From one angle, it’s been a comforting few weeks for those of us who fear and loathe the Trump presidency. Since early February, public support for the president and his party has declined significantly — erasing the polling gains that both had made at the start of this year. Meanwhile, Democrats have continued to over-perform in special elections, scoring their most impressive victory yet last week, when Conor Lamb bested a better-funded Republican opponent in a Pennsylvania district that had gone for Trump by 20 points. Signs suggest that the GOP’s House majority won’t survive the winter — and that our reality star–in-chief is unlikely to be brought back for a second season.
For progressives, the case for optimism about Trump’s tenure has always gone something like: If he doesn’t get us all killed, the demagogue might just rejuvenate the Democratic base, poison the GOP’s brand, trigger big “blue” wave elections in 2018 and 2020, and thus, ironically, leave U.S. politics in a better place than it had been in circa 2016.
Over the past month, each piece of this scenario has begun to seem a tad more likely — except, that is, for the “doesn’t get us all killed” bit.
Of course, Donald Trump is (almost certainly) not going to literally end all human life. But in recent weeks, many of the downside risks of his election — a mass-casualty war, irreparable diplomatic blunder, or constitutional crisis — have become more plausible than ever before. Assuming we avoid total catastrophe, America is poised to make a speedy recovery from its ill-advised experiment with kakistocracy. But there are (at least) four reasons why that assumption has never been less safe:
1) The “adults” in the West Wing have never had less influence over the president.
The most harrowing development in presidential politics over the past month (the one that exacerbates all of the others) is that Donald Trump finally lost his humility. That may sound absurd, like saying Trump “finally” lost his tail, or some other appendage that the president was clearly born without, or else separated from in early childhood.
But the reality is that, until recently, Trump approached his duties with a modicum of modesty. Awed by the awesome responsibilities of his new office, Trump spent much of last year deferring to the expertise of his advisers. He let the Republican Establishment dictate his legislative agenda and most of his Cabinet, and allowed the putative “adults” in the West Wing to overrule his instincts on the Iran deal, trade policy, and a variety of other matters. Of course, this forbearance was never strong enough to prevent the man from firing off incendiary tweets, praising white nationalists, canceling climate deals, or obstructing a little justice. But it was, nevertheless, sufficient to prevent Trump from translating his most belligerent rhetoric about foreign policy and the Mueller investigation into action.
Now, however, Trump has finally shaken off his first-year jitters — and is ready to appoint himself the “adult” in every room. As the New York Times reports:
A dozen people close to Mr. Trump or the White House, including current and former aides and longtime friends, described him as newly emboldened to say what he really feels and to ignore the cautions of those around him.
… [I]n his first year in the White House, according to his friends, he found himself feeling tentative and anxious, intimidated by the role of president, a fact that he never openly admitted but that they could sense, people close to the president said … They say Mr. Trump now feels he doesn’t need the expertise of Mr. Kelly, Mr. Cohn or Rex W. Tillerson, the former Exxon Mobil executive he made secretary of state. If he once suspected they were smarter or better equipped to lead the country and protect his presidency, he doesn’t believe that now.
The president’s new mind-set is readily apparent. Over the past two weeks, Trump has unilaterally announced steep tariffs on steel and aluminum imports to the United States; ousted the “globalist” director of his National Economic Council; agreed to an unprecedented face-to-face meeting with the leader of North Korea; fired his secretary of State over Twitter; orchestrated the (politically motivated) firing of deputy FBI director Andrew McCabe; and disparaged Robert Mueller’s investigation — by name — for the first time ever. In most, if not all, of these cases, the president either acted over the objections of senior advisers, or without bothering to consult them at all.
The election of an emotionally volatile reality star — with authoritarian instincts, an insatiable ego, a capacious ignorance of American civics and geopolitics, and an implacable aversion to reading multi-page documents — led many a commentator to seek solace in the thought that Trump wouldn’t really be in charge. Precisely because he was so ignorant of — and uninterested in — governance, the new president would delegate critical decisions to his team of decorated generals, veteran GOP operatives, and corporate titans. He would handle the tweets, speeches, and petty graft; they’d handle the policy.
Trump’s first 14 months produced plenty of evidence to support this hypothesis. But the past few weeks have fatally undermined it. The White House isn’t preparing for face-to-face talks with North Korea because James Mattis decided that was a good idea; or drafting $60 billion worth of tariffs against China because that’s what the GOP Establishment wanted. These things are happening solely because Trump decided to make them happen. That maniac on Twitter really is the president of the United States. And as more and more “adults” exit the West Wing — and it becomes more and more difficult to find normal, competent people willing to take their places — the chances of a return to last year’s “normalcy” grow ever more remote.
2) Trump’s path to a war with North Korea has never been easier to envision.
The fact that Donald Trump’s gut instincts are now governing the White House would be alarming in just about any context. But in the present one, it is especially so.
Two weeks ago, Trump accepted (on a whim) Kim Jong-un’s invitation for a face-to-face meeting. At first, criticism of this decision focused on the prospect that our prodigiously ignorant, easily flattered commander-in-chief would get suckered into a lopsided peace deal. But Victor Cha — Trump’s tentative pick for ambassador to South Korea, who (reportedly) lost that gig for his off-putting opposition to a preemptive strike on Pyongyang — highlighted a more ominous possibility in an op-ed for the New York Times:
Everyone should be aware that this dramatic act of diplomacy by these two unusual leaders, who love flair and drama, may also take us closer to war. Failed negotiations at the summit level leave all parties with no other recourse for diplomacy. In which case, as Mr. Trump has said, we really will have “run out of road” on North Korea.
The likelihood of this nightmare scenario increased significantly, last week, when Trump fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and (reportedly) began seriously considering making John Bolton his next national security adviser.
For his many, many faults, Tillerson was nevertheless one of the administration’s staunchest defenders of the Iran nuclear agreement — and among its most ardent opponents of a belligerent approach to North Korea. By contrast, his replacement — outgoing CIA director Mike Pompeo — was the only senior White House official who encouraged Trump to decertify the Iran deal, even as his colleagues in the intelligence agencies affirmed Tehran’s compliance with the agreement.
Trump’s summit with Kim is tentatively scheduled for May. That same month, the president will need to either reaffirm Iran’s compliance with the agreement — or else withdraw the United States from the deal. The president (reportedly) told Benjamin Netanyahu that he intends to pick door No.2. Pompeo’s promotion increases the probability that Trump will keep that pledge. And if the president does, in fact, reaffirm the emptiness of America’s promises to rogue regimes – right before sitting down across from Kim – then North Korea would have to be an irrational actor to take him up on any denuclearization deal.
It is true that, to this point, Defense Secretary James Mattis and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster have kept Trump from blowing up the Iran agreement. And the fact that nullifying that deal would compromise diplomatic efforts with North Korea surely won’t escape those officials.
But Mattis lost the internal fight over tariffs, and also, presumably, over Tillerson. Meanwhile, McMaster may be on his way out of the administration — and one of the top candidates to replace him is an Iran hawk who is publicly rooting for diplomacy with North Korea to fail.
“How do you know the North Koreans are lying? Because their lips are moving,” John Bolton explained to Fox News last week. The former U.N. ambassador went on to argue that Trump’s meeting with Kim Jong-un was a positive development — because, as Cha had warned, it could accelerate the breakdown of diplomacy and the onset of military action to combat the North Korean threat. (A recent Pentagon simulation projected that a nonnuclear war between the United States and North Korea would come with a daily death toll of 20,000 in South Korea.)
If recent rumors prove true, Bolton will be the highest-ranking national-security official in the White House come May.
3) Trump has never had a stronger incentive to undermine rule of law in the United States.
In recent weeks, the special counsel has subpoenaed documents from the Trump Organization, sought an interview with the president himself, secured the cooperation of various Trump campaign aides and associates, and scrutinized the business dealings of the president’s son-in-law.
Throughout his presidency, Trump has displayed an aversion to the concept of “rule of law.” He has argued repeatedly that he believes the Justice Department’s first responsibility is to protect him from legal harm. Now, he has more cause for indulging this authoritarian impulse than ever before.
And indulging it, he is. Late Friday night, Jeff Sessions fired Andrew McCabe — just 26 hours before the G-man was set to qualify for his pension. McCabe immediately alleged that he’d been fired for crass political reasons — Trump was trying to discredit him as part of a broader attempt to obstruct and delegitimize the special counsel’s investigation. Trump promptly confirmed this charge. In a tweet celebrating McCabe’s firing, the president did not refer to any findings from the inspector general’s report that had officially triggered the deputy FBI director’s ouster, opting instead to denounce McCabe for his ties to James Comey, and complicity in “the lies and corruption going on at the highest levels of the FBI!”
The president proceeded to publicly assail the Mueller probe, arguing that it was launched on the basis of a “Fake Dossier” (which is indisputably untrue) and that the investigative team leading it includes “Zero Republicans” (Robert Mueller is a Republican). Meanwhile, one of Trump’s lawyers called for the investigation to be shut down.
Ultimately, these attacks are less alarming for their immediate effects, than for the signal that they send to the rest of federal law enforcement. Andrew McCabe is going to be fine. He has a range of options for recovering his pension, and (surely) for selling his tell-all book. And, as of this writing, the Mueller probe is still alive and kicking — in no small part because shutting down the investigation would be enormously difficult and costly for the president. Beyond the complex series of personnel changes required to dispatch Mueller and his team, the high-profile nature of the investigation ensures that its untimely death would result in a blizzard of politically damaging leaks.
Still, as Vox’s Matt Yglesias writes:
Part of the normal scandal aversion of a normal administration is that middle managers in the federal bureaucracy who sincerely support the president will try not to create a scandal. So it’s not just that Obama would not personally reach down into an investigation and meddle for political purposes, but a passionate Obama fan who also happens to run an Environmental Protection Agency field office wouldn’t do it either. The top leadership sets a tone, and while the tone isn’t universally followed, it does exert a big influence on people’s practical behavior.
Trump, by contrast, has sent a clear signal in the opposite direction — he wants federal public servants, up to and including FBI special agents, to act like they are his personal employees.
That doesn’t mean they’ll all do it — most of them won’t. But some of them will. The actual political appointees at every agency know what’s expected of them, and to the extent that there are ambitious and career-minded Trump fans scattered throughout the government — which is surely the case at the federal police agencies, if not the regulatory ones — they know that excessive service of Trump’s personal interests will be rewarded rather than punished.
If Donald Trump really puts his mind to weaponizing federal agencies, he could inflict a tremendous amount of damage on our democracy. Thanks to the the War on Terror (and Barack Obama), Trump has inherited the legal authority to indefinitely detain anyone his administration deems a suspected terrorist or to assassinate Americans overseas without trial — and the technological wherewithal to spy on his political enemies, should he find or cultivate friendly renegades within the intelligence community. Separately, his administration’s responsibilities for administering the 2020 census and safeguarding the security of our elections provide significant opportunities for undermining democratic rule, should Trump and his allies become more adept at corrupting the federal bureaucracy.
To this point, the strongest protection against such nightmare scenarios has been Trump’s dearth of ambition. No one ever became a successful dictator by watching eight hours of cable news each day, and taking a golf vacation nearly every weekend. But the Mueller probe is forcing the president (and his advisers) to think deeply about how the “deep state” can be co-opted. And as Trump has grown more self-confident, he’s begun tackling that problem with more energy and creativity.
It remains difficult to believe that Trump has the wherewithal to outmaneuver senior civil servants throughout the Executive branch. But it’s a bit less difficult now than it was a few weeks ago; and it’s quite easy to imagine that the Democratic Party’s 2020 nominee will campaign while under some form of federal investigation.
4) It’s never been clearer that Congressional Republicans are unwilling to act as a check on Trump’s worst impulses.
Congressional Republicans have been abetting Trump’s corruption from the earliest days of his administration. But at various points in the president’s first year, GOP lawmakers signaled that there was an outer limit to their sycophancy. Last summer, as Trump publicly berated his attorney general for recusing himself from the FBI’s Russia investigation, Mitch McConnell kept the Senate formally in session through its August vacation to prevent the president from unilaterally replacing Jeff Sessions through a recess appointment. That same month, North Carolina Republican Thom Tillis spearheaded a Senate bill designed to immunize Mueller’s probe against a White House attack.
At the time, some pundits took these moves as a sign that Republicans would turn more forcefully against the president once they’d secured their tax cuts and/or, once his atrocious approval ratings began weighing on the party’s 2018 prospects.
But the very opposite happened.
In recent weeks, as Democrats racked up improbable special-election victories, and the White House’s scandals continued to metastasize, Republicans grew even more craven in their fealty to the president. The House Intelligence Committee progressed from shielding the president from federal investigators to attacking those investigators on his behalf: In February, the committee’s Republicans released a memo, which purported to demonstrate that the FBI had used opposition research funded by Hillary Clinton to obtain a surveillance warrant of Trump aide Carter Page, one month before the 2016 election — without disclosing the political motivations behind said research to the relevant authorities. Republican lawmakers hyped these and related claims, with Senator Ron Johnson going so far as to announce that a “secret society” of anti-Trump Democrats was fomenting “corruption of the highest levels of the FBI.”
But Nunes’s memo did not actually demonstrate anything of that kind, while its most concrete allegations of FBI malfeasance were subsequently proven false. And yet, four GOP senators nevertheless asked the Justice Department last week to appoint a second special counsel to investigate the FBI’s investigation into Russia.
More remarkably, Republicans aren’t just abetting Trump’s attacks on the rule of law — they’re even acquiescing to his assaults on their donors’ economic interests: After Trump unveiled his steel tariffs earlier this month, Arizona senator Jeff Flake put together legislation nullifying the president’s authority to take such trade actions without congressional consent — and the Senate GOP leadership promptly disavowed the measure.
Some pundits retain hope that the congressional GOP has a breaking point — that, should Trump cross a certain line, Republicans would suddenly find it in their political interest to distance themselves from him. This may be the case. But there’s reason to think that the incentive for Republican lawmakers to stick by Trump is actually growing stronger as his administration becomes more scandal-ridden.
In an era of hyperpolarization, most midterm elections are won or lost on turnout. Which means that, the more energized the other side’s base becomes, the more critical it is for you to retain the enthusiasm of your core constituency. We first glimpsed the perverse incentives that this dynamic can create last spring, when some moderate Republicans in the House voted for a deeply unpopular health-care bill precisely because it generated such passionate opposition. As Politico reported, “As GOP leaders scrambled to bring the last holdouts aboard in recent days, they made the argument that the liberal base is already on fire … That means Republicans could ill afford to fall short on their health-care promise and risk depressing their own turnout.”
Republican strategists are now using this exact same argument to caution GOP lawmakers against distancing themselves from Trump. And, in this case, they’re almost certainly right.
Matters might be different had Republicans spent the past 14 months passing popular legislation and building a base of support independent from Trump’s. But they did no such thing. GOP voters have a far higher regard for the president than for Paul Ryan’s agenda. The number of Americans who passionately support slashing Medicaid and taxes on the rich but despise Donald Trump is minuscule. Thus, in the most if not all of their (heavily gerrymandered) House districts, GOP incumbents have more to lose from angering Trump voters than alienating anti-Trump independents — and this very well might remain the case, when and if the president shoots someone dead in the middle of Fifth Avenue.
This all illustrates the enormous stakes of November’s elections. A Democratic House would have the power to subject the Trump administration to vigorous oversight, and, thus, serve as the kind of check on Executive corruption that our constitutional framework intended for Congress to be. By contrast, the survival of the GOP’s majority could embolden Trump to indulge his most destructive and authoritarian instincts more wantonly. As of this writing, Democrats lead the 2018 generic ballot by 9.5 percent in FiveThirtyEight’s polls of polls; by some estimates, Team Blue will need to win the popular vote by at least 8 percent to overcome Republican gerrymandering and secure a House majority.
All of which is to say: For progressives, there’s rarely been more cause to hope for the best from this presidency; nor more reason to prepare for the worst.