the national circus

Trump Is Starting to Panic

Feeling the pressure. Photo: Al Drago/Bloomberg via 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 tantrums, the Times’ revelations about Facebook, and the First Lady’s campaign to get a West Wing staffer fired.

Since the Democrats made gains in last week’s election — and, in some places, may continue to make more still — Donald Trump has retreated into what the Los Angeles Times calls “a cocoon of bitterness and resentment,” canceling travel plans, lashing out at allies and adversaries, meddling in the remaining undecided races and, apparently, sitting for hours of meetings with his personal lawyers. Should we take his tantrums as an early indicator of additional bad news?

I will make the reckless prediction that “Donald Trump” and “good news” are not fated to appear in the same sentence unless the good news happens to be that his presidency is ending. Everything about his behavior since the midterms suggests that even he has figured this out. It has belatedly dawned on him that (a) he lost the election he thought he won; (b) the Robert Mueller investigation has moved faster than his efforts to thwart it; (c) any of his legislative fantasies, notably the funding of his border wall, are doomed; and (d) and his pouting in Paris elevated his international image as a buffoon to a whole new level of notoriety. Remember when Republicans attacked Barack Obama (falsely) for allegedly barring Winston Churchill’s bust from the White House? Now the GOP’s hero is a president whom Churchill’s own grandson, the Conservative member of Parliament Nicholas Soames, has labeled “pathetic,” “inadequate,” and “not fit to represent this great country” after Trump failed to show up at the French cemetery rites honoring the fallen of World War I.

That all this makes Trump panic at some gut level is visible not merely in his widely reported spells of rage and bitterness and in his increasingly empty official schedule. He is also stepping up his already impressive efforts to discredit and destroy those democratic institutions that might prevent him from escaping criminal jeopardy. And so he has returned to ridiculing the very lifeblood of America, the electoral process, by declaring elections that don’t go his way a fraud; he has escalated his assault on a free press by barring a CNN reporter and trying to frame him as a fellow misogynistic bully with a deceptively edited video; and, last but not least, he has appointed an acting attorney general, Matthew Whitaker, who has ridiculed the judicial system, been on the board of a fly-by-night company that practiced Trump University–style consumer frauds, and publicly attacked the Mueller probe in Trump’s own language.

This is bunker behavior. Only a desperate man would try to derail Mueller by installing this transparent reprobate at the Department of Justice. Even more revealing is how Trump has become more and more unhinged since making his Whitaker move. The growing fury, most manifest in his latest anti-Mueller tweetstorm this week, suggests that he already realizes that the ploy has backfired. It seems to be finally sinking in, perhaps under the frantic tutelage of his lawyers, that his fate and the fates of his son and son-in-law, among others in his immediate orbit, are tied to the fates of Roger Stone, Michael Cohen, Michael Flynn, Paul Manafort, and all the other president’s men whose comprehensive narrative Mueller is bound to tell America no matter what Trump and his stooge at Justice do to try to foil or decapitate him.

According to the New York Times, Facebook knew about Russian election interference earlier (and in more detail) than Mark Zuckerberg has let on, but rather than sound an alarm the company went as far as enlisting a Republican opposition-research firm to cast protesters as puppets of George Soros. The revelations come among growing calls to regulate the social-media giant — is this the end of Facebook as we know it?

Facebook has managed to infuriate both Democrats and Republicans in Washington. Employee morale is crumbling along with its stock price. The company is now likely to be reshaped by both market forces and government regulation. But that’s not what interests me most about this extraordinary piece of Times investigative reporting. Equally important is the story the paper tells of how powerful liberal Democrats, one at the pinnacle of Facebook (Sheryl Sandberg) and another at the pinnacle of the Senate (Chuck Schumer), shielded the company from critics to preserve its fat bottom line. And in the process proved to be useful idiots for the Russians. Had Sandberg and Schumer not protected Facebook, it would have been harder for Russians to manipulate the 2016 election with impunity on its platform, and the presidential candidate Sandberg and Schumer supported, Hillary Clinton, conceivably might have averted narrow defeat.

It was Sandberg, who served under the Treasury Secretary Larry Summers in Bill Clinton’s administration and was a strong Hillary supporter, who hired the Republican lobbyist Joel Kaplan, the key figure in covering up the extent of Russian meddling at Facebook for a full year. (Kaplan is most recently notorious for being caught on camera lending prominent support to Brett Kavanaugh as he denied Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony before the Senate Judiciary committee.) And it was Sandberg who looked the other way as other Republican operatives hired by Facebook targeted Soros, falsely portraying him as a prime mover in an anti-Facebook cabal. This Facebook-generated libel inexorably contributed to the proliferation of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories about Soros that would boil over in the final weeks of the 2018 campaign and arguably cost Democrats some votes in this year’s election as well. Sadly, it turns out that powerful Jewish executives like Sandberg and Mark Zuckerberg offer no more protection against dark anti-Semitic corporate tactics at Facebook than Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump do against anti-Semitic political tactics at the White House.

As for Schumer, his water-carrying for Facebook, as documented by the Times, is mortifying: He even tried to shut down a fellow Democratic senator, Mark Warner, who dared question the company. (It will surprise no one that Facebook’s employees contribute more to Schumer, the Democrats’ Senate leader, than any other member of Congress.) It’s a cruel irony, I guess, that prominent Clinton supporters like Sandberg and Schumer in the end contributed to Trump’s victory by allowing Russian interference to play out unchecked at Facebook for much of 2016. But it is not a fresh irony. As I wrote in my New York piece on Trump and Roy Cohn this spring, “From the mid-1970s to the turn of the century, well before Trump debuted on The Apprentice or flirted more than glancingly with politics, he gained power and consolidated it with the help of allies among the elites of New York’s often nominally Democratic and liberal Establishment — some of them literally the same allies who boosted Cohn.” Those powerful Democrats’ priority, I posited, “was raw personal power that could be leveraged for their own enrichment, privilege, and celebrity.” And so the story of Sandberg, Schumer, Facebook, and Trump’s 2016 victory, as told by the Times, is yet another chapter in that same sordid narrative.

After Melania Trump publicly called for the ouster of Mira Ricardel, John Bolton’s deputy, earlier this week, Ricardel is gone from the White House. Was Melania justified in taking her case public?

It’s really hard to know whom to root for in this rollicking tale. For starters, it is utterly preposterous that a First Lady would have her press secretary release a statement announcing that a high national security official “no longer deserves the honor of serving in this White House.” When Nancy Reagan put the shiv in Donald Regan, at least she had the good political sense to do so in the East Wing shadows rather than appear to wield power over a part of the government in which she has no official role or expertise. To quote David Rothkopf’s must-read tweet thread on this incident, Melania Trump is by contrast “just another member of the thug mob that has corrupted our White House.”

But this farce doesn’t end there. We’ve since learned that Melania Trump has never met the woman she banished. In the Washington Post’s account, Ricardel angered the First Lady with a bureaucratic gambit: She threatened to pull National Security Council policy advisers from the First Lady’s trip to Africa in retaliation for being denied a seat on her plane and having to travel on another flight instead. This much is clear: The last thing anyone involved in this episode was thinking about was Africa, the ostensible point of Trump’s trip.

The Post also reported that Ricardel is so widely despised that the White House couldn’t even find her a soft landing in the Commerce Department, presided over by Wilbur Ross, a world-class grifter even by the standards of a Trump Cabinet that now includes Whitaker. If there’s one bit of good news in this whole saga, it’s that John Bolton tried strenuously to save Ricardel’s job and failed. We can only hope that the First Lady will soon declare the malevolent Bolton unworthy of the “honor” of serving in her husband’s crime syndicate and send him back to Fox News.

Frank Rich: Trump Is Starting to Panic