“On the throne of the world, any delusion can become fact.” ~ Gore Vidal, Julian
Who? What? Julian is an odd novel about the end of intellectual culture and its replacement by widespread religious violence and intolerance, long ago, about the emperor Julian and his rejection of Christianity in favor of Neoplatonic Hellenism – intellect, not faith. He lost that battle. It’s a sad story and Vidal published this in 1964 – the crude Lyndon Johnson was in the White House and the proudly extremist Goldwater folks had hijacked the Republican Party and the suave and thoughtful Jack Kennedy was quite dead by then. America would never have an intellectual culture again. And hardly anyone read the novel, which proved Vidal’s point.
But there’s nothing new there. Delusion always becomes fact. That’s what politics are about. And so it goes:
In President Trump’s early days in the White House, Kayleigh McEnany made a name for herself by defending him on CNN, a network where he has few allies. As a Trump campaign aide, she became a fixture at his political rallies. And on Tuesday, she was named White House press secretary, capping a journey toward the center of the president’s orbit.
But Ms. McEnany, 31, is not expected to significantly change her role in her new job, whose main responsibility – answering questions from press in the briefing room and communicating the president’s decisions to the public – has been long been subsumed by Mr. Trump himself. She is expected to keep defending him on television.
She’s young. She’s quite pretty. She’s his new propaganda minister. That’s what the job had become:
Her appointment, by Mr. Trump’s new chief of staff, former Representative Mark Meadows of North Carolina, is the latest shake-up in a communications office that has seen almost constant turnover since 2017. Ms. McEnany will replace Stephanie Grisham, a Trump loyalist who was named press secretary last summer and will return to the East Wing as chief of staff for Melania Trump, the first lady…
Ms. Grisham did not hold a press briefing during her time on the job, and Ms. McEnany is not expected to – at least in the short term. Privately, few aides see the point: As Mr. Trump remade the presidency in his own image, approaching the job and making hiring decisions much as a reality television show producer would, the role of White House press secretary stopped resembling the job of administrations past.
Long gone is the idea that a single aide would be designated to spend half the day collecting information and talking points to explain the president’s decision making to the American public. The coronavirus crisis has confirmed that Mr. Trump is happy to spend hours a day doing the job himself.
It makes him happy. On the throne of the world any delusion can become fact:
The president has grown to see the daily briefings he attends with members of his coronavirus task force much in the way he does his Twitter account: as an unfiltered bullhorn to get his own version of reality across, and a way to wage battles with journalists who have questioned his accounting of the facts.
“One of the reasons I do these news conferences,” Mr. Trump said Tuesday during a two-hour briefing, is “because if I didn’t, they would believe fake news, and we can’t let them believe fake news. They see us up here. They see us with admirals. They see us with this talent!”
And the kid will handle the general propaganda:
In a video of Ms. McEnany on the Fox Business show “Trish Regan Primetime” from Feb. 25, circulated by Andrew Kaczynski of CNN, the new press secretary said, “We will not see diseases like the coronavirus come here, we will not see terrorism come here, and isn’t that refreshing when contrasting it with the awful presidency of President Obama?”
Since Ms. McEnany made that statement, about 400,000 people in the United States have been infected with the coronavirus.
She has at times trafficked in the type of “othering” of President Barack Obama that Mr. Trump once did by promoting a lie that the first black president, whose father was Kenyan, was not born in the United States. “How I Met Your Brother – Never mind, forgot he’s still in that hut in Kenya. #ObamaTVShows,” Ms. McEnany tweeted in 2012.
And she keeps saying that Donald Trump has never lied, ever, about anything. In fact, he’s never been mistaken about anything, ever. The nation will sigh, and shrug, and no one will care what she says. But that’s life on the throne of the world:
Mr. Meadows is said to be working closely with Jared Kushner, Mr. Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, who signed off on the communications office changes.
The former communications director Hope Hicks, a close adviser to Mr. Trump since the 2016 campaign, recently returned to work with Mr. Kushner, and she has been increasingly involved in messaging and press issues, particularly as the president has become more visible in responding to the coronavirus. Ms. Hicks has helped officials stress-test ideas as Mr. Kushner has assumed more responsibilities related to the response.
Hope Hicks will lead the effort to show that the president has been perfect in everything and that his son-in-law knows more than Doctor Fauci and everyone else and has already fixed everything anyway. She will make delusion fact. How hard can that be?
That’s hard. Before one can make delusion fact, one must get rid of the damned actual facts that keep getting in the way. The New York Times’ Charlie Savage and Peter Baker report on how Trump is taking care of that:
President Trump moved on Tuesday to oust the leader of a new watchdog panel charged with overseeing how his administration spends trillions of taxpayer dollars in coronavirus pandemic relief, the latest step in an abruptly unfolding White House power play against semi-independent inspectors general across the government.
The official, Glenn A. Fine, has been the acting inspector general for the Defense Department since before Mr. Trump took office and was set to become the chairman of a new Pandemic Response Accountability Committee to police how the government carries out the $2.2 trillion coronavirus relief bill. But Mr. Trump replaced Mr. Fine in his Pentagon job, disqualifying him from serving on the new oversight panel.
And just like that, that man was gone, one more gone now:
The move came at a time when the president has been reasserting authority over the executive branch and signaling impatience with independent voices within the government that he considers disloyal. In recent days, he fired an inspector general who reviewed the whistle-blower complaint that led to his impeachment, nominated a White House aide to another key inspector general post, declared that he would ignore certain oversight provisions in the new relief law and attacked another inspector general who criticized virus testing shortages.
Mr. Trump even cheered the firing of the captain of an aircraft carrier for sending a letter to fellow Navy officers pleading for help for his virus-stricken crew, castigating the officer for airing unfavorable information. Only after a loud backlash over the firing and the acting Navy secretary’s speech calling the captain “stupid” did the president partly reverse himself and say he would look into it. The acting Navy secretary, who said he had ordered the firing because he assumed Mr. Trump might have done it himself otherwise, took the hint and resigned on Tuesday.
That’s quite an effort. Those with facts are being purged from government, which Trump has always distrusted:
The questions of accountability and loyalty within the government have been persistent themes in the past three years as Mr. Trump has repeatedly waged war with what he calls “the deep state.” He has rejected the conventional views that figures like the director of the FBI, the attorney general, intelligence directors, uniformed military commanders, ethics officers and now inspectors general, should have a degree of autonomy.
But it’s nothing personal:
At his daily coronavirus briefing, Mr. Trump offered no particular explanation for sidelining Mr. Fine but characterized it as part of a larger shuffle of inspectors general – some of them left over from past administrations – and cited unspecified “reports of bias.”
He just doesn’t like what they do:
Critics said on Tuesday that it sent a message to government watchdogs to tread softly. “I cannot see how any inspector general will feel in any way safe to do a good job,” said Danielle Brian, the executive director of the Project on Government Oversight, a nonprofit group. “They are all at the mercy at what the president feels.”
But Mr. Trump’s allies said he felt burned by the investigations of his campaign and associates and therefore distrusts figures he perceives to be partisan foes within government, particularly former FBI officials who obtained warrants under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, to investigate a campaign aide’s ties to Russia.
“I’ve never heard the president express frustrations about independent oversight,” said Cliff Sims, a former White House aide. “But he doesn’t think he should be subjected to his political enemies in supposedly apolitical oversight roles. This has been deeply ingrained in his psyche since the moment he learned that FISA had been abused to spy on his campaign.”
Wait. He loves independent oversight. But he never sees that happening because everyone is out to get him. He’s not paranoid. They are out to get him. They all hate him. There is no independent oversight. But how would he know? He’s always screaming that everyone is out to get him, everyone! Don’t you people understand? Everyone!
That complicates things, because everyone else is relatively stable and calm:
In removing Mr. Fine from his role overseeing pandemic spending, Mr. Trump targeted a former Justice Department inspector general who earned a reputation for aggressive independence in scrutinizing the FBI’s use of surveillance and other law enforcement powers in the years after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Replacing Mr. Fine as the Pentagon’s acting inspector general will be Sean O’Donnell, who serves as the inspector general at the Environmental Protection Agency and will do double duty for the time being. A group of inspectors general led by Michael E. Horowitz, the Justice Department inspector general, will determine who will replace Mr. Fine as chairman of the new pandemic oversight committee.
All of that is rather straightforward and rather boring and not particularly nefarious:
Created as part of the coronavirus relief bill, the committee consists of nine inspectors general from across the executive branch and will have an $80 million budget to hunt for waste, fraud, abuse and illegality in the disbursement of the $2.2 trillion approved by Congress to provide relief to Americans affected by the pandemic.
In announcing Mr. Fine’s short-lived role last week, Mr. Horowitz had praised him as “uniquely qualified” to run oversight of “large organizations,” citing his 11 years as the top Justice Department watchdog and his four years serving as the top Pentagon one.
“The inspector general community recognizes the need for transparency surrounding, and strong and effective independent oversight of, the federal government’s spending in response to this public health crisis,” Mr. Horowitz said at the time.
This is a green-eyeshades accounting job. The job is to record where every penny of the money went, in a big ledger. This is not political. This is tedious record-keeping. And that set off the usual alarms:
Democrats immediately condemned Mr. Fine’s sudden ouster as “corrupt,” in the words of Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the minority leader. “President Trump is abusing the coronavirus pandemic to eliminate honest and independent public servants because they are willing to speak truth to power and because he is so clearly afraid of strong oversight,” Mr. Schumer said.
Representative Carolyn B. Maloney, Democrat of New York and the chairwoman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, called Mr. Trump’s actions “a direct insult to the American taxpayers – of all political stripes – who want to make sure that their tax dollars are not squandered on wasteful boondoggles, incompetence or political favors.”
That’s the point. What is Trump afraid of? And he may not get what he wants anyway:
It is not a given that Mr. O’Donnell will toe the line at the Pentagon. At the EPA he has issued reports that are critical of Mr. Trump’s appointed administrator, Andrew R. Wheeler, who has sought to limit Mr. O’Donnell’s authority and oversight.
Only last week, after Mr. O’Donnell’s office released a report concluding that the EPA failed to adequately warn communities living in proximity to certain carcinogenic chemicals of their health risks, Mr. Wheeler publicly rebuked the inspector general’s report for its “tone and substance” and demanded that he rescind it. Mr. O’Donnell refused.
But then Trump is doing what he can where ever he can:
Late last month, several hours after Mr. Trump signed the $2 trillion coronavirus relief and stimulus bill with fanfare on television, he issued a signing statement challenging a key safeguard congressional Democrats insisted upon as a condition of approving $500 billion in corporate bailout funds: that a special inspector general be empowered to demand information about how the Treasury Department spends the money and who would be required to tell Congress if executive branch officials unreasonably balk.
In his signing statement, Mr. Trump effectively declared that he could control what information goes to Congress about any disputes over access to information about how and why the money is spent. On Friday, he nominated Brian D. Miller, a White House aide, to serve as the special inspector general overseeing the corporate relief.
Then late that night, Mr. Trump fired the inspector general for the intelligence community, Michael K. Atkinson, whose insistence on telling Congress about the whistle-blower complaint about Mr. Trump’s dealings with Ukraine prompted impeachment proceedings last fall.
At the same time, Mr. Trump also announced a slew of other inspector general nominees, including Mr. Abend as the new Defense Department inspector general, and three current and former Justice Department officials to be the new inspectors general at the CIA, the Education Department and the Tennessee Valley Authority.
Mr. Trump redoubled his attacks on the acting inspector general for the Department of Health and Human Services, Christi A. Grimm, in a statement on Twitter on Tuesday, a day after she released a report about hospitals facing severe shortages in tests as they battle the pandemic.
He had been saying that there were no shortages of anything anywhere, and that all the doctors and nurses and hospital administrators, everywhere, were absolutely “delighted” with the job he was doing, and with him in particular, and that they all agreed that he was the best president ever. Everyone has watched his daily coronavirus taskforce briefings. The words vary a bit each time, but that’s what he says, and someone just messed that up:
On Monday, Mr. Trump had suggested that Ms. Grimm’s report was politically biased against him. Ms. Grimm is a career official who began work at the inspector general office late in the Clinton administration and stayed there throughout the Bush and Obama administrations, taking over the role of acting inspector general in an interim capacity this year.
She thought she was an accountant, not evil, but she’s been swept up in something larger:
Mr. Trump’s interest in inspectors general has grown more intense lately. Until his most recent nominations, he had failed to pick anyone for about one-third of the 37 inspector general positions that are presidentially appointed, according to the Project on Government Oversight. Those roles were temporarily assumed by other officials whose lack of job security and status typically makes them more cautious than a permanent appointee, government experts say.
And now, even the man who out of a sense of duty and honor and country has swallowed his pride and remained silent about everything for more than a year, has finally had enough:
Former Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis issued a rare public rebuke of President Trump Tuesday over his decision to fire Glenn Fine, the Pentagon inspector general charged with overseeing implementation of the $2 trillion coronavirus stimulus package.
“Mr. Fine is a public servant in the finest tradition of honest, competent governance,” Mattis told Yahoo News in an email. “In my years of extensive engagement with him as our Department of Defense’s acting Inspector General, he proved to be a leader whose personal and managerial integrity were always of the highest order.”
Mattis resigned over Trump abandoning our allies the Kurds and walking away from the Syrian mess and pretty much telling the Turks to kill all those Kurds if they wished. This was a matter of honor. We do not betray our close allies, ever. Trump then said that Mattis didn’t resign, that he had fired Mattis because Mattis was a coward and fool and knew nothing about the military.
Mattis bit his tongue, but this wasn’t about him. Glenn Fine is a good man. Enough is enough. But of course Trump does know what he’s doing:
“Trump has woken up to the fact that IGs pose a threat to him,” said Michael Bromwich, a former Justice Department inspector general who originally hired Fine and praised him as a hard-working and popular inspector general who had engendered strong loyalty within his office at the Pentagon. He noted that until now, inspectors general have largely felt protected to conduct independent oversight of government wrongdoing – unless there was some evidence they engaged in misconduct.
“This president has now changed the game,” Bromwich added. “This is a president that resists any form of oversight.”
That’s not quite right. He resists any facts. Delusion is more useful. Ashley Feinberg explains that:
There is nothing Donald Trump loves more than a rally. It’s where he gets to hear hordes of people screaming his name in ecstasy, where he gets to call for the downfall of his enemies, and where he gets to talk, uninterrupted, for hours at a time about any passing thought he chooses. He loves his rallies so much he’s done 96 of them since being elected president. The rally is perhaps the only place Donald Trump is truly happy. Or at least, it was.
In mid-March, however, with the coronavirus spreading ever more rapidly, Trump reluctantly announced that he’d be canceling his campaign rallies for the foreseeable future, depriving himself of the closest thing our president has to a sanctuary. To make matters worse, Trump’s sole source of self-soothing was being ripped from him by the thing he hates more than anything: his job. The country was being ravaged by a pandemic that he was in charge of containing, and a failure to do so could be catastrophic to his reelection chances.
Trump’s second instinct – his first instinct having been to pretend the outbreak wasn’t happening and to tell people the virus would go away- was to find someone else to take responsibility. And so, just as things were beginning to get too bad to ignore, Trump appointed Mike Pence to lead the White House Coronavirus Task Force.
And that was that. Prissy and boring Mike Pence would be a great foil, his straight man, and on the throne of the world, any delusion could become fact:
Every day he gets to fill airtime across multiple networks, find new reasons to stoke outrage at the national media among his base, and receive some of the best coverage of his presidency. There is nothing a talking head loves more than a president looking stern-faced in a crisis, and Trump has been more than happy to oblige…
While Trump allows medical professionals and other featured players to participate on a rotating basis, everyone knows that Trump is the star. He leads the briefings, he fields the questions (even going so far as to prevent Anthony Fauci from providing answers that might embarrass him), and he gets the praise he craves. While he may be delighted to receive positive, or even respectfully mixed, reviews from the same reporters he publicly excoriates, he’s also managed to turn the events themselves into a daily worship session.
And there’s this bonus:
By now, everyone knows that the best way and perhaps only way to get Trump’s cooperation is to slather him in praise. The sincerity of the compliment makes no difference; all that matters is that it’s effusive. Three years in, the few government officials who remain are happy to oblige – and with millions of lives hanging in the balance, even would-be independent public health experts will do whatever it takes to keep the president from derailing their efforts in a burst of pique.
The result is a daily ritual where, quite literally, the first priority of all the pandemic responders is the boosting of the president’s ego.
And thus he’s a happy man:
He often speaks for over an hour, rambling his way through a stream of consciousness in the sort of stand-up comedy cadence his rally-goers know and love. He’ll take questions from Jim Acosta, giving him an opportunity for some performative media-bashing in the moment and some Twitter material for later. He’ll listen to officials prostrate themselves, visibly basking in the warm glow of their stilted praise.
And he can almost escape all those pesky facts:
It’s not all fun, of course. As much as his media bashing is a performance, he also genuinely despises being questioned – especially when the questions are about unpleasant concrete facts such as the country’s inability to test for the disease as he promised it would, or the chronic failure to deliver masks, ventilators, and other critical gear. He’ll often have a tantrum or two, occasionally storming out if things get really bad.
For the most part, though, this is the best part of Trump’s day.
That may not be true for anyone else. But he is on the throne of the world, for now. Delusion can become fact, right?
Don’t count on that.