Here in Hollywood everyone’s a screenwriter – everyone has that killer script in a drawer somewhere. Or they pretend they do. There’s a lot of that out here too, but the idea is that these folks will explain the world to the world, with an amazing story and fascinating characters, and get rich – but the rest of us just go on leading ordinary lives. That screenwriting stuff is hard, and the studio system is closed – the right people know the right people, and no one really knows who the right people are. If you have to ask, you’ll never know who they are. It’s probably best to sell insurance or manage a hardware store. Let someone else tell the stories.
Amazing stories and fascinating characters are hard to come by anyway, and then there are the mechanics of the thing. Everything is in the details – the odd quirks that reveal character – the small stuff. Quirks are character, and character is story. The small stuff makes the big stuff inevitable. Screenwriters have to get the tics right – only then will it all make sense.
Imagine writing a screenplay about a Donald Trump figure. That character would be bombastic, and crude and nasty, but there’s no big “reveal” there. Get subtle. Find something minor that shows, not tells, everything anyone needs to know. There’s a lot to work with. In real life, today, it was this:
President Trump said he has told the Navy to return to decades-old steam-powered catapult technology to launch aircraft from the new Gerald Ford-class aircraft carriers, rather than use a new digital launch system.
Trump’s comments came during an interview with Time magazine, released in excerpts Thursday, where he bashed the new Electro-Magnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS) and said the Navy would instead be “going to goddamned steam.”
“I said, ‘You don’t use steam anymore for catapult?’ ‘No sir.’ I said, ‘Ah, how is it working?’ ‘Sir, not good. Not good. Doesn’t have the power. You know the steam is just brutal. You see that sucker going and steam’s going all over the place, there’s planes thrown in the air,'” Trump said in the interview.
“It sounded bad to me. Digital! They have digital. What is digital? And it’s very complicated – you have to be Albert Einstein to figure it out. And I said – and now they want to buy more aircraft carriers. I said, ‘What system are you going to be-‘ ‘Sir, we’re staying with digital.’ I said ‘No you’re not. You’re going to goddamned steam, the digital costs hundreds of millions of dollars more money and it’s no good.’
The lines jump off the page: Digital! What is digital? You have to be Albert Einstein to figure it out! You’re going to goddamned steam!
That says it all. Alec Baldwin would win an Oscar, but for this:
The Ford-class carriers use an electromagnetic catapult that goes with an entirely new shipwide electrical system: “Together, AAG [don’t ask] and EMALS will not only reduce maintenance costs, Moore said, they’ll improve operations, allowing 30 percent more sorties per day – making a Ford the operational equal of 1.3 Nimitzes.”
Kevin Drum notes how telling this is:
Needless to say, it’s too late to switch back to steam since the Ford is basically finished and will begin acceptance trials shortly. This means that somebody in the Pentagon has to figure out how to quietly ignore the president’s ramblings. Maybe someone should tell Trump the Chinese plan to use EMALS in their future carriers. We can’t let ourselves fall behind the Chinese, can we, Mr. President? No, of course not! Now how about a nice nap? That’s good. You just rest, Mr. President, while we take care of things for you.
The screenplay practically writes itself, but this would do too:
President Trump in an interview published Thursday said he invented the phrase “priming the pump,” a common saying used in economics.
“Have you heard that expression used before? Because I haven’t heard it. I mean, I just… I came up with it a couple of days ago and I thought it was good. It’s what you have to do,” Trump said during an interview with editors for The Economist.
The president also cited the phrase “priming the pump” when answering a question about his tax plan increasing the deficit.
“Well, it actually did,” Trump answered, disagreeing with the editors, who said the Reagan tax plan did not increase the deficit.
FDR used the term, in the same context – everyone has – and Drum completes the scene:
Trump is 70 years old and his cognitive skills are deserting him. The evidence for this is becoming scarily abundant.
That’s the movie, a sad tale, a national tragedy, or a national emergency, and Matthew Yglesias has more:
Trump says that Ireland “never raised their taxes” during the Great Recession, when in fact Value Added Tax, gas tax, and alcohol taxes went up and the government also imposed a new carbon tax and moved to close some corporate tax loopholes.
Trump says we “always lose” in NAFTA arbitration cases, when in fact that United States has a better won-loss record in such disputes than either Canada or Mexico.
Trump says we run a $15 billion trade deficit with Canada, when in fact last year we ran a trade surplus.
Trump says Reagan’s 1986 tax reform proposal increased the deficit, when it did not.
Trump says we’re “the highest taxed nation in the world,” when in fact the United States has lower taxes than every developed country except Chile, Mexico, and Korea.
At times it’s difficult to know where exactly misstatements end and free associating nonsense begins.
Yglesias adds far more detail, but he studied economics at Harvard, and since few other have, it’s best to skip to his conclusion:
It’s hard to know what to say about this beyond the obvious: Regardless of the topic, the president has basically no idea what’s going on. And his staff has given up on trying to bring him up to speed. Instead, they take advantage of his ignorance to try to sell him on selective misinformation – or flattery from foreign leaders – to park policy outcomes where they would like to see them.
The arc of this story is becoming obvious, but it suddenly became more dramatic:
Acting FBI director Andrew McCabe on Thursday rejected the Trump White House’s characterization of the Russian meddling probe as a low priority and delivered a passionate defense of former director James B. Comey – putting himself squarely at odds with the president while the bureau’s future hangs in the balance.
McCabe, who had been the No. 2 official in the FBI until President Trump fired Comey this week, said that the bureau considered the probe of possible coordination between the Kremlin and the Trump team during the 2016 election campaign a “highly significant investigation” and that it would not be derailed because of a change in leadership.
“You cannot stop the men and women of the FBI from doing the right thing, protecting the American people and upholding the Constitution,” McCabe said.
McCabe’s assertion, which came during a hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee, directly contradicted a White House spokeswoman’s description of the Russian case as “probably one of the smallest things that they’ve got going on their plate.”
Tics tell the story, but dramatic conflict is even better:
McCabe also promised that if the White House tried to interfere in the bureau’s work, he would alert the committee, and he said he would not offer any status updates about the matter to the president or those who work for him.
Everyone knows this trope – the straight-arrow hero versus the power-mad villain – but there’s even more:
McCabe also rejected the president’s assertions that Comey “was not doing a good job” and that the bureau was “in turmoil.” McCabe acknowledged that there were some in the agency who were “frustrated with the outcome” of the investigation of Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server while she was secretary of state – the handling of which was cited as a rationale for firing Comey.
But McCabe defended leadership at the bureau and praised Comey, in particular.
“It has been the greatest privilege and honor of my professional life to work with him,” McCabe said of Comey. “Director Comey enjoyed broad support within the FBI and still does to this day.”
Cue the palace sycophant:
White House principal deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders later disputed that assertion.
“I have heard from countless members of the FBI that are grateful on the president’s decision, and we may have to agree to disagree,” Sanders said.
The idea that Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Mike Huckabee’s daughter, hangs around the FBI and knows all the guys, was laughable – but the press in the room suppressed their giggles – a delicious scene in the hypothetical movie here. And this was laughable elsewhere:
The White House has abandoned the idea of President Trump visiting FBI headquarters after being told he would not be greeted warmly, administration officials told NBC News.
Amid the continuing fallout over his decision to fire FBI Director James Comey, Trump was considering an appearance at the FBI’s J Edgar Hoover Building in downtown Washington, DC. The White House publicly floated the idea as recently as Thursday morning.
Spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders, asked by a reporter whether such a visit was imminent, replied, I believe that it’s very likely that takes place sometime in the next few days.”
But that idea was dropped later Thursday, administration officials said, after the FBI told the White House the optics would not be good. FBI officials made clear that the president would not draw many smiles and cheers, having just unceremoniously sacked a very popular director.
And FBI agents said that, while many of them voted for Trump, after the president unceremoniously fired a very popular director, few were ready to meet him at the bureau with open arms.
Jeff Pegues adds this:
Within the FBI, the Russia investigation is considered to be “a crisis,” the source said, and “there is a whole lot of interfering.” The succession of events surrounding Comey’s firing is not considered to be a coincidence by the agency. In the week before he was terminated, Comey asked Deputy AG Rod Rosenstein for additional resources to pursue the Russia investigation.
Further, his firing came a day after former acting Attorney General Sally Yates had testified before a Senate panel that she had warned the White House that National Security Adviser Michael Flynn “essentially could be blackmailed” because he apparently had lied to his bosses about his contacts with Russian Envoy Sergey Kislyak.
On the same day that Comey was fired, federal prosecutors probing Russian meddling issued grand jury subpoenas for business records of Flynn associates.
And a day later, President Trump held his highest-level meeting with a Russian official, an Oval Office sit-down with Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. Also present – Sergey Kislyak – who was at the center of the conversations leading to Flynn’s firing in February. No U.S. press was allowed into the meeting with Lavrov and Kislyak. U.S. reporters were forced to look at the Kremlin’s social media feeds for posted photos of the president conversing with Lavrov and shaking hands with Kislyak.
The images, especially the photo of Kislyak and Mr. Trump shaking hands, “were laughed at” by law enforcement, the source said.
Put that in the hypothetical screenplay too, and Jim Acosta explains why:
The White House did not anticipate that the Russian government would allow its state news agency to post photographs of an Oval Office meeting between President Donald Trump, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Russia’s ambassador to the US, a White House official said.
Photos of Wednesday’s meeting, taken by a Russian state news media photographer one day after Trump fired FBI Director James Comey amid questions about possible Trump campaign collusion with Moscow, were ultimately posted by Russia’s news agency, TASS.
The White House did not post photos of the meeting until Thursday. The State Department did post photos of Lavrov’s meeting with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, but that was open to the press.
“They tricked us,” an angry White House official said.
“That’s the problem with the Russians – they lie,” the official added.
No, the problem is that someone is clueless:
The Russians used the photos to troll the White House in its social media posts Wednesday. The Russian Foreign Ministry posted a photo of a smiling US President shaking hands with Lavrov on Twitter, adding strange and ironic optics to the questions already swirling around the White House over Comey’s firing.
In response to the White House official’s complaint that the White House was “tricked,” former Obama administration national security adviser Susan Rice said on Twitter: “No kidding!”
This screenplay practically writes itself, but Josh Marshall is worried:
Foreign Ministers don’t usually meet with the President of the United States. I’m not saying it never happens. It does sometimes, especially if it’s the foreign minister of a major power, which of course Russia is. It also happens when there’s some particular business of importance to be hashed out. But Foreign Ministers generally meet with the Secretary of State and Defense Ministers meet the Defense Secretary, etc. It’s a rather straightforward matter of counterparts, parity and status. A Foreign Minister meeting with the President, particularly a chummy meeting in the Oval Office, is not standard procedure and generally signifies a warmness of relations between the two countries or some specific business to be hashed out.
Now does this matter – standard procedure or not? In a way, no, but in the world we live in, a meeting with the President in the Oval Office is a prize, sort of a bauble for the administration to bestow. When relations are chilly, someone like Lavrov would likely be frozen out.
So why did the President hold this meeting? According to Susan Glasser, Trump had the meeting because Putin asked and said it was important.
Glasser notes this:
The chummy White House visit – photos of the president yukking it up with Lavrov and Russian Ambassador to the United States Sergey Kislyak were released by the Russian Foreign Ministry since no U.S. press was allowed to cover the visit – had been one of Putin’s asks in his recent phone call with Trump, And indeed the White House acknowledged this to me later Wednesday. “He chose to receive him because Putin asked him to,” a White House spokesman said of Trump’s Lavrov meeting. “Putin did specifically ask on the call when they last talked.”
President Obama met with Lavrov in the White House in 2013 and had the standard seated in chairs side by side photo shoot. Presidents do favors for foreign leaders as part of the give and take of statecraft. But we’re told that US-Russian relations are at their worst pass since the end of the Cold War. Whatever special bond Trump and Putin had during 2016 has been replaced by icier relations driven by his new top advisors at the Pentagon and the NSC. That’s a bit hard to reconcile with this. It seems like President Trump’s special relationship with Vladimir Putin is on-going.
The minor stuff tells the story. Even a quiet dinner can tell the story. On January 26, deputy attorney general Sally Yates carefully told the White House that Mike Flynn had been compromised by the Russians – he could be blackmailed – they could make him their man. The next day, according to the New York Times, Donald Trump invited FBI director James Comey over for dinner:
As they ate, the president and Mr. Comey made small talk about the election and the crowd sizes at Mr. Trump’s rallies. The president then turned the conversation to whether Mr. Comey would pledge his loyalty to him.
Mr. Comey declined to make that pledge. Instead, Mr. Comey has recounted to others, he told Mr. Trump that he would always be honest with him, but that he was not “reliable” in the conventional political sense…
By Mr. Comey’s account, his answer to Mr. Trump’s initial question apparently did not satisfy the president, the associates said. Later in the dinner, Mr. Trump again said to Mr. Comey that he needed his loyalty.
Mr. Comey again replied that he would give him “honesty” and did not pledge his loyalty, according to the account of the conversation.
But Mr. Trump pressed him on whether it would be “honest loyalty.”
“You will have that,” Mr. Comey told his associates he responded.
That’s a dramatic scene – an awkward silence follows – neither of them now knows what the hell their talking about – the White House waiter coughs. It’s perfect, but the New York Times dryly adds this:
As described by the two people, the dinner offers a window into Mr. Trump’s approach to the presidency, through Mr. Comey’s eyes. A businessman and reality television star who never served in public office, Mr. Trump may not have understood that by tradition, FBI directors are not supposed to be political loyalists, which is why Congress in the 1970s passed a law giving them 10-year terms to make them independent of the president.
Oops. But Trump is new at this, as shown in his interview with NBC’s Lester Holt describing how he decided to fire Comey:
He’s a showboat, he’s a grandstander… Regardless of recommendation, I was going to fire Comey… And in fact when I decided to just do it I said to myself, I said, “You know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story, it’s an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election that they should’ve won.”
Kevin Drum is amazed:
So, there’s the president himself, on national television, telling everyone that the Russia investigation was at the top of his mind when he decided to fire Comey. He was angry that Comey had kept the Russia investigation alive even though it was obviously just a bogus partisan smear, so out he went.
I don’t know about you, but if I did something like that I’d keep it to myself.
Donald Trump doesn’t get it:
President Donald Trump on Thursday said that he did not consider the optics or potential backlash of suddenly firing former FBI Director James Comey, who led the bureau’s investigation into possible collusion between members of Trump’s campaign and Russian officials.
“I never thought about it. It was set up a while ago, and frankly I could have waited. But what difference does it make?” Trump said…
In an interview with NBC News’ Lester Holt, Trump appeared unconcerned with the optics of the decision, and insisted he was not trying to send a message to Comey’s successor regarding the bureau’s probe into Russian election interference.
“Did you ask him to drop the investigation?” Holt asked.
“I want to find out if there was a problem in the election having to do with Russia,” Trump insisted. “I just want somebody that’s competent.”
“But when you put out tweets, ‘it’s a total hoax, it’s a taxpayer charade,’ and you’re looking for a new FBI director, are you not sending that person a message to lay off?” Holt asked.
“No, I’m not doing that,” Trump said.
Yes, he is. Irony is useful in an effective screenplay too, but Josh Marshall sees how this ends:
This is an astonishing, shuddering moment. In his interview with Lester Holt, President Trump essentially admits to obstruction of justice…
On the substance of why he fired James Comey and what he was trying to achieve, it could scarcely be clearer. He says that in the moment he was making the decision to fire Comey he was thinking about the Russia investigation, his belief that it was illegitimate (“a made up story”), and, implicitly, that he wanted to end it.
The character’s tics tell the character’s story:
As much as I feel like I know this guy, as much as I put basically nothing past him, it is a bracing thing to see a sitting President admit such a thing on camera. It’s an example of something I think we know: Trump is so undisciplined, so controlled by his anger and desire to dominate and be right that he cannot help going off script, adopting what is perhaps his third or fourth version of this story, and admitting what I think has to amount to an impeachable offense.
He is saying what we know: that he fired James Comey to put an end to the Russia probe.
It should also be noted that Donald Trump has now also admitted on national television – in the same interview – that he directly asked James Comey three times if he was under investigation. The president of the United States cannot call the director of the FBI and ask if he is under investigation, not when the threat of firing the FBI director is obviously hanging in the air. It makes for great drama. It might also make for impeachment.
It’s also a bit familiar:
“It is so clumsy and butchered the way he handled it, that the natural conclusion you would come to is that he is trying to block the Russian investigation,” said John Dean, who served as White House counsel for President Richard Nixon. “But again, is he that foolish and blatant? It makes it more likely for a special prosecutor to be appointed. And it makes it more likely that the FBI is going to double down.”
“People think Nixon was some master criminal,” Dean added. “He was not. He was just making one stupid mistake after another. This is a repeat… Nixon was shy but had supreme self-confidence. Trump is not shy but is supremely self-confident. And they both have authoritarian personalities.”
And of course someone already made that Nixon movie – not that this story ever gets old. Nixon just had different tics. “You’re going back to goddamned steam!” The small stuff makes the big stuff inevitable.