“On the heights of despair, the passion for the absurd is the only thing that can still throw a demonic light on chaos,” wrote the dour Romanian philosopher Emil Cioran in his first work about the heights of despair, 1934’s On The Heights of Despair. “When all the current reasons—moral, aesthetic, religious, social, and so on—no longer guide one’s life, how can one sustain life without succumbing to nothingness? Only by a connection with the absurd, by love of absolute uselessness, loving something which does not have substance but which simulates an illusion of life. I live because the mountains do not laugh and the worms do not sing.” Cioran, of course, was writing about the heights of despair. But this existential argument for persistence would no doubt comfort President Donald Trump, whose tenth week in office was defined largely by a profound sense of purposelessness.
Yes, the horrifying regulatory rollback that has defined much of his presidency continued apace. On Tuesday, Trump announced that he was rolling back the centerpiece of President Obama’s clean energy program, the Clean Power Plan. But there’s also no getting around the fact that Trump keeps losing, having already been defeated on big issues like health care and immigration. He has responded by retreating even further into his chosen cocoons—the White House and America’s golf courses—and lashing out on Twitter.
His tenth week in office felt like a hangover. You could imagine Trump asking himself over and over, “What the hell just happened and how do I make it stop?” His plan to swiftly repeal and replace Obamacare imploded; the Russia story continued to advance in ways that damage his presidency; and Trump himself seemed uncertain of what to do next. Tax reform? Infrastructure? Tax reform and infrastructure? Health care, again?
It all began with what was either the worst day of his presidency so far or the best, depending on where you stand politically. Last Friday, the American Health Care Act crashed and burned just minutes before it was scheduled to come up for a vote in the House, where it would have crashed and burned in a more public and embarrassing way. (This was covered in detail in last week’s round-up.) Speaker Paul Ryan responded like the JV basketball coach he truly is, attributing his highly humiliating failure—proof that he is neither The Wonk Foretold By The Prophet In The Fountainhead nor good at the basic job of writing and passing legislation—to “growing pains.”
Trump, meanwhile, blamed Democrats, despite the fact that a) Republicans control Congress; b) he and Ryan did not reach out to Democrats at all; and c) the bill was designed to pass with no Democratic votes. “I think the losers are Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, because now they own Obamacare, 100 percent own it,” a beleaguered Trump said on Friday. Trump then laid out his strategy for what to do next on health care: “I’ve been saying for a year and a half that the best thing we could do—politically speaking—is to let Obamacare explode, it is exploding right now, many states have big problems. Almost all states have big problems.”
But Obamacare is not imploding or exploding, which means that Trump and stock guru Tom Price will have to put policies in place to make private insurance markets implode or explode. This is bad for a number of reasons. The first is that it is immoral! It would turn sick people into political hostages. The second is that it will likely backfire: Voters tend to blame the party in power for their woes, not the party that literally has no control over anything. The third is that it will confirm that the White House is fueled by vindictiveness; White House adviser Steve Bannon is reportedly keeping an “enemies list,” further proof that this administration is The Count of Monte Cristo: The Made For TV Movie Featuring Scott Baio as The Count of Monte Cristo and Diamond and Silk as Those Two French Guys Who Ruin The Book.
Trump spend his weekend doing what he does every weekend: Working hard on behalf of the people who elected him! Fox News even sent out one of the strangest and least deserving “news alerts” of the social media era:
Yes, Trump stayed in D.C., but he spent Saturday and Sunday at Trump National Golf Course in Virginia. The administration insisted he was at the golf course for “meetings” and would not say whether or not the president was golfing, despite the fact that he was spotted in cleats and riding a golf cart. (I, too, spent the weekend working by watching March Madness and drinking beer.) But when Trump wasn’t golfing or eating (the only two things he seems to do well), he was tweeting. This tweet was a head-scratcher when he first sent it:
And at 9 P.M. Judge Jeanine Pirro, who presides over the 113th Circuit Gremlin Court, went to work:
Hoo boy! Trump loves Jeanine Pirro, an even less credible legal TV personality than Judge Reinhold in Arrested Development’s “Mock Trial With Judge Reinhold,” but this, coming as it did after Trump and Paul Ryan bent over backwards to convince everyone that actually they are best friends and spend their evenings making friendship bracelets for each other while discussing innovative ways to starve the elderly, was a hammer, delivered in what can only be described as “Palin English”: “Speaker Ryan, you come in with all your swagger and experience and you sell ’em a bill of goods, which ends up a complete and total failure, and you allow our president in his first 100 days to come out of the box like that, based on what?”
Trump’s people tried to spin it by saying that Trump was promoting Pirro’s interview with embattled adviser (and alleged Nazi) Sebastian Gorka, which also aired on Saturday. (It should be noted that this is also not a good look because of the whole “alleged Nazi” thing.) But this feels like a classic passive-aggressive Trump move. That Trump reportedly was “very apologetic” to Ryan later only makes this whole thing dumber and better.
On Sunday, it came out that Donald Trump reportedly handed German Chancellor Angela Merkel a bill for $300 billion for defense provided by the United States. Both governments deny it, but they would, wouldn’t they? And Trump laid into the Freedom Caucus, portending a week of intra-party fighting.
On Monday, Trump woke up to the news that his popularity had hit a new low, for both him personally and all other presidents: 37 percent, lower than Obama’s approval rating at any point in his eight years in office. It would continue to fall throughout the week. Monday morning was also about Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner; the previous day, The Washington Post reported that Kushner would be leading a “SWAT Team” meant to make the government more efficient. Kushner is going to wear a Kevlar vest and carry one of those giant shields around until the project is inevitably shuttered in eight months. On Monday morning, it was also reported that Kushner would be testifying before the Senate Intelligence Committee, which is investigating the Trump campaign’s curious ties to Moscow.
Then there was Devin Nunes, the rare example of a man so stupid that his idiocy wholly mitigates his evil. The previous week, you may recall, Nunes held a bizarre press conference at the White House in which he informed the president and the public that some Trump campaign and transition team members were incidentally surveilled by the National Security Agency. He divulged this information without notifying the House Intelligence Committee, which he chairs and which is also investigating the Trump campaign’s curious ties to Moscow. Nunes made it clear that this did not mean that Trump was “wiretapped” by former President Barack Obama, as Trump had claimed, but it did give him some political cover for his paranoid ravings.
Nunes’s story quickly fell apart. Over the weekend, it became clear that Nunes had obtained his information at the White House, which is a strange place to get it, considering that he is supposedly investigating the White House. On Monday, Nunes said that he went there because it had a special computer that was hooked up to a special network that had the special information, but that clearly wasn’t the whole truth—the Capitol has access to the special computer and the special network, as well.
On Tuesday morning, it came out that the White House was trying to prevent liberal folk hero Sally Yates from testifying before the House Intelligence Committee, citing executive privilege. It also came out that proverbial dull knife Devin Nunes had canceled Yates’s hearing almost immediately after it became clear that she was probably going to blast Michael Flynn, a guy who probably owns a lot of katanas. You will recall that Yates, when she was acting attorney general, was the one to inform the White House of Flynn’s duplicity, forcing his ouster as national security adviser.
On Thursday, Nunes’s dumb stunt fully fell apart after the New York Times reported that Nunes’s two leakers were not, as he claimed, intelligence officials, but people who worked for President Trump. That’s right: Nunes went to the White House to receive information that he would then use to brief the president the next day. This also made it abundantly clear that Nunes’s press conference was about nothing other than providing political cover for Trump.
On Friday, after weeks of rumors, Michael Flynn’s lawyer came out and said that his client was willing to talk—if he got immunity. Flynn seems to be trying out for the role of Oliver North in the upcoming Oliver North miniseries. And he’s very Oliver North-y! But the letter sent by Flynn’s lawyer also was clearly a veiled threat at the Trump administration—its first sentence teases that Flynn has “quite a story to tell.” The Flynn shoe was always going to drop and the letter was the sound of that shoe dropping—and also the sound of hundreds of tiny little shoes with parachutes falling out of that shoe, to drop at a later date and time. On Friday, it came out that the Senate wouldn’t give Flynn immunity, which suggests investigators have the goods anyway.
Health care reform also had a tough week. On Tuesday, the Trump White House made its official motto “What is Dead Can Never Die” by circulating reports that Vice President Mike Pence had been dispatched to the Capitol to reinvigorate health care negotiations. But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell poured cold water all over the party, telling the Associated Press that he had moved on—and when Mitch moves on, you know it’s over. The reinvigorated health care talks, of course, were not just about health care. They were largely about placating hard-right donors, many of whom were furious that Obamacare repeal had been tabled.
On Thursday, Trump made it official and declared war on the Freedom Caucus, pledging to do whatever he could to unseat them in the 2018 midterms. The problem, however, is that in the same tweet he also castigated Democrats, essentially guaranteeing that he will never have a majority that can pass legislation in the House of Representatives, let alone a repeal of Obamacare. BUT HE’S PLAYING 4D CHESS, you say. Uh huh.
Next, health care discussions in the House broke down before a meeting between moderates and Freedom Caucus-ers could even take place, which does not portend well for the future of health care, tax reform, infrastructure, or anything else.
Other stuff also happened this week. On Wednesday, Ivanka Trump finally made it official and took an unpaid White House internship as “assistant to the president,” where she will gain valuable job training and, should she wish, course credit. Republicans in the House of Representatives passed a truly odious internet privacy bill that would essentially allow your internet provider to turn your apartment into a cold and lonely (in my case, at least) version of The Truman Show. Secretary of Second-Rate Cormac McCarthy Characters Ryan Zinke revealed the fundamental flaw of the border wall (a lot of the border is water), and declared that there’s “no such thing as clean energy,” which is now the right’s version of “Why don’t they build THE WHOLE PLANE out of black boxes?!” And Donald Trump revealed that he had no idea who Susan B. Anthony was until earlier that day.
Trump’s tenth week was a return to terrible, rotting form after the excitement of the ninth week. It was, in many ways, more of the same. But more of the same for this administration mostly means “leaks about sketchy connections to Russia” and “rank incompetence.”