Majesty’s Lorry Innit”) to spy on Trump during the 2016 campaign. To smooth things over, Spicer and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson reportedly apologized to the British, but when news of the apology got out the Trump administration—perhaps fearing it would be accused of doing its own Obama-esque “Apology Tour”—acted like nothing of the sort had occurred, making things even worse.
And then, to definitely make things worse, Trump screwed up America’s relationship with Germany. To put it lightly, his relationship with German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been strained from the beginning. And while Trump did not pull a Vladimir Putin and try to scare Merkel with dogs, he behaved like a total dick during her visit. Here, for instance, is what happened when Merkel asked Trump if he would like to shake hands for a photo.
Trump then made a total ass of himself by making a joke about the fact that the Obama administration spied on Merkel. “As far as wiretapping...by this past administration, at least we have something in common,” Trump said. Merkel responded by executing a perfect double take, as if she had been trained by Mark Rylance at the Globe Theater.
Donald Trump, of course, is a coward. So he waited until Merkel was on her way back to Berlin to puff out his chest.
This is generally not how you end a GREAT meeting.
Trump spent the rest of the weekend trying to whip votes for his terrible health care bill, the American Health Care Act. After meeting with a group of conservative House members on Friday—nearly all of whom were either planning to vote “no” or were on the fence—Trump said “every single person in this room is now a ‘yes.’” When Trump returned to the White House from Mar-a-Lago, everything was bad and it was his fault it was bad. According to Gallup, Trump’s approval on his 60th day in office was 37 percent—lower than Barack Obama’s was at any point in his administration. He then decided to rant on Twitter, because that’s what he does.
Trump is so fucked, he can’t even come up with new material. These tweets are the equivalent of watching Blue Oyster Cult do “Don’t Fear the Reaper” in 2017. But Trump is boxed in and he doesn’t have anything to cling to, except bad arguments that were hardly original when he first made them—at this point, though, they’re greeted with eye rolls rather than gasps.
Monday was hearings day on the Hill. Neil Gorsuch’s testimony was straight out of the John Roberts playbook—he adorably blinked and smiled and refused to say anything at all about his judicial philosophy whatsoever. The House Intelligence Committee’s hearing on Russian involvement in the 2016 election was more eventful. FBI Director James Comey—running a close second to Trump in Washington’s “Most Hated Man in Washington” race—revealed very little about his investigation, but what he did say was damning. Comey affirmed that Trump and some of his associates were under investigation by the FBI for their contact with Russia during the campaign, and that Trump’s claim that he was wiretapped by Barack Obama was absolutely and unequivocally false.
It is hard to overstate how important this is. While House Intelligence Chair Devin Nunes indicated that he is willing to use the committee’s investigation to stonewall and obfuscate, the FBI’s investigation will dog the Trump administration for months. Not only will it result in the release of even more damaging leaks, it will eat up what little political capital this administration has. Trump tried to lie his way out of it:
Comey, asked about this tweet at the hearing, said it was false. Then, future first person to be fired from the Trump administration, Sean Spicer, tried to claim that Trump barely knew Paul Manafort and Michael Flynn. Spicer claimed that Manafort, who was Trump’s campaign manager for four months, had “only a very limited role on the campaign,” while Michael Flynn, who ultimately became the administration’s national security adviser, was a “volunteer.” Sixty days in and this is the best these guys can do.
On Tuesday, Trump went to the Hill to speak to Republican congressmen. By the time he was done, ten people had switched their votes! The problem for Trump, however, was that they had switched their votes to “no.” It is almost incomprehensible how bad Trump is at whipping votes, except it makes perfect sense when you realize that he is maximally vindictive while being minimally interested in the particulars of legislation—he’s like Lyndon Johnson, if the only part of Johnson’s political persona was “waves dick around at urinal to try to intimidate people.”
But his trip to the Hill underscored one of the most important themes of Trump’s first two months in office: The man who marketed himself as a master negotiator and marketer is neither. All bluster and artifice, Trump simply doesn’t have the stamina or intellect to get things done.
At the end of the day, a number of horrific “sweeteners” were added to the bill, basically gutting anything that resembles care from the bill. It looked as if maybe, just maybe, members of the House’s far-right Freedom Caucus could come around and give the bill its badly needed support.
But Wednesday was a shit sandwich for Trump—the bread was two stories about Russia that bookended the day and the shit was the health care bill. In the morning, the Associated Press reported that former Trump camapaign manager/’80s movie villain Paul Manafort was paid $10 million a year by a Russian billionaire to “advance the interests of Russian President Vladimir Putin.” So, uh, not good! If true, this also means that Manafort repeatedly lied about his relationship with Russia over the last year.
By midday, it became clear that the health care bill was flatlining. The Freedom Caucus, smelling blood and intent on passing a bill that provides zero health care to anyone while providing maximum profit and organ-harvesting powers to insurance companies, wanted more concessions from Trump. After signaling that maybe, just maybe, they would be interested in voting for the bill, they told Trump to “start over,” which is not what you want to hear a day before the vote on the most important piece of legislation of your first term in office.
Russia reared its head in the afternoon, when Nunes, whose purpose in life seems to be to make Jason Chaffetz look smart, went to the White House to tell Donald Trump that he maybe, just maybe, had information that proved that Barack Obama did, in fact, spy on him. The problem, however, is that he didn’t. He had some not at all newsworthy information that Trump communications may have been swept up in NSA surveillance. Worse, by going to the White House with this, he destroyed what little credibility he had left, making an independent investigation into the Trump campaign’s relationship with Russia all the more likely.
The day ended with a Russian bombshell: CNN reported that the FBI had information suggesting that the Trump campaign coordinated with Russian intelligence in the release of information damaging to Hillary Clinton’s campaign. The report was extremely vague—it was unclear, for instance, if the members of the Trump campaign in contact with these shadowy Russian agents were aware they were speaking with shadowy Russian agents—but it was damning nonetheless. Establishing collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia always seemed like a long shot, but this report suggested that at least a degree of collusion may very well be proven.
The day of the climactic vote, Thursday, began with what is undoubtedly the craziest interview ever given by a sitting president. In an interview about his use of lies and falsehoods, Trump lied a whopping 14 times (and it’s not a very long interview). The biggest lie? “I tend to be right,” Trump said. (That’s false.) “I’m an instinctual person.” (True.) “I happen to be a person that knows how life works.” (False again.) He also bragged that he was going to beat Richard Nixon for the most Time magazine covers, seemingly not realizing why Nixon was on all those covers.
On Thursday morning, it looked like the AHCA had a 50/50 chance of passing. But by midday, the White House was done negotiating. When the Freedom Caucus came calling for more concessions, they were rebuffed—the bill was finished, the White House said. This alone is notable. Major legislation often takes months to pass, much of it spent doing torturous line-by-line negotiations with interested parties. But Donald Trump—who, again, claims to be the greatest negotiator ever and who regularly attacked Hillary Clinton for her lack of “stamina”—basically decided he was going to give up after doing next to no work. The Trump administration was done. And that meant the bill was cooked too. On Thursday afternoon, Ryan announced that the bill would be delayed.
To add an absurd wrinkle to this, at the very moment it became clear that the bill would not get a vote, Trump was literally playing with a tractor trailer like a child.
Later, he appeared before cameras wearing an “I <3 Trucks” pin. Big Boy in Chief! As absurd as this is—and my god, is it absurd—this tells you everything you need to know about Trump’s leadership. In a just world, this would be his My Pet Goat moment—an instance where his numerous flaws as a person and a leader come together to reveal the tiny, 8-year-old child pulling the strings of a big bottomed 70-year-old man.
Every day of Trump’s administration is a little bit worse than the one before it—but Friday was a lot worse, indeed the worst yet. On Thursday, the Trump White House made it clear that they were done negotiating the bill: Republicans would have to take it or leave it, this was their one chance at ending Obamacare. Why? Well, it wasn’t entirely clear. There are two possible explanations. The first is simply that Trump has no patience for governing and that any bill that takes longer than three weeks to go from soup to nuts is not worth the effort from his perspective. He decided he wanted to repeal and replace Obamacare not because he had ideas about how to improve America’s health care system, but because it was something that had to be gotten out of the way to do the things he really cares about, like “making millionaires pay less taxes” and “infrastructure (which is also a way for millionaires to pay less taxes).”
The other possibility is that Trump is simply a poor negotiator and his only move is the bluff. He raised the stakes for this health care vote enormously at the last minute to dare Republicans to vote against the bill, even though he knew all along that he’d pull the bill if it wasn’t going to pass. Even Donald Trump didn’t seem to really believe that this could work. His tweets on Friday morning were remarkable shallow and halfhearted, even by his abysmal standards:
Furthermore, the White House’s argument that it was working in good faith was clearly bunk.
This bill emerged 18 days ago. The idea that Trump “gave his all” or “tried really hard” is transparent nonsense.
And so, about five minutes after the House was supposed to vote, Paul Ryan and Donald Trump pulled the bill. Ryan says he told Trump they should pull it, Trump says he told Ryan they should pull it—surely a sign of a strong working relationship. But it’s hard to think of a worse result for Republicans. They will try to spin this over the coming weeks, but this was the biggest legislative blunder since George W. Bush tried to privatize Social Security. And it failed not only because it was a lousy bill, but because the president and the speaker of the House couldn’t sell it to their own members.
The AHCA’s failure is Trump’s failure. It’s a crystallization of the chaos and incompetence that has defined his first term, and a fitting end to his ninth week as president.