A couple of weeks after the 2016 election, I argued that Donald Trump had become a president by accident. He hadn’t chosen his cabinet yet, and I was prepared to give him the benefit of at least some doubts. He was certainly smart enough to be president, I wrote, “but in one respect he is especially ill-equipped for the job’s most important requirement – that of narrator-in-chief.”
At best I was half right. The match-up was indeed an accident. The failure of either party to produce a suitable candidate in timely fashion permitted Trump to slip in. But once he gained the GOP nomination, Trump defeated Hillary Clinton on his own,.
Trump is a bully, a thug, a draft dodger, a tax cheat, a finagler. He is corrupt to his core. But one thing he’s not is stupid. His campaign positions – postures, really, like his television career – were sufficient to the win the states he needed. Any Democratic candidate who wants to be president is going to have to build on them – secure borders, more cautious with foreign wars, tougher on China, softer on Russia, more explicit concern for those left behind, and plenty of infrastructure spending.
I may have been mistaken, too, when a year later I wondered if Trump wouldn’t run again. It’s too soon to tell; it is still possible he’ll declare that he has done what he came to do and pull out. He could do that as late as the first quarter of next year. But today he seems more like a gambler who can’t quit while he’s ahead. “Jobless rate hits 50-year low!” Why not chance it again?
There’s been a lot of talk recently about impeachment – and the impossibility of gaining a conviction from the current Senate. (Never mind as-yet insufficient grounds.) House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is right. Impeachment is a red herring, at least for now. What is needed is something more than just beating him in an election. What’s required is repudiation, Something like this is what former Vice President Joe Biden has in mind when in his stump speech he refers repeatedly to Trump as an “aberration” And that’s just the beginning.
What would repudiation involve? It would be necessary to retake the Senate, for one thing. The traditionalist wing of the Republican Party would have to re-emerge, for another. A lengthy examination of the claims of Trump’s cheerleaders in the media would be required. And Trump himself would either have to be defeated at the polls in 2020, or impeached and convicted in the course of a second term. Something along these lines is what former Vice President Joe Biden has in mind when he refers in his stump speech to Trump an an “aberration.” And that is just the beginning of the path.
The alternative? Donald Trump joins Ronald Reagan in Valhalla, at least in the minds of his base, while America sinks deeper in discord.
A story in The New York Times the other day made clear how hard it will be for the Democratic Party to retake the Senate. Three strong potential candidates opted out last week: Stacey Abrams, in Georgia; Rep. Cindy Axne, in Iowa; and Rep. Joaquin Castro, in Texas. Four other potential candidates had previously decided not to contest competitive seats: John Hickenlooper, former governor of Colorado; Gov. Steve Bullock, of Montana; former Rep. Beto O’Rourke, of Texas; and Tom Vilsack, former governor of Iowa. Each had her or his reasons. Other candidates and other competitive races exist. But it may take a “wave” election before the Democratic Party controls the upper house again.
Then, too, the Democratic primaries have a great deal of sorting out to do. And primaries have a lot of sorting out to do before the often-fractious party nominates a candidate next year.
Meanwhile, there is much more reporting to be done, beginning with Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz’s much-anticipated report of the underpinnings of the FBI’s counterintelligence investigation in the summer of 2016 – the role of the so-called Steele Dossier in particular. But that is only the beginning. There is also the FBI’s ongoing investigation of the Clinton Foundation, as reported by The Wall Street Journal, apparently predicated on a book bankrolled by Trump campaign adviser Steve Bannon. Unattended so far, too, is the story of a threatened mutiny by dissident FBI agents that forced Director James Comey to briefly reopen the Hillary Clinton email investigation a week before the election, only to close it again. Comey ordered an internal probe before he was fired.
The Mueller Report is a blueprint for repudiation – scrupulous and dispassionate. House committees could follow its example, inquiring carefully into matters of stewardship of various departments of government by the Trump administration, instead of badgering the President for his tax returns.
And as for the narrator-in-chief of the Trump presidency? There’s a good chance that it will turn out to be former FBI Director Comey. His book, A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership (Flatiron Books, 2018), was blunt: “The president is unethical, and untethered to the truth or institutional values. His leadership is transactional, ego driven, and about personal loyalty.”
The other week Comey was at it again, in an op-ed piece in the Times, “How Trump Co-opts Leaders like Barr.” How was it that that Attorney General William Barr, “a bright and accomplished lawyer,” found himself “channeling the president in using phrases like “no collusion” and “FBI spying?” Why did the Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein feel it necessary to thank Trump for “the courtesy and humor you often display in our personal conversations” when the president had spent two years assailing the department that Rosenstein had helped lead?
“I have some idea from four months of working close to Mr. Trump and many more months of watching him shape others,” wrote Comey. “He’s the president and he rarely stops talking…. Speaking rapid-fire with no spot for others to jump into the conversation, Mr. Trump makes everyone a co-conspirator in his preferred set of facts, or delusions. I have felt it – this president building with his words a web of alternative reality and busily wrapping it around all of us in the room…. The web-building never stops.”
Comey, of course, spent the first part of his career prosecuting mob bosses in New York. He may yet have the satisfaction of leading a chorus of repudiation of the accidental president.
David Warsh, an economic historian and veteran economics, media and political columnist, is proprietor of economicprincipals.com, where this column first ran. He’s based in Somerville.