The Presumption of Regularity

“Anyone ever have occasional constipation, diarrhea, gas or bloating?” That damned Phillips Lady keeps popping up in public places and asking total strangers just that – in an office, on a tour bus – wherever – as if that’s the most normal thing in the world. No one tells her that’s none of her damned business. No one punches her. They might even try those Phillips Colon Health Probiotic Caps – and people do. Phillips has flooded the airwaves with those ads. They must be working, even if that woman really should be arrested as a public nuisance in need of a psychiatric evaluation – she’s obsessed with other people’s colons. Still, Phillips is making a ton of money. Phillips made a safe bet. Americans are obsessed with regularity. Things should “go” as they should go. Life should be predictable and “normal” – no surprises, no discomfort.

Of course Americans elected Donald Trump, knowing full well he wasn’t normal in any way. That needs to be said again. The man never held political office before. His grasp of how our government (or any government) works is a few steps below rudimentary. He has no experience in foreign policy, other than with the intricacies of resort and hotel development in far-off lands, and with the issues involved in staging a beauty pageant in Moscow – and he has no military experience, other than high school at that military academy for troubled rich kids prone to bullying. And he wasn’t presidential. He was a billionaire, a master dealmaker who always got his way, humiliating anyone who got in his way. He won. He always won – and now America would always win. No nation would ever humiliate America ever again, even if none really had. He said they had, and starting with Mexico, we’d humiliate them all – and starting with Little Marco and Lyin’ Ted, and moving on to Crooked Hillary, he humiliated anyone who disagreed with him about anything at all. His tweets destroyed them. He was a winner. We’d all be winners, again, finally. He’d make America great again.

This was gas and bloating – he was highly irregular – and the Washington Post team of Philip Rucker, Ashley Parker, Sari Horwitz and Robert Costa, note that this is just sinking in:

Every time FBI Director James B. Comey appeared in public, an ever-watchful President Trump grew increasingly agitated that the topic was the one that he was most desperate to avoid: Russia.

Trump had long questioned Comey’s loyalty and judgment, and was infuriated by what he viewed as the director’s lack of action in recent weeks on leaks from within the federal government. By last weekend, he had made up his mind: Comey had to go.

At his golf course in Bedminster, N.J., Trump groused over Comey’s latest congressional testimony, which he thought was “strange,” and grew impatient with what he viewed as his sanctimony, according to White House officials. Comey, Trump figured, was using the Russia probe to become a martyr.

Trump would have none of that:

Back at work Monday morning in Washington, Trump told Vice President Pence and several senior aides – Reince Priebus, Stephen K. Bannon and Donald McGahn, among others – that he was ready to move on Comey. First, though, he wanted to talk with Attorney General Jeff Sessions, his trusted confidant, and Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein, to whom Comey reported directly. Trump summoned the two of them to the White House for a meeting, according to a person close to the White House.

The president already had decided to fire Comey, according to this person. But in the meeting, several White House officials said Trump gave Sessions and Rosenstein a directive: to explain in writing the case against Comey.

That was clever. He could say he was given evidence that Comey should be fired, so he had to act on that unfortunate new evidence, from Rod Rosenstein – it wasn’t just his anger – but that didn’t work:

Rosenstein threatened to resign after the narrative emerging from the White House on Tuesday evening cast him as a prime mover of the decision to fire Comey and that the president acted only on his recommendation, said the person close to the White House, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.

Rosenstein, in turn, would have none of that, so this turned back on Trump:

The stated rationale for Comey’s firing delivered Wednesday by principal deputy White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was that he had committed “atrocities” in overseeing the FBI’s probe into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server as secretary of state, hurting morale in the bureau and compromising public trust.

“He wasn’t doing a good job,” Trump told reporters Wednesday. “Very simple – he wasn’t doing a good job.”

But the private accounts of more than 30 officials at the White House, the Justice Department and the FBI and on Capitol Hill, as well as Trump confidants and other senior Republicans, paint a conflicting narrative centered on the president’s brewing personal animus toward Comey. Many of those interviewed spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to candidly discuss internal deliberations.

Trump confidants and other senior Republicans seem to be willing to leak that Trump is kind of nuts:

Trump was angry that Comey would not support his baseless claim that President Barack Obama had his campaign offices wiretapped. Trump was frustrated when Comey revealed in Senate testimony the breadth of the counterintelligence investigation into Russia’s effort to sway the 2016 U.S. presidential election. And he fumed that Comey was giving too much attention to the Russia probe and not enough to investigating leaks to journalists.

And that generated the second day of this mess:

The known actions that led to Comey’s dismissal raise as many questions as answers. Why was Sessions involved in discussions about the fate of the man leading the FBI’s Russia investigation, after having recused himself from the probe because he had falsely denied under oath his own past communications with the Russian ambassador?

Why had Trump discussed the Russia probe with the FBI director three times, as he claimed in his letter dismissing Comey, which could have been a violation of Justice Department policies that ongoing investigations generally are not to be discussed with White House officials?

And how much was the timing of Trump’s decision shaped by events spiraling out of his control – such as Monday’s testimony about Russian interference by former acting attorney general Sally Yates, or the fact that Comey last week requested more resources from the Justice Department to expand the FBI’s Russia probe?

The whole thing was falling apart, and there’s this too:

Within the Justice Department and the FBI, the firing of Comey has left raw anger, and some fear, according to multiple officials. Thomas O’Connor, the president of the FBI Agents Association, called Comey’s firing “a gut punch. We didn’t see it coming, and we don’t think Director Comey did anything that would lead to this.”

Many employees said they were furious about the firing, saying the circumstances of his dismissal did more damage to the FBI’s independence than anything Comey did in his three-plus years in the job.

One intelligence official who works on Russian espionage matters said they were more determined than ever to pursue such cases. Another said Comey’s firing and the subsequent comments from the White House are attacks that won’t soon be forgotten. Trump had “essentially declared war on a lot of people at the FBI,” one official said. “I think there will be a concerted effort to respond over time in kind.”

Trump wanted the Russian thing shut down, all investigation to end, but he gets the opposite now:

The media explosion was immediate and the political backlash was swift, with criticism pouring in not only from Democrats, but also from some Republicans. Trump and some of his advisers did not fully anticipate the ferocious reaction – in fact, some wrongly assumed many Democrats would support the move because they had been critical of Comey in the past – and were unprepared to contain the fallout.

When asked Tuesday night for an update on the unfolding situation, one top White House aide simply texted a reporter two fireworks emoji.

That happens with a highly irregular president:

Trump’s team did not have a full-fledged communications strategy for how to announce and then explain the decision. As Trump, who had retired to the residence to eat dinner, sat in front of a television watching cable news coverage of Comey’s firing, he noticed another flaw: Nobody was defending him.

The president was irate, according to White House officials.

That cable news coverage of Comey’s firing also must have been filled with that Phillips Lady asking questions about people’s digestive tracts. Trump’s was probably rumbling. Phillips has another customer.

Politico tells the tale this way:

Trump had grown enraged by the Russia investigation, two advisers said, frustrated by his inability to control the mushrooming narrative around Russia. He repeatedly asked aides why the Russia investigation wouldn’t disappear and demanded they speak out for him. He would sometimes scream at television clips about the probe, one adviser said…

Trump had grown angry with the Russia investigation – particularly Comey admitting in front of the Senate that the FBI was investigating his campaign – and that the FBI director wouldn’t support his claims that President Barack Obama had tapped his phones in Trump Tower…

Trump received letters from Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, and Jeff Sessions, the attorney general, calling for Comey’s dismissal… A White House spokesman said Trump did not ask for the letters in advance, and that White House officials had no idea they were coming. But several other people familiar with the events said Trump had talked about the firing for over a week, and the letters were written to give him rationale to fire Comey.

The accounts don’t vary, and Kevin Drum adds this:

The Comey firing had nothing to do with the Hillary Clinton email investigation. It was all because Trump was outraged over Comey’s public acknowledgement that the FBI was investigating his Russia ties. He wanted the investigation to disappear, and he began obsessing about firing Comey – presumably in hopes that this was all it would take to kill the case. And apparently Trump was shocked when Democrats didn’t line up behind him. They hate Comey too, don’t they?

Trump’s astronomical ignorance has finally caught up with him. He seems to have had no idea that firing Comey wouldn’t stop the investigation – nor that a new FBI director wouldn’t dare quash it. In fact, all the firing does is make the investigation untouchable. And Trump’s astronomical narcissism has caught up with him too. He has so little insight into other humans that he simply couldn’t conceive of anyone hating Comey but still defending his right to serve out his term. In Trump’s world, you reward your friends and punish your enemies and that’s that.

This is hardly unexpected from Trump, whose ignorance and narcissism are legendary. But does he really have nobody on his staff to warn him about this stuff? Reince Priebus surely knew how this would play out. Ditto for Mike Pence.

But that’s not the half of it:

Once again, we learn that many of Trump’s advisors are perfectly willing to portray him as an idiot. The Politico story is based on conversations with insiders who were happy to confirm that the Comey firing was all about Russia. This directly contradicts the White House narrative that it was about the fact that everyone had lost confidence in Comey because of the way he mistreated poor Hillary Clinton.

Who are these people who work for Trump (?) but are happy to undermine him to the press on a regular basis?

They’re the people obsessed with regularity. Life should be predictable and “normal” – no surprises, no discomfort. They’re ordinary Americans, and Paul Waldman feels their pain:

Trump has plainly gotten used to a particular dynamic among his staff and many Republicans in Congress, in which he blurts out whatever inane thing that pops into his head – I had the best-attended inauguration in history! – and then his aides have no choice but to go out and insist that he was right, no matter how much mockery and abuse they take in their efforts to defend the indefensible. There was no better example than Trump’s ludicrous allegation that Barack Obama tapped his phones during the campaign, which everyone in the administration continues to pretend has some basis in reality.

So when Comey admitted to Congress under questioning that there was nothing to Trump’s claim about wiretaps of Trump Tower (he was under oath, after all), Trump apparently became incensed.

Waldman says that’s because, for Trump, everything is personal:

When Comey was sabotaging Hillary Clinton’s campaign and doing a service for Trump, Trump loved him. As soon as he stopped serving Trump, Trump fired him.

Now let’s step back for a moment. During 2016, Trump convinced many voters that he was a good choice for president because he was outside the system, supposedly untainted by politics and partisanship. While a typical politician arrives at a presidential campaign with a series of commitments and ideological beliefs built up over years, Trump proudly said that the focus of his life had been himself.

“My whole life I’ve been greedy, greedy, greedy,” he said. “I’ve grabbed all the money I could get. I’m so greedy. But now I want to be greedy for the United States.”

That too is a bit pathological, and quite useless:

The trouble is that when you arrive in the White House without that network of commitments and without that ideological ballast, not only are your decisions unpredictable, but they’re likely to turn back again and again to what’s good for you. This is particularly true with Trump, who plainly suffers from a pathological narcissism. We may have never seen any human being, let alone any president, who spends as much time proclaiming his personal greatness and striking back at every inconsequential slight he receives from anywhere. It may be possible to imagine a president as independent of traditional political ties as Trump, but who wasn’t as juvenile about it and had more of an ability to restrain his impulses. But this is the president we’ve got.

It would be better if he obsessed about other people’s colons, but that job is taken, and Waldman states the obvious:

And as has become all too clear, not only does Trump have no commitment to a party or an ideology; he also has no commitment to the institutions and norms of democracy. That’s another thing that gets inculcated in politicians as they spend time in politics and government, even if some feel it more deeply than others. While Republicans have certainly spent the past few years breaking down many of those norms, Trump not only doesn’t pretend to care about them; he apparently isn’t even aware of them. A different president would at least pause before firing an FBI director who’s investigating his campaign, if for no other reason than that he’d realize that it would bring up echoes of Watergate and only add fuel to the scandal.

Sure, but Trump is who he is, but Matthew Yglesias argues that by firing James Comey, Trump has put impeachment on the table:

Some or all of this reporting may prove to be false. But it has all been published by credible journalists in credible publications. And it adds up to a very clear picture of a president deciding to fire an FBI director to obstruct an ongoing investigation and then stitching together a shaky rationalization for doing so.

Impeachment is, of course, a political process rather than a judicial one. Trump will be impeached and removed from office if a critical mass of members of Congress want him to be, and not otherwise. There are no formal criteria.

But obstruction of justice featured heavily in the articles of impeachment that drove Richard Nixon from office, and also in the articles of impeachment that passed the House only to see Bill Clinton narrowly acquitted in the Senate. In short, it lies firmly in the American political tradition to regard possible obstruction of justice as a serious issue worthy of investigation in an impeachment context.

But then there’s this:

The odds that a Congress under continued GOP control will pursue such questions seem slim. During the 2016 presidential campaign, few Republicans in Congress were under the delusion that Trump’s rise to prominence was a good thing for the conservative movement. They worried, overwhelmingly, that his erratic ways were going to drag them down with him.

Ever since Election Day, they have operated in a strange moral and intellectual miasma that’s led them to forget all that and invest their energy in defending him, believing that to be the best path forward for American conservatism. One can only hope at this point that they’ll reconsider before it’s too late. If not, America is going to need a different group of Congress members.

Kevin Drum sees that too:

Before yesterday, I would have guessed that Trump’s Russia ties were actually fairly minimal. Maybe Flynn and Manafort were closer to the Kremlin than they should have been, and hell, maybe Trump has gotten funding in the past for his real estate projects from Russian oligarchs. But that’s probably it – nothing that would really harm Trump himself a lot.

And maybe that’s still all there is. Maybe Trump just erupted because Comey’s persistence was pissing him off and he wanted to show who was boss. And he figured it was no big deal because Democrats and Republicans both hate Comey and would be happy to see him go. That was, needless to say, a massive miscalculation, but not a surprising one from a functioning sociopath like Trump.

But I don’t know anymore. Maybe there really is more here. Trump’s odd embrace of Russia-friendly policies during the 2016 campaign always made that plausible. This is all just weird as hell.

It is, and Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick says that is our problem:

How we respond to the rationalizations put forth by the Trump administration to justify its daily assaults on the law will determine whether the constitutional order on which we have relied for two centuries will survive. Whether we truly are teetering on the brink of a constitutional crisis, as some experts now posit, turns on whether the various governmental systems that exist to check authoritarian behavior can distinguish between that which is normal and that which is insane. It truly is that simple.

It’s also difficult:

Lawyers, judges, and elected officials (not to mention the rest of us) wake up every day asking whether the crazy mess of pretexts and justifications proffered by Trump and his defenders really is a crazy mess or whether the fact that it is proffered by the president of the United States somehow makes it reasonable. It’s an inquiry separate and apart from whether it was “legal” or “permissible” to fire Comey. The legality of the firing is one thing – the better question is whether the reasons proffered for the firing are normal or reasonable.

Ah, but there the law can help:

There is a useful legal lens through which to analyze this question, although it comes with a loftier name than “normal versus insane.” It was on display just this week, as the Trump administration attempted to defend its second try at the travel ban in federal appeals court. To do so, his lawyers demanded what’s called a “presumption of regularity.” That phrase means pretty much what you would expect, that we should assume that the president warrants tremendous judicial deference because he is assumed to be a regular, reasonably functional executive.

Donald Trump’s lawyer, Jeffrey Wall, used the words “presumption of regularity” four separate times in his argument defending the travel ban at the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last Monday, May 1. And when challenged on whether judges would need to “willfully blind themselves” to the fact that Trump is not normal, Wall assured the court that the president’s activities don’t even come close to the line where we need to be probing such things.

Jeffrey Wall was wrong:

In ordinary times, the “presumption of regularity” is a necessary check on the courts and a predicate for necessary restraint. These are not ordinary times.

Increasing numbers of sober lawyers, judges, and thinkers are joining the ranks of those persuaded that President Trump in fact has crossed that line and has forfeited the “presumption of regularity” and the attendant deference it requires. That is in part because he has evinced a crippling disregard for both facts and the rule of law and also because sometimes what he says conflicts with what his lawyers say he says. As a result, it becomes all but impossible to take the pretexts he offers up seriously, which is a cue for all of us – rational citizens and courts alike – to attempt to reckon with what his real motives are. To be sure, Trump apologists will continue to insist that we are the hysterical ones. But their persistent insistence that we do not see what we see or know what we know is its own form of madness.

One of the essential components of the presumption of regularity should be… regularity. But President Trump, of course, doesn’t do regularity – in fact, he exults in its disruption. Every time things begin to seem coherent, he does something aberrational and terrifying, leaving his lawyers to try to argue either that (a) no, everything really is normal, you’re just overreacting; or (b) if we could just be allowed to govern as we see fit, we could get things to be normal again, right quick.

That’s where this all goes sideways:

Jeffrey Wall’s version of “things are about to get awfully normal around here” involved repeatedly insisting that Candidate Trump was not in fact President Trump, that President Trump on Twitter was different from President Trump in the Oval Office, and that the President Trump who says stupid things while signing bills or attending rallies is not the same president who soberly consults with Jeff Sessions in closed-door meetings, at which they both wear their big-boy pants.

Press secretary deputy Sarah Huckabee Sanders offered a similar argument in explaining the apparent dissonance between Trump’s jovial embrace of Comey over the past several months and his abrupt firing of him on Tuesday: “He was a candidate for president, not the president,” she said. “Those are two very different things,” she added, for good measure. Every day is a festival of wondering when to pause the crazy-clock and when to start it again.

That makes people uncomfortable. Phillips made a safe bet. Americans are obsessed with regularity. That may be true politically too. Trump lost the popular vote.

“Anyone ever have occasional constipation, diarrhea, gas or bloating?” Get rid of this guy.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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One Response to The Presumption of Regularity

  1. The Phillips lady is appropriate comparison.
    Trump the betayer deserves to feel betrayed.
    After all, for many years Grover Norquist and his abundant ilk have campaigned for ignorance and against government itself, while seeking to control government at all levels.
    There are few people in my circles who would admit they’ve been suckered, but they’re out there, in the faces of friends and relatives and associates who I am certain were played for suckers by the propaganda machine: Russian fake news, Trump lies, and on and on and on. Ignorance was indeed bliss. Early on I saw leftists of my acquaintance passing along “forwards” that I am pretty certain was early versions of fake news, that Hillary was a war-monger and the like. Trump served the Ryan-McConnel-Freedom Caucus cause very, very well.
    Maybe sanity will prevail. But it will be a hard road to travel, and in the end will we have learned our lesson?

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