People still send letters – somehow they’re more substantial than emails, or tweets. They’re physical. They have gravitas. Actually they have mass – an ounce or two. The laws of gravity apply, and letters are usually trouble. They’re usually official – notification that the bank is foreclosing on the house and that sort of thing. Others are just troubling. File those and think about things later, if possible. The letter will still be there – a constant low-key background worry. There may be nothing that can be done but the letter is still there, and after the election, President Obama got one of those:
November 29, 2016
Dear President Obama,
We are writing to express our grave concern regarding the mental stability of our President-Elect. Professional standards do not permit us to venture a diagnosis for a public figure whom we have not evaluated personally. Nevertheless, his widely reported symptoms of mental instability – including grandiosity, impulsivity, hypersensitivity to slights or criticism, and an apparent inability to distinguish between fantasy and reality – lead us to question his fitness for the immense responsibilities of the office. We strongly recommend that, in preparation for assuming these responsibilities, he receive a full medical and neuropsychiatric evaluation by an impartial team of investigators.
Judith Herman, M.D., Professor of Psychiatry, Harvard Medical School
Nanette Gartrell, M.D., Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry, University of California, San Francisco (1988-2011), Assistant Professor of Psychiatry, Harvard Medical School (1983-87)
Dee Mosbacher, M.D., Ph.D., Assistant Clinical Professor, Department of Community Health Systems, University of California, San Francisco (2005-2013)
Obama was going to do no such thing. All hell would break lose, but these were real psychiatrists and this was a real letter.
That didn’t matter. Psychiatrists know nothing about politics. Obama never mentioned this letter. The people had spoken, more or less. They chose the candidate who met the criteria in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM – 5, Cluster B) for “Narcissistic Personality Disorder” by The American Psychiatric Association. The people were okay with that – but these three psychiatrists were not alone. There is something odd about Donald Trump – a kind of madness perhaps – but that’s what so many liked about him. Go figure.
We’ve also been here before, as Rick Perlstein explains:
Donald Trump and Richard Nixon have at least one thing in common: They are the two most paranoid and vindictive men ever to win the presidency. Both came to power armed with enemies lists, vowing to seek revenge against those who stood in their way. Both roamed the mansions of power late at night, raving against every perceived slight. Both were caught on tape describing the ways they enjoyed bending others to their will.
So, Trump is Nixon:
Nixon, unlike Trump, was an introspective man. In one particularly fascinating moment of self-reflection following his resignation, he described to a former aide the habits that had enabled him to rise to the top of Washington’s greasy pole. When you’re on your way, he explained, it pays to be crazy.
“In your own mind you have nothing to lose, so you take plenty of chances,” Nixon said. “It is then you understand, for the first time, that you have the advantage – because your competitors can’t risk what they have already.”
That’s an insight that Trump put to good use during the Republican primaries, when he was willing to place high-stakes bets that his more experienced rivals were unwilling or unable to match.
That works, until it doesn’t:
Then you win, and your problems begin. “It’s a piece of cake until you get to the top,” Nixon confessed. “You find you can’t stop playing the game the way you’ve always played it, because it is a part of you and you need it as much as an arm and a leg. You continue to walk on the edge of the precipice, because over the years you have become fascinated by how close to the edge you can walk without losing your balance.”
What Nixon was describing sounds like nothing so much as a seasoned heroin-addict chasing the next high: It takes bigger and bigger doses to get there, until too much is not nearly enough. And a little thing like being elected the leader of the free world isn’t nearly enough to jolt a man like Nixon or Trump into rehab.
That may be where we are now, not rehab but a very odd presidency on the way. That letter from those three psychiatrists never was going to do any good – politics doesn’t work that way – and everyone all along knew all about Trump’s personality, disordered or not.
There was this video of a young Donald Trump talking about his enemies:
I have some very, very good friends and I guess I have some very good enemies. And I like it that way, somehow, and I really believe in trashing your enemies.
And Trump went to Liberty University in 2012 for the first time and gave a speech where he riffed on getting even:
I always say, don’t let people take advantage of you. This goes for a country too, by the way. Don’t let people take advantage. Get even. And you know, if nothing else, other people will see that and say “I’m gonna let Jim Smith or Sally Malone, I’m gonna let ’em alone because they’re tough customers.”
So, I always say it. But I won’t say it to you – because this is a different audience. You don’t want to get even do you? … Yeah, I think you do.
A year earlier it was this:
Get even with people. If they screw you, screw them back 10 times as hard. I really believe it.
There’s also this:
One of the things you should do in terms of success: If somebody hits you, you’ve got to hit ’em back five times harder than they ever thought possible. You’ve got to get even. Get even. And the reason, the reason you do, is so important… The reason you do, you have to do it, because if they do that to you, you have to leave a telltale sign that they just can’t take advantage of you. It’s not so much for the person, which does make you feel good, to be honest with you, I’ve done it many times. But other people watch and you know they say, “Well, let’s leave Trump alone,” or “Let’s leave this one,” or “Doris, let’s leave her alone. They fight too hard.” I say it, and it’s so important. You have to, you have to hit back. You have to hit back.
There’s also this:
It’s called “Get Even.” Get even. This isn’t your typical business speech. Get even. What this is a real business speech. You know in all fairness to Wharton, I love ’em, but they teach you some stuff that’s a lot of bullshit. When you’re in business, you get even with people that screw you. And you screw them 15 times harder. And the reason is, the reason is, the reason is, not only, not only, because of the person that you’re after, but other people watch what’s happening. Other people see you or see you or see and they see how you react.
And there was this to CNN’s Erin Burnett:
There are a lot of bad people out there. And you really have to go… If you have a problem, if you have a problem with someone, you have to go after them. And it’s not necessarily to teach that person a lesson. It’s to teach all of the people that are watching a lesson – that you don’t take crap. And if you take crap, you’re just not going to do well… But you can’t take a lot of nonsense from people; you have to go after them.
Nixon and Trump may be the two most paranoid and vindictive men ever to win the presidency, but Trump doesn’t hide it. Trump would never have tried to cover up the Watergate break-in and all the rest. He would have bragged about all of it, and dared anyone to do anything about any of it – and then he’d crush them too. America would cheer. Everyone loves a winner.
That may be all anyone needs to know about Trump – that’s who he is, love it or hate it. He gets even. We’ll have to live with that, unless hitting back ten times harder involves launching all the nukes. Then we’ll all be dead, but at least this sort of thing makes for amusing satire:
Sitting down with top officials from the CIA, FBI, and Defense Intelligence Agency in a Trump Tower conference room, President-elect Donald Trump reportedly gave U.S. intelligence agencies their daily briefing Tuesday morning. “With the inauguration just weeks away, the president-elect held a meeting today to bring leaders of the intelligence community up to speed on critical information that will affect his diplomatic and defense decisions as the nation’s commander-in-chief,” said Reince Priebus, Trump’s chief of staff, noting that the president-elect was planning to give briefings to intelligence officials every morning during his presidency in order to keep them closely apprised of the greatest areas of concern and latest threats to the nation.
“There’s a considerable amount of secret and highly sensitive intel about military operations and diplomatic affairs that only Mr. Trump has the expertise to provide, and it’s imperative that he convey these findings to our nation’s intelligence directors. This is an invaluable service provided by Mr. Trump, and these meetings will be as frequent and as thorough as necessary to ensure the urgent information that Mr. Trump has gathered reaches those in our intelligence community.”
Priebus added that the specifics covered during the briefings would be kept classified, as much of it would be incredibly shocking to the American populace.
The Onion does offer amusing foolishness, until it isn’t foolishness at all:
Donald Trump launched another barrage of mockery at U.S. spy agencies Wednesday and aligned himself with Julian Assange, the fugitive founder of WikiLeaks, a secretive group that has published millions of stolen U.S. military, diplomatic and intelligence documents…
On Friday, several top intelligence officials, including Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper, CIA Director John Brennan and FBI Director James B. Comey, are scheduled to meet with Trump in New York City to explain why they’ve concluded that senior officials in the Kremlin, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, authorized the hacking operation.
Sean Spicer, Trump’s spokesman, said Wednesday that Trump questions U.S. officials’ judgments about Russian interference in the campaign, and not the intelligence itself.
“What he wants to hear from them is, how does the raw intelligence justify the conclusion that is being presented?” Spicer said.
Trump is with Russia on this, and now with Julian Assange, and against our government, but this was expected:
Trump’s open disdain for U.S. intelligence judgments has grown in recent weeks after the CIA and others concluded Russian leaders orchestrated the release of thousands of stolen emails from the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta, to tip the election in Trump’s favor.
He has belittled the conclusions, comparing them to the CIA’s inaccurate claims of Saddam Hussein’s stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons before the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
And he questioned the motives of top intelligence officials, complaining Tuesday on Twitter that his briefing “on so-called ‘Russian hacking’ was delayed until Friday, perhaps more time needed to build a case. Very strange!”
U.S. officials say the briefing was always scheduled for the end of the week, and was not delayed…
Trump knew all along that the meeting was Friday. Everyone knew. This was just a random jab, a sort of sucker-punch. He was just being nasty. People love that sort of thing, and then there’s that other fellow:
On Wednesday, Trump tweeted praise for Assange for denying that Russians had provided the stolen emails to WikiLeaks. “Russians did not give him the info!” and “a 14 year old could have hacked Podesta,” Trump wrote, paraphrasing Assange.
Assange made the claim to Fox News host Sean Hannity in an interview that aired Tuesday. Hannity, Trump’s biggest supporter in the media, flew to London to meet Assange in the Ecuadorean Embassy, where he has lived in exile for more than four years.
“Our source is not the Russian government and it is not a state party,” Assange told Hannity. Assange didn’t address whether Russian authorities conducted the original hacking or how he knows Russian authorities were not behind the leaks.
Assange remains in exile in the London embassy because he faces sexual assault allegations in Sweden. U.S. officials have said Assange is under criminal investigation.
Assange is a nasty piece of work too, so there was this:
The White House challenged Trump for aligning himself with a figure who many in the U.S. intelligence community consider a threat to national security.
“The president-elect will have to determine who he’s going to believe,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Wednesday. “On one hand, you’ve got the Russians and the aforementioned Mr. Assange. On the other side, you’ve got the 17 intelligence agencies of the United States government [and] outside cyber experts that have taken a look at this situation.”
Some Democrats all but accused Trump of supporting an enemy of the United States.
“That he would accept the transparently self-serving denials of the Kremlin is alarming enough, but that would now cite people like Assange who have demonstrated universal hostility to the United States and its interests takes him into new and even more treacherous territory,” Rep. Adam B. Schiff of Burbank, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said in a statement.
Things were getting odd – Trump in 2010: WikiLeaks ‘disgraceful,’ there ‘should be like death penalty or something’ and Paul Ryan calls Julian Assange a ‘sycophant for Russia’ and Sarah Palin Apologizes to Julian Assange for Comparing Him to Terrorists and the Washington Post’s comprehensive survey Trump’s criticism of intelligence on Russia divides Republicans and so on. Those three psychiatrists might have been right.
And then Josh Marshall covered where this went next:
A story out in The Wall Street Journal this evening reports that President-Elect Trump and his advisors plan to “restructure and pare back the nation’s top spy agency”, the CIA because they believe it and the “Office of the Director of National Intelligence [have] become bloated and politicized.” Trump plans “to restructure the Central Intelligence Agency, cutting back on staffing at its Virginia headquarters and pushing more people out into field posts around the world.”
It’s not clear to me whether that latter aim means favoring and expanding the number of operatives versus analysts or pushing analysts out into offices around the world. They may not know themselves.
As Sopan Deb of CBS notes, given Trump’s past behavior, it is possible that is all a planned leak and that it’s all BS – just an effort to get in the CIA’s grill because Trump now sees them as a key adversary over the Russian hacking story.
Trump is hitting back ten times harder, as he does, which is a worry:
Everything with Trump is about the current fight and dominance. But if we assume that this is the plan and something like this is going to going to happen, there are several reasons why this is very ominous.
First, let’s start by saying that the President is not obligated to believe the advice he’s given by members of the Intelligence Community. The IC’s job is to give the President full and professional advice and then carry out his policy and orders. A healthy skepticism always serves a President well. We also shouldn’t fall into the trap of thinking the current bureaucratic structures that organize the country’s many intelligence agencies are sacrosanct or just as things should be. The office of the Director of National Intelligence is itself a post-9/11 reform, meant to facilitate and coordinate information sharing and goals across agencies, among other things.
What sounds to be in the offing here though is not some considered reform but institutional vengeance and the rankest kind of politicization.
Actually, it’s about Trump’s key organizing principle in life, getting even:
There is simply no way President-Elect Trump’s motivations are not heavily driven by his mounting fight with the CIA over Russian hacking and subversion of the 2016 election. He’s mad. We can see that every day. He feels like their reports delegitimize his election and presidency and he wants to hit back.
One part of the WSJ article notes that “Mr. Trump’s advisers say he has long been skeptical of the CIA’s accuracy.”
Please. Mr Trump hasn’t ‘long thought about’ the CIA in any way whatsoever let alone given any thought to its accuracy or politicization or anything. None of this comes from Trump other than the impulses and antagonisms and aggressions that drive him. They are being given a theoretical and strategic gloss by those around him.
Marshall suggests that this is what is under that gloss:
First, Trump wants payback against an agency that he believes is his enemy. Period. He is undoubtedly encouraged in this by his closest advisors.
Second, Trump’s chief foreign policy advisor Michael Flynn wants payback against the people who ended his career. Flynn was a career intelligence officer and one with a very strong reputation – working within specific and defined parameters. People who had worked with him earlier in his career said they couldn’t recognize the person he became when he was placed in charge of the Defense Intelligence Agency. He was a disastrous manager, was taken in by numerous conspiracy theories and eventually had to be fired. Other generals got crosswise with the civilian appointees in the Obama administration. But they left with their reputations intact. Flynn was different. Flynn’s personal beef is clearly the source of his animus against the DNI and the CIA.
Flynn is simply nuts and he wants to get even. This suggests Trump is going let him do just that…
In this case, the key players involved in this proposed reform are all hotheads with axes to grind. In the case of Flynn, he seems to have an almost pathological inability to separate the factual from the fanciful. Whether this move is more driven by Trump’s anger over the Russian hacking story or whether Flynn is using that rage to get sign off to destroy his former rivals and tormentors isn’t clear to me.
These are paranoid and vindictive men, or we’re dealing with narcissistic personality disorder of the first order in both cases – or they’re American heroes, just the sort of men that Americans wanted running America. Take your choice.
Marshall doesn’t like either choice:
This can worry you because of what crazy ideas or wars might be cooked up on the basis of bogus intelligence. Or you might be worried that gutted intelligence agencies, disrupted and low on morale, don’t tend to be good at catching real threats – as opposed to imaginary ones. Whichever reason you pick, you should be worried.
Panic seems appropriate here. Those three psychiatrists sent that letter to Obama in late November, calling for a full medical and neuropsychiatric evaluation, by an impartial team of investigators, of this Trump fellow, but there was no practical way Obama could act on that. The people had spoken. The men in the little white coats were not going to grab Donald Trump and take him to that rubber room in a straightjacket. He goes to the Oval Office instead – and then the rest of us will need psychiatric help, if we live.