As we watch to see if Donald Trump will be able to sustain his presidency (that is, when we’re not discussing who can defeat him in 2020), I’m not infrequently asked, “Is this like Watergate?”
We tend in our collective memory of Watergate to think of it in terms solely of Richard Nixon: the threat he posed and how he gained the unique (so far) standing of being the only president driven from office. We also think of the determined reporters who made their own contribution toward that end. But this sober, fearful version of events leaves out the absurdities of Watergate. It was often funny, which was just as well, or we might have gone mad with worry over whether the Constitution would hold—which is what Watergate, at bottom, was about. Events came in profusion, leaving us in confusion as to what mattered, what was the most worrisome, and what was rollickingly funny—such as the stumblebum “plumbers,” the Nixon White House’s otherwise menacing private goon squad who mucked up everything they did. (It actually took them four attempts to get into the Democratic Party offices in the Watergate building.) Then there was the awkwardness of Nixon, who stood on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, contending with a limp yo-yo.
Though Donald Trump’s travails have given us our moments of levity, they weren’t a match for the Watergate Follies—until this week. The elevation of porn star Stormy Daniels to being perhaps the pivotal figure in Trump’s possible downfall gave me hope that the evolution of the Russia scandal into the Russia-Sex scandal (they could turn out to be more interlinked than we guessed at first) would at last give us our deserved quotient of mirth while we agonize about the rampage of the federal government and the threats to our law enforcement provided by 45 (check his shirt cuffs—I believe that such an appropriation of a president’s chronological ranking is yet another first for Trump; we have to grant him that).
Stormy is my favorite figure in the whole panorama. She’s fearless, unlike almost all the elected politicians who are supposedly protecting our liberties and quality of life. Together with her breathtakingly canny attorney Michael Avenatti, they are deadly in their determination to call Trump, along with his dim-witted fixer-lawyer and house thug Michael Cohen, to account for hoodwinking the public about just what they were electing.
Whether it would have made a difference had voters known about the payoff to Stormy (as opposed to Trump’s lasciviousness, which was old hat by then) is beyond my powers to discern, and anyone who offers an answer is only guessing. Aside from her steely nerves, what I like most about Stormy is that she’s in on the joke, self-aware enough to delight in the concept of a president who indulges in so much fakery being brought down by an almost self-parodying porn star.
I would nominate Thursday, April 26, as the funniest, craziest, most bizarre day thus far in the era of the Impaired President. (You can look it up.) We can begin, appropriately, with Morning Joe, where we watched as the crafty Avenatti went from despair to elation as Trump, as he often does, blew himself up during a call-in to Fox & Friends, allowing his outrage at his parlous circumstances to get in the way of what wisdom he has. Avenatti’s despair was rooted in the remarkable decision on the part of Cohen, announced the night before, to take the Fifth Amendment, thus to avoid testifying on what role Trump had played in Cohen’s ostensible generosity in arranging to pay Stormy $130,000 eleven days before the election to keep quiet about her sexual liaison with Trump.
One of the under-appreciated comic aspects of this explosive story is that Stormy let it be known in her 60 Minutes interview that their supposedly torrid affair now riveting the nation was but a one-night stand. If Trump—excuse me, Cohen—was so perturbed about the possibility of that limited liaison becoming known, could it be that, in addition to the also-exposed affair with a Playboy bunny, these were Trump’s only extra-marital sexual wanderings (in contrast to his grabbing and otherwise imposing himself upon women not his wife)? That he wasn’t the rake that part of him wanted us to think he was? (Or he’d have been more careful.) It seems clear that what Trump was truly worried about at that late date (there’s no evidence that he thought that such a hush-up was necessary at any other time in his 15-year marriage) was the public finding out about Stormy. This raises the very diverting questions—which Michael Avenatti has titillated us about—of how many other women were shut up, and how?
But, as often happens, the president himself, roaring like a caged lion in his phone call to Fox & Friends, made Avenatti’s day by saying things that (a) undermined Cohen’s claim of lawyer-client privilege on the ample documents, tapes, etc. seized by the FBI, and (b) subverted his own dubious claim that he’d had nothing to do with the arrangements to pay off Stormy. Avenatti, by the way, who has been dead-on in his predictions of how the Stormy-Donald contretemps would unfold, says that the president won’t serve out his first term.
The Thursday morning newspapers intensified earlier speculation that a majority of the Supreme Court will likely rule in favor of the president on the latest version of the travel ban. No one can be sure until the Court issues its ruling toward the end of its term this summer. But if the speculation is correct, another preposterous development in the era of 45 will have occurred and Trump, aided by his White House lawyers, will have put one over on the supposedly independent judicial branch. If that’s the result, the five Republican members of the Court will have colluded (yes) with the president to create an optical illusion.
The decision would be an illusion because the ban started out as a campaign-based ban on Muslims entering the country. When that was found patently unconstitutional the administration chopped it back. Then, after additional adversity in the courts, they chopped it back some more to people from seven countries, six of which are predominantly Muslim, and—voila! See? It’s not a Muslim ban. And so the justices solemnly deliberated about this mini-mini-Muslim ban and might well decide that it isn’t one. But the resulting ban started out as a bad seed and it still is one. It wouldn’t exist but for Trump’s campaign pledge, which the Court for some reason decided it couldn’t consider. (Presidential tweets weren’t to be recognized, either.) Apparently the majority also accepted on its face the government’s argument that it isn’t a Muslim ban because Trump, who will say most anything, once said as much, undoubtedly on advice of counsel.
We barely had time to seriously consider the unusual diplomacy conducted by French President Emmanuel Macron, who during his three-day visit seemingly transformed our chauvinist president into a Gallic figure. The kissy-face, handholding duo put me in mind of the sad failure of British Prime Minister Theresa May’s earnest effort to make herself Trump’s best friend.
May’s idea in maneuvering to be Trump’s first visiting head of state was to sweep Trump off his feet—make him dependent on her and her government to fill his giant void of knowledge of international affairs. This scheme flew in the face of two realities: Trump isn’t a great listener, especially when it comes to international matters; and he’s not about to permit any hint to surface that he needs help. It was announced on Thursday that Trump will at last take his much-postponed trip to London on July 13. He’s expected to meet the Queen. (Presumably his foreign policy advisers will persuade him not to kiss her.) Angela Merkel arrives on Friday, which reminds one of her first trip, when, with cameras whirring in the Oval Office, Trump declined to shake her hand. It appears that the degree of hand-holding between Trump and his visiting foreign dignitaries is the new measurement of his relationship with them. The Queen, by the way, is long practiced in the efficient handshake.
Doctor Ronny Jackson’s withdrawal from the feckless nomination to lead Veteran Affairs, after a stint in the small White House medical office, made him the likely subject of future quiz show trivia, so short-lived was his blaze across the national scene. The episode was the second instance in which it became clear that Trump has a strong preference for doctors who will attest to his super-human physical condition. A puzzlement was why, given the credible reports that Jackson had a weakness for the bottle and was careless about doling out opioids to White House aides, two previous presidents, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, had given him such high marks. The answer may have been provided by Senator Richard Blumenthal, Democrat of Connecticut, who succinctly and unintentionally explained the success of a large number of people in various fields by noting that the good doctor engaged in the practice of “kissing up and kicking down.”
Scott Pruitt, the champion chiseler in Trump’s ethically challenged cabinet, barreled ahead on Tuesday by proposing the most destructive rule yet: one that would undermine the scientific basis on which many EPA rules are based. And in the course of two congressional hearings on Thursday, Pruitt changed his story after having claimed that he’d had no prior knowledge of the gargantuan pay raises given recently, circumventing a White House veto, to two EPA officials who are longtime personal aides of his. (The money was to be taken from funds appropriated for the Clean Water Act—Flint, Michigan, and other cities with unsafe drinking water be damned.) In the Thursday hearings Pruitt shuffled responsibility for much of his scandalous behavior (including the installation of a $43,000 secure telephone booth right in his office) onto the career staff of the agency (a handy punching bag for political administrators). He said that the attacks on him were chiefly motivated by Democrats seeking to undermine the president (signal to Trump) and his agenda (signal to Koch brothers and other tycoons involved in mineral extraction). Like other calculatedly tough guys who surround Trump, Pruitt maintained stoutly, “I’m simply not going to let that happen.”
After a period of supposed tension over whether he would be confirmed by the Senate, Mike Pompeo’s nomination for secretary of State on Thursday squeaked out of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (Rand Paul collected some unknown promises from Trump in exchange for switching from opposed); won approval by the Senate, with some red-state Democrats up for reelection tossing their votes his way; and was sworn in before the day was over. Now Trump’s second secretary of State joins his third national security advisor as the most propinquitous foreign policy aides in recent memory; the prospect of these two hard-liners joining forces strikes terror in the minds of all those with a less combative view of the purpose of our armed force. Candles are being lit and prayers uttered for Defense Secretary James Mattis, who, like most military leaders, is far less gung-ho about the use of force.
Press reports say that a relatively small clutch of people showed up for the supposedly blow-out book party thrown in honor of the ambiguous James Comey on Tuesday night. This is interesting because Washington loves book parties; they’re a major component of social life here. Having alienated Democrats and Republicans, the public relations firm working for Comey’s publisher mainly relied on journalists to fill the room. (This one wasn’t invited.) But even if the party didn’t quite pan out, Comey and his publisher have done very nicely. Flatiron Books, which had landed Comey’s book, and laid on a packed book tour, announced on Tuesday that it had sold more than 600,000 books in its first week in publication. Comey just might need the money: Trump, who probably boosted Comey’s sales by calling him “an untruthful slime ball,” said on Fox & Friends that Comey should be prosecuted for leaking classified material, referring to Comey’s famous memos, which didn’t contain any classified information.
There were actually some bits of good news on Thursday—beyond the self-undermining by the president. Some Republican senators demonstrated that they had a bit of a spine when the Senate Judiciary Committee voted 14-7 to approve legislation to protect special counsel Robert Mueller from being fired; four Republicans supported it. Inevitably, every Democrat on the committee also voted for it. However far the legislation goes, this was a definite indicator, for what it’s worth, of declining fear of the president and his base on the part of members of elected Washington Republicans. It’s a long way, however, from here to finding the 67 senators who would vote to expel Trump from office if the House were to impeach him. How the president will react is, like so much of what he does, impossible to predict.