Donald Trump came to the presidency a complete novice to government and often found his corrupt, authoritarian impulses frustrated by its bureaucracy. But he is slowly learning how to control the machine that has stymied him. This is the story of 2019, as Trump has replaced institutionalists attempting to curtail his grossest instincts with loyalists happy to indulge them. It is playing out across multiple dimensions. This is the through-line between several seemingly disconnected episodes from the last several days.
The pattern played out in its most absurd form via Trump’s manic insistence on justifying his inaccurate warning that Alabama “likely be hit (much) harder than anticipated” from Hurricane Dorian, at a time when the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration was forecasting the state faced no risk. At first, Trump attempted to justify his lie by brandishing a chart he crudely doctored.
More ominously, on Friday, the NOAA issued an official statement backing up Trump’s original false claim. And the Washington Post reported the agency had instructed its staff not to contradict Trump’s claims. “This is the first time I’ve felt pressure from above to not say what truly is the forecast,” an NOAA meteorologist told the Post. “It’s hard for me to wrap my head around. One of the things we train on is to dispel inaccurate rumors and ultimately that is what was occurring.”
The controversy might appear absurd and contentless. But Trump views the stakes as high, not without reason. Among his supporters, Trump has created a cultlike devotion to his competence and honesty, both of which are threatened by acknowledging his falsehood about the hurricane.
Also on Friday, the Wall Street Journal reported the Department of Justice is launching an antitrust investigation of automakers who had agreed with California to raise their emissions standards. Trump is driven by a desire to overturn an Obama-era rule increasing mileage standards out of an obsession with destroying his predecessor’s legacy and an automatic rejection of any policy to limit climate change. Trump took the agreement as a personal affront, raging publicly at the automakers for dealing with California and undercutting his leverage to loosen emissions standards.
The antitrust investigation is a preposterous abuse. The automakers are not conspiring to fix prices. They are negotiating pollution regulations with a state that is legally entitled to set its own air-pollution rules. But the threat of retribution has already dissuaded automakers from dealing with California. “One person with direct knowledge of negotiations said that Daimler AG’s Mercedes-Benz had indicated an interest in joining, but later abstained due to fears of political fallout,” reports the Journal. The New York Times notes that other auto firms steered clear of dealing with California because they “fear retribution from an unpredictable administration.”
It is not new for firms to tiptoe around a temperamental president. What’s novel is the Department of Justice being used as Trump’s legal muscle. The threat of a nasty tweet is now bolstered with the threat of massively expensive litigation.
Also on Friday, the Washington Post editorial page reported an explosive new development in Trump’s Ukraine scandal. The president has sent Rudy Giuliani to Ukraine to pressure its government to supply evidence of misconduct by Joe Biden – even though there isn’t any sign Biden has done anything wrong. Here is another field where, by conscripting foreign countries to rough up domestic political rivals, Trump has broken new ground.
But Trump is not relying solely on Giuliani’s efforts at persuasion. Trump has refused to allow Ukraine’s president a White House visit, and suspended $250 million in military aid, to pressure its government into complying. To be sure, weakening Ukraine’s military dovetails neatly with Trump’s pro-Russian stance. But the Post reports that Trump is using the aid, which enjoys bipartisan support, as an extortion device.
Finally, the New York Times supplied more details on the ongoing scandal of Trump profiting from his office. During the presidential campaign, Trump waved away concerns about the unprecedented conflicts of interest that would arise from him running a business at the same time he wields enormous power. Republicans in Congress have evinced no concern whatsoever about Trump’s corruption, refusing to take even modest steps like compelling the release of his tax returns.
Increasingly, Republicans are dispensing with the fig leaf and flaunting their complicity. Putting money in Trump’s pocket by booking his properties has become a symbol of partisan solidarity. It is a signal of support both to the president and to fellow Republicans or business clients that you are on the ins with the boss. “President Trump has really been on the side of the Evangelicals and we want to do everything we can to make him successful,” one Evangelical leader tells the Times. “And if that means having dinner or staying in his hotel, we are going to do so.” Aggressive lack of curiosity has given way to open boasting of the quid pro quo arrangement.
None of these stories by itself has the singular drama of a Teapot Dome or a Watergate. Indeed, the mere fact that there is so much corruption prevents any single episode from capturing the imagination of the media and the public. But it is the totality of dynamic that matters. A corrupt miasma has slowly enveloped Washington. For generations, both parties generally upheld an assumption that the government would abide rules and norms dividing its proper functioning from the president’s personal and political interests.
The norm of bureaucratic professionalism and fairness is a pillar of the political legitimacy and economic strength of the American system, the thing that separates countries like the U.S. from countries like Russia. The decay of that culture is difficult to quantify, but the signs are everywhere. Trump’s stench is slowly seeping into every corner of government.