Washington | This is what Americans voted for.
Donald Trump is merely keeping his end of the bargain and delivering the disruption he promised, in spades.
The mayhem, the discord and the chaos now on display across Washington is what the people ordered up.
And as jaw dropping as this week’s events are, this is what “punishing the elites” and “draining the swamp” looks like in practice — a body politic in full-scale anaphylaxis.
Trump call NYT op-ed ‘gutless’
The allergens’ inflammatory effects were apparent simultaneously across all three branches of America’s Trias Politica.
Most prominent was an executive paralysed by internal leaks, paranoia, and a president in the grip of “volcanic” anger yelling “TREASON” on twitter. Next, a legislature bitterly split over the most divisive Supreme Court nomination in 27 years. And finally, a judiciary at grave risk of being dragged into a decades-long loss of credibility because of a deeply politicised bench.
The irony is that the worst of the allergic reaction is now attacking the president who promised to unleash it.
Already under severe pressure from the growing legal woes engulfing many of his former close associates and the ever-looming threat of Robert Mueller’s circling Russia probe, Trump’s week was irretrievably blown off course as it began.
Fresh from the Labor Day long weekend that marks the end of summer and the traditional resumption of political hostilities, Tuesday [Wednesday AEST] saw the release of details of a devastating new book about the “nervous breakdown” of Trump’s presidency.
Following on from last year’s bestseller – Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury – this week’s political barnburner is Fear: Trump in the White House by Bob Woodward, of deep throat/Watergate fame.
Judiciously leaked passages – the book is not officially released until Tuesday – portray cabinet members openly contemptuous of the commander-in-chief. Top officials pinching documents off the president’s desk to stop him signing damaging orders, such as withdrawing from a South Korean trade pact.
One of the more colourful exchanges revealed so far describes a frustrated John Kelly – the president’s chief of staff – flying off the handle over an “unhinged” Trump.
Woodward has Kelly telling a staff meeting: “He’s an idiot. It’s pointless to try to convince him of anything. He’s gone off the rails. We’re in crazytown.
“I don’t even know why any of us are here. This is the worst job I’ve ever had.”
Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, already subject to rumours he will be replaced, is separately quoted lamenting to colleagues that the president has the understanding of a “fifth- or sixth-grader” on world affairs, and that Mattis has “slow walked” orders he considered reckless.
Trump’s allies fanned out the next day to discredit the book – no easy thing given Woodward’s fierce reputation in Washington for brutal but fair dissections of every president since Richard Nixon, the man he played a major role in bringing down.
While Kelly – and the long list of others quoted by Woodward have all denied saying such things – the cri de cœur emanating from the White House would soon be racheted up.
In a devastating blow to the president, The New York Times took the highly unusual – and credibility-threatening gamble – of publishing an anonymous opinion piece by a “senior administration official”.
The damning piece reportedly left the president apoplectic with rage, demanding the person’s arrest on national security charges, and unleashed a massive internal White House witch hunt.
“We are trying to do what’s right” even when Trump won’t, the person wrote. “I would know. I am one of them.”
“The root of the problem is the president’s amorality. Anyone who works with him knows he is not moored to any discernible first principles that guide his decision making,” the insider wrote.
The instability within the White House has become so bad that there have been “early whispers” within the cabinet of invoking the 25th Amendment, which allows for the vice-president to replace a president no longer capable of doing the job, the person wrote. It’s not clear whether that is a recent calculation. Or one dismissed early in the presidency.
Predictably the response from Trump supporters has been fierce- slamming the writer as a coward who should immediately reveal themselves and resign.
Pundits across Washington scrambled to deduce the author, and White House officials began analysing “language patterns” to reveal clues to their identity.
The phrase “The sleeper cells have awoken” circulated on text messages among allies and outside allies, according to The Washington Post on Thursday.
“It’s like the horror movies when everyone realises the call is coming from inside the house,” one former White House official told the newspaper.
Meanwhile, a conga-line of more than a dozen cabinet members went public to deny it was them, including, incredibly – given anyone would actually believe it was him – vice president Mike Pence.
The internally-driven, salami-slicing process almost guarantees the person will be outed in due course.
All of this unfolded as the Senate’s judiciary committee interrogated Trump’s Supreme court nominee Brett Kavanaugh – who Democrats fear will decisively and lastingly swing the court’s balance-of-power to the right.
For progressives, Kavanaugh threatens to reverse abortion rights, stymie health insurance to people with pre-existing conditions, and protect the president from any potential Russia-probe subpoenas.
To traditional GOP conservatives and evangelicals, Kavanaugh is the red meat reward for putting up with Trump and the devil’s bargain they signed when they supported his nomination.
Underscoring the president’s contentious pick, the proceedings were regularly interrupted by a long roster of screaming protesters, each dragged out by security as the nominee sat stony faced.
Few doubt Kavanaugh will be confirmed by the Senate when it votes most likely by early October, his nomination is inflaming both sides of the divide.
While an impeachment of Trump is still a very remote possibility – given it requires a two-thirds majority in the Senate – this week’s events will only deepen the Trump civil war.
It has exposed, some say, the weakness of Congress; the NYT writer clearly felt he or she had no alternative to taking their concerns public – albeit with no name attached. In a previous era, those concerns may have been quietly aired in a closed congressional committee.
There is also the question of what all of this is doing to Trump himself, and his state of mind.
Axios reported on Thursday that the president was seething about Woodward with the book fuelling his dark suspicions of the “deep state”. Since last year he has carried a handwritten list of people he suspected of leaking.
“He would basically be like, ‘we gotta get rid of them. The snakes are everywhere,’ said a source close to Trump, according to the news site.
This week’s events are likely to increase the isolation of a president with high rates of staff turnover and a daily routine that is largely confined to the White House, visits to his luxury golf resorts and carefully-managed rallies where he can bask in the adoration of his unflaggingly loyal base.
The Woodward book and the claims aired via the Times will stoke the animus of Trump and his supporters over the “deep state”; of a conspiracy of faceless technocrats seeking to thwart the will of the people.
Douglas Brinkley, presidential historian at Rice University in Atlanta, says there has been nothing like the Times opinion piece in American history.
Unlike diplomat George Kennan, who famously wrote in 1947 under the pseudonym “Mr X” to go above his superiors to warn Americans of soviet expansionism, today’s Anonymous is writing about the containment of a president.
“There seems to be a thin blue line of some patriots working within our federal government that are keeping an eye on Donald Trump’s deeply erratic behaviour,” says Brinkley.
“The fact that Donald Trump ignored it and then started screaming the word ‘treason’ and now wants the Times to cough up the writer – it smacks of Nixon.
“We’re living on Nixon times ten right now,” Brinkley told CNN.
What Trump does next is the key question.
One effect of the Times column and Woodward’s book will be to intensify support for the president across his base “which argues – correctly – that forces seeking to undermine him are ignoring the will of voters who elected him,” says Greg Valliere, a strategist at Horizon.
“And, his base correctly points out, the economy is roaring.”
Steve Schmidt, an outspoken former Republican strategist for George W. Bush and John McCain –who quit the party in June after almost 30 years – describes the upcoming November mid-term elections as the “most important this nation has ever had.”
“It’s a referendum on Trumpism.”