In the annals of famous last words, none better fit this moment ― Tuesday night’s firing of FBI Director James Comey and Wednesday’s ensuing Comey-a-Lago ― than these, uttered Feb. 28 by Van Jones on the occasion of President Donald Trump’s ability to successfully get through a speech without soiling himself: “He became president of the United States in that moment, period.” That mantle was shucked within hours. Jones’ words on CNN would look good carved into a mausoleum.
It’s been said before: There is no better Trump. But whether there’s a worse one ... well, that’s an open question, but I’m guessing yes.
According to The Washington Post’s Robert Costa, Trump has been spending his most recent days encased in his own weird cable-news bubble, “increasingly isolated ... frustrated, avoiding major public appearances.” What’s more, Costa says, is that “Trump is grappling with the harsh reality of governing and media scrutiny, which he has told friends he hoped would suddenly abate.”
In other words, same news, different day. “I thought it would be easier,” Trump told Reuters in an interview, summing up what has to be the most daft thinking about being president that one could possibly imagine. This has been the question from the beginning, though: Why would a man like Trump volunteer to pursue this job? It’s a 24/7 buffet of scrutiny and taxing dilemmas. Howard Stern was apparently alone among his friends in that he was willing to tell him that becoming president was a huge mistake. And watching Trump govern has been like watching a teenager learn how to drive a stick shift ― except the teenager is prone to daily psychotic breaks and the car is the whole damn planet.
It’s pretty clear that when Trump contemplates what he must do to reverse his fortunes, he isn’t thinking about buckling down, taking responsibility, seeking out good advice and applying himself to a job that’s excruciatingly difficult. Rather, he’s still trying to reshape the office he holds into the one that he desperately wants ― one in which the pressures of governing diminish over time and the constant scrutiny devolves into a state of constant adulation until we’re all pledging allegiance to a freshly photocopied Electoral College map.
According to reports, Trump thought that firing Comey would be something that would instantly bridge a lot of gaps and bring him praise. He absurdly thought that Democrats would hail Comey’s firing. As Politico’s Josh Dawsey reports:
But the fallout seemed to take the White House by surprise. Trump made a round of calls around 5 p.m., asking for support from senators. White House officials believed it would be a “win-win” because Republicans and Democrats alike have problems with the FBI director, one person briefed on their deliberations said.
Instead, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer told him he was making a big mistake — and Trump seemed “taken aback,” according to a person familiar with the call.
This gambit, having failed, will lead to more schemes to win easy adulation, more hours spent fulminating about CNN’s coverage, more nights soothed to slumber by Fox’s Sean Hannity, more mornings greeted with a bellyful of fresh grievances and finally ― inevitably ― another attention-grabbing stunt. Because that’s Trump’s only move: The reality-show turn ― another pyrotechnic display designed to change the story and reassert control. It requires Trump only to have boundless depths to which to sink. These, he has. There is no rock bottom with this guy. The beatings will continue until morale improves.
Meanwhile, amid all the news titter that’s taken place since Comey’s surprise cashiering, a spotlight has shone on Republican legislators who have questioned the decision. There’s an obvious reason, of course: Republicans hold the Congress and, by extension, hold the ability to check executive power in their hands. Not that recent Congresses have distinguished themselves in the arena of checks and balances, mind you!
But, as The Washington Post’s David Weigel reports, the surfeit of attention showered upon those Republicans who have been willing to publicly express their concern over Comey’s firing has occluded what’s really happening: Republicans and conservative media are standing by their president fairly firmly. Per Weigel:
The spin started Tuesday night, when relatively few Republicans were available to speak on TV. The House is in a week-long recess, and the Senate had adjourned for the day by the time the Comey news broke. But the very first Republican statement on the decision, from Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.) — a Trump critic who favors a Russia investigation — said blandly that “given the recent controversies surrounding the director, I believe a fresh start will serve the FBI and the nation well.”
On Fox News Channel, all Tuesday evening, Democrats faced Socratic questioning about how they could have criticized Comey’s handling of the Hillary Clinton email matter and be genuinely outraged now. Rep. Tim Ryan’s appearance on “Tucker Carlson Tonight,” Fox News’s 8 p.m. show largely consisted of the host asking the Ohio Democrat if members of his party really were sad to see the end of Comey. Anyone watching the nation’s most popular cable news network was informed that the questions about Russia amounted to a “conspiracy theory,” and that the case for dumping Comey was bipartisan.
The GOP, let’s face it, is all in on a big gamble with a Trump presidency, and it’s still pretty sure that it will eventually pay off. Until Republicans claim their rewards, they have to march in lockstep with their party’s putative leader. There’s really no nice way to characterize their behavior, so I’ll just pass the mic to Fusion’s Hamilton Nolan:
Trump has treated the American people, broadly speaking, as shit-eating dumbasses, but his base of support there may not last; more specifically, he is treating Congress as shit-eating dumbasses, and even more specifically, he is treating Republicans in Congress as shit-eating dumbasses. He is acting in ways that are so obviously corrupt that they cannot be hidden, and then giving obviously false explanations for his behavior, on the assumption that the Republicans in Congress will back him up on anything as long as they can get some tax cuts out of it, and therefore he has no need to moderate his behavior. I hate the fact that I have been reduced to appealing to the morality and conscience of Republican congressmen, of all people, but: Come on. All of you are standing on stage in front of the entire world, shoveling shit into your mouths, putting down the spoon, and saying, “Yum, I love this sugar! Sure doesn’t taste like shit to me!”
All I can say is that the digestive fortitude of Republican lawmakers is like nothing I’ve ever seen before, and until the peristalsis stops, nothing will change.
Democrats face a statesmanship challenge as well. For a long time, they’ve tended to treat the matter under investigation ― Russian interference into the U.S. elections and possible Trump connections to that activity ― as a matter of fluctuating seriousness. When the wind is blowing one way, it’s a grave concern to the Republic. But on other days, it’s glib fodder for political ads. They are going to have to decide, quickly, if this is a matter that demands the gravest attention or if it’s going to be a slick marketing gimmick in upcoming elections. What’s easier, do you think? Generating new ideas that bring hope to needful Americans or pulling on the fright-wig and making another Trump-and-Putin-sitting-in-a-tree joke?
This will get worse. Everyone sees that, right?
Around about this time, we have to note the comparison of last night’s events to the infamous Saturday Night Massacre of 1973, when President Richard Nixon fired independent special prosecutor Archibald Cox. If anything, the comparison is a hopeful one: That moment, in retrospect, marked the beginning of the end for the Nixon administration. The stench of propping up corruption can be fatal, politically speaking.
But all the comparisons to Nixon’s “massacre” may just be a prelude to another round of “this time, Trump has finally gone too far.” We don’t live in a world where the corruption-removal machine self-activates, where civil society just automatically seeks a return to equilibrium. Trump has proved to be a survivor. Sometimes purges work.
“A whiff of fascism” is the way MSNBC’s Chris Matthews described Tuesday night’s events. He is risking the oversell ― I’d still term Trump’s regime as a kakistocracy, as opposed to a ruthlessly successful autocracy. But a downward trajectory has been laid-in. It will require a significant force to arrest it. The mettle of many people is about to be tested. If anyone out there is up to finding out what they’re made of, I’m rooting for you.
Jason Linkins edits “Eat The Press” for HuffPost and co-hosts the HuffPost Politics podcast “So, That Happened.” Subscribe here, and listen to the latest episode below.