Everything Trump Does Must Be Viewed Through This Single Lens

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Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Most weeks, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich speaks with contributor Alex Carp about the biggest stories in politics and culture. Today: Trump’s attacks on his attorney general, the Senate’s health-care vote, and new messaging from the Democrats.

New White House Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci pledged to “fire everybody” to stop leaks to the press and almost immediately threatened Reince Priebus, implicitly accusing him of a felony. Meanwhile, the rift between Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions suggests Sessions may be out before long. What does Trump hope to gain from the purges in the highest reaches of his administration?
At this juncture the priorities of Donald Trump have winnowed down to a single agenda item: saving himself and his family from legal culpability for their campaign interactions with the Russians and their efforts to cover up those transactions ever since. Almost everything this president does must be viewed through this single lens. If you do so, you’ll find his actions usually make sense.

This overriding motive explains both this week’s orchestrated staff turmoil in the White House and the simultaneous assaults on the civil rights of transgender American troops and all LBGTQ employees in the private workplace. The primary purpose of all of it is to distract from investigations into potential Trump-family criminality and to galvanize a base that Trump believes will protect him against the rule of law. If you have already forgotten Jared Kushner’s loophole-strewn profession of innocence from Monday, that’s the point.

It would seem particularly counterintuitive for Trump to go after the like-minded Sessions, who was not only the first sitting senator to endorse his campaign but whose Department of Justice has just filed the court papers seeking to cripple federal civil-rights law to roll back protections for employees based on sexual orientation. Sessions also shares Trump’s xenophobic opposition to immigration and his antediluvian approach to criminal justice. What’s more, Session’s political allies are Trump’s allies — from conservative Republican senators like Richard Shelby and Orrin Hatch to media cheerleaders like Breitbart and Tucker Carlson. But all of that is negated by Trump’s sole priority of derailing the Russian investigation. Trump assumed that Sessions would fix the investigation on his behalf, much as he expected corruptible local officials to fix his legal violations as a real-estate developer, and was appalled that Sessions’s recusal made that impossible. If Sessions survives, it will be only because Trump finds an easier way to achieve his No. 1 goal, the firing of Robert Mueller. That’s bound to happen no matter who stands in the way.

As for Scaramucci, he may profess to know and love Trump, but clearly he doesn’t understand him. If he did, he’d know that his days are already as numbered as Sean Spicer’s were. Trump is a diva who doesn’t like anyone else to share his spotlight, and Scaramucci is a drama queen who seems determined to pull focus from his boss at any opportunity. He just can’t help himself. Scaramucci wasn’t even supposed to start officially as White House director of communications until August 15 and already he is overexposed. His inevitable sadomasochistic humiliation at the hands of the man he “loves” will be nothing if not entertaining to watch.

Meanwhile, the departures and purges, this White House’s Nights of the Short Knives, will continue. The secretaries of Defense and State, Jim Mattis and Rex Tillerson, often considered the adults in the cabinet, are now castrated, serving as at best bystanders to major policy decisions. (Mattis, typically, was given only one day’s notice about the transgender troop ban.) The only Trump appointees whose jobs are safe are Ivanka and Jared. Trump is in the bunker now. The president no doubt feels that he could pull out a gun and shoot his attorney general on Fifth Avenue, and his base would still remain loyal. I have no doubt he’s correct: This is the same quarter of the populace that believes it makes sense to endanger themselves by replacing Obamacare with a wish and a prayer — the same crowd that believes transgender patriots serving their country in uniform, not Russians who hacked our election, are a clear and present danger to American security.

Following his dramatic return to the Senate after brain surgery in Arizona, John McCain delivered a fiery lecture about the “obligation to work collectively” and voted to move the Obamacare repeal process forward. Will the rest of the health-care debate be worth the trip?
If, as seems likely, the farcical GOP attempt to repeal and replace Obamacare ends in tragedy for millions of Americans deprived of health care, McCain’s trip to Washington will be a sad endnote to his career. With the notable exception of Donald Trump, most Americans deeply admire McCain’s courage as a prisoner of war and wish him a victory in his tough battle against cancer. Few can disagree with his speech this week chastising our bankrupt and inert Congress. But his actual vote in the Senate — to bail out Trump and Mitch McConnell in their desperate last-ditch bid to steamroll a cruel bill — directly contradicted his rhetorical sentiments that the Senate address health care through “regular order” in an open, bipartisan process instead of “behind closed doors.” McCain’s heroism in Vietnam exemplifies the maxim that actions speak louder than words. His vote this week in Washington belied his words, and were all too typical of his historic failure to stand up to Trump forcefully in the two years since he ridiculed McCain’s wartime service. That capitulation to the crazies on the right is not a recent aberration: It was, after all, his cynical choice to put Sarah Palin potentially within a heartbeat of the presidency almost a decade ago that prepared the ground for Trump.

Only 25 percent of Americans support the Republican health-care bill — whatever it is — according to a poll aggregation by the MIT political scientist Chris Warshaw. That 25 percent — i.e., the hard-core Trump base — includes many of the Americans most likely to be victimized by it. They will ignore the “fake news” telling them so and believe the president when he blames Obama and the Democrats for their medical indignities. But few others will buy Trump’s passing of that buck. The GOP has owned American health care from the moment Trump held that premature Rose Garden “Mission Accomplished” celebration of the passage of the House bill. The GOP will also own whatever comes next: the Senate’s “skinny repeal” or whatever bastard legislation may emerge from a compromise between House and Senate Republicans in conference. While it will be of little solace to those Americans who lose their insurance or find their premiums and deductibles skyrocketing, the price to be paid by Republicans on the ballot in 2018 will be commensurately catastrophic.

Earlier this week, Democratic leaders rolled out their “A Better Deal” agenda, an early effort to rebrand the party for 2018. What have they learned from the failures of last November?
Little, if anything. One of the biggest lessons that the Democrats should have learned from Trump’s victories over bland GOP opponents like Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio as well as Hillary Clinton is that his off-the-rails fulminations, however offensive or dishonest, have rendered typically anodyne political “messaging” (the word itself is offensive) obsolete. The boilerplate cobbled together by consultants, focus groups, and party committees sounds like the cautious pandering it is. One can only imagine the high-level discussion that went into the too-clever-by-half rubric “A Better Deal,” which is as much a surrender to Trump’s “Art of the Deal” jargon as a jab at it and which sounds like a dime-store New Deal besides.

Reading Chuck Schumer’s explanation of what this deal is in his Times op-ed, one can see the game immediately: The “Better Deal” Democrats aren’t going to offer an encyclopedia of planks as Hillary did (there are only three); they are not going to bring up gender or social issues or name-check minorities in the Democratic coalition (as Hillary did); and they are going to sound some populist notes (as Bernie Sanders and Trump did). But it’s populism lite: There’s nothing in this “Better Deal” to suggest that Democratic Establishment leaders like Schumer are going to abandon the corporate and Wall Street elites who have defined the party’s economic profile since Bill Clinton turned the Treasury Department over to Robert Rubin and Lawrence Summers — the cadre that most recently could be found paying Hillary Clinton those self-immolating speaking fees.

Nancy Pelosi was honest when she said “A Better Deal” was not intended as “a course correction” but “a presentation correction.” Yet even that isn’t entirely the case: Though Schumer describes the Democrats’ manifesto as offering “bold changes” and “a new vision for our party,” much of its overall tone and substance is same-old, overlapping with what Schumer proposed in the book he published before the 2008 campaign, Positively American: Winning Back the Middle-Class Majority One Family at a Time.

The recent Washington Post–ABC News poll finding that only 37 percent of Americans think that the Democratic Party “stands for something” — or, at best, “just stands against Trump” (52 percent) — rings true to me. The Democrats will inevitably rebound after Trump’s implosion as they did after Richard Nixon’s, but, as was the case in the short-lived Jimmy Carter interregnum of the 1970s, the party’s comeback will prove short-lived if there is not a blood transfusion of new leaders and genuinely “bold” ideas.

Everything Trump Does Must Be Viewed Through This Lens