the national interest

Laugh at Trump, Sure — But Also Watch What He’s Doing

Trump in the Rose Garden in May. Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

In the Trump era, the abnormalities stack up on each other in so many layers it becomes difficult to recall what normal looks like. From time to time, it is worth pausing to reorient yourself. One such moment occurred on May 20, near the one-hour mark of a rally President Trump held in Montoursville, Pennsylvania.

Before going further, bear in mind how unusual the mere existence of this rally is. The custom for presidents is to stop campaigning after the election and use their public remarks to address the country as a whole, before — should they decide to seek reelection — shifting back into campaign mode during their fourth year. Trump has never observed any such distinction. He has continued holding campaign rallies throughout his term, presenting himself as a champion of his supporters engaged in total, endless war with their enemies in the Deep State, the news media, and other hostile bastions.

“You joined our movement” — he said, making clear which subset of the country he was speaking to — “because you rejected the failures and betrayals of the past,” he told the crowd. “You reclaimed your destiny, you defended your dignity, and you took back your country.” The clanging, ethnonationalist oratory felt weirdly out of time and place. “Joined our movement”? “Reclaimed your destiny”? “Defended your dignity”? It sounded less like a speech by an American president than like lines uttered by one of the leaders of the Axis powers.

The president then began riffing on the investigation into his campaign’s connections with Russia, which he repeatedly referred to as “treason.” By “treason” he did not mean his encouraging a foreign power to intervene in an American election but rather the investigation into the crime, turning the normal definition of patriotism on its head. The crowd broke into the trademark chant “Lock them up,” which began in 2016 as a supposed endorsement of email-security-protocol enforcement and has morphed into a generalized demand to imprison Trump’s opponents. Trump’s critics have grown increasingly numb to this chant, even as its meaning has grown in menace.

Trump paused to let the chant build, clapping as the crowd continued. Then he gave them an answer: “We have a great new attorney general who is going to give it a very fair look, very fair look.” His tone was arch, almost like he was letting them in on a joke.

The joke, of course, is that, for Trump, fairness is a positional concept. To say somebody treats Trump “fairly” means they did what Trump wanted; to say “unfairly” means they did not. The president has openly demanded an attorney general who will follow a code of personal loyalty to him. William Barr has, at minimum, convinced Trump he subscribes to that code. Barr has echoed Trump’s rhetoric, defended his abusive behavior, and ordered intelligence agencies to cooperate with the latest counter-investigation. The president has reportedly confided to friends that he “finally” has “my attorney general.”

The saving grace, as is often the case, is Trump’s lack of discipline or understanding of how the government operates. On May 22, Trump seethed when Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi characterized his across-the-board stonewalling of congressional-oversight investigations as a cover-up. “I don’t do cover-ups,” insisted the president, whose name appears on signed checks to Michael Cohen, reportedly for Stormy Daniels’s hush money.

Trump told reporters that he is boycotting all infrastructure negotiations until Democrats cease investigating his misconduct: “I walked into the room and I told Senator Schumer, Speaker Pelosi, I want to do infrastructure, I want to do it more than you want to do it … But you know what? You can’t do it under these circumstances. So get these phony investigations over with.”

Aides reportedly tried to stop the president, but his rage won the day again. Trump seems to believe he is punishing Democrats by refusing to work with them. He genuinely may not grasp that signing popular bipartisan legislation is one of the few methods at his disposal of raising his moribund approval ratings. Nor does he seem to understand that his best defense against investigations — dismissing them as a distraction from the business of government — is undercut when he halts legislation.

The next day, Trump appeared on television to deny reports that he had ranted at Democrats before storming out of their meeting after three minutes. The lies, he added, had no doubt come from “Cryin’ Chuck” and “Crazy Nancy,” who by the way was “a mess,” which was stated in the apparent belief that berating his counterparts would dispel suggestions he had acted out of line. He referred to himself as an “extremely stable genius” and, for proof, asked a series of aides, in full view of the cameras, to offer their honest recollections. (“Let me ask you this, Mercedes, you’re always a straight talker … What was my attitude when I walked in?”) All the aides dutifully averred that, indeed, the president had comported himself calmly and with dignity.

The comic, reverse-show-trial spectacle seemed to fulfill Trump’s vision of due process in action. But while authoritarian fantasies play out in farce before the cameras, behind the scenes he is managing to grasp the levers of power.

Days before the Pennsylvania rally, the New York Times revealed that Trump is preparing pardons for several American war criminals. Trump has seized on the pardon as one of the most effective, and seemingly unlimited, tools at his disposal; he has used it on behalf of right-wing crooks like Scooter Libby, Joe Arpaio, and, most recently, Conrad Black, the author of a 2018 Trump hagiography. The pardon, in Trump’s hands, is a weapon for insulating himself and his allies from legal accountability.

Trump’s power to grant pardons, and complete lack of scruples about doing so, loomed large in the refusal of either Roger Stone or Paul Manafort to cooperate with the Mueller investigation. Since Stone and Manafort had the closest contacts with Russian cutouts during the campaign, Trump’s ability to secure their loyalty may well have played a decisive role in preventing Mueller from proving the existence of a criminal conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia.

Trump has long advocated for war crimes as a foreign-policy tactic, part of the ruthless image he wishes to project in the world. He has told apocryphal stories about General Pershing dipping bullets in pig’s blood before slaughtering Muslim guerrillas and waxed indignant over the U.S.’s failure to seize Iraqi oil as spoils of war. Having already sent the military to the border to serve as campaign props, he has also reportedly told the Customs and Border Patrol chief that he would pardon him if he were charged for blocking asylum seekers at the border.

In combination with Barr’s latest counter-investigation, Trump has succeeded in reshaping the legal incentives under which law enforcement operates. The message is clear: If you investigate Trump or his allies, you will yourself be hounded and scrutinized for evidence of any wrongdoing. (Peter Strzok and Lisa Page, two romantically linked FBI agents involved in the Russia probe, who shared what they thought were private text messages criticizing Trump during the campaign, have been openly mocked by the president and will be the subjects of a forthcoming theater production catering to Trump fans.) And if you carry out Trump’s agenda or goals, you will be rewarded with legal immunity for any crimes, however cruel or brutal.

Just as Trump has put his presidency at the disposal of his never-ending campaign, he is likewise demanding that the federal security apparatus put aside its ethos of civil-service neutrality and follow his whims. For all his buffoonish flailing, it’s hard to say he’s losing.

*This article appears in the May 27, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

Laugh at Trump, Sure — But Also Watch What He’s Doing