Former English teachers don’t have many secrets – we’re a boring lot – but there is one. Shakespeare is wonderful, but none of us likes King Lear – and maybe no one does. The guy’s a whiner. This isn’t tragedy. This is just irritating. The rich old king, kind of losing his marbles at the end of things, disposes of his kingdom by giving most of it to two of his three daughters – Goneril and Regan, the ones who flatter the old guy but laugh at him behind his back. The third daughter, Cordelia, won’t kiss ass. She tells the old man to get it together – the whole world isn’t out to get him – and he’s not all that wonderful. He’s a good man, but he’s just a man – but of course he’s needy man. He needs to be told he’s wonderful or he sulks, or flies into fits of rage.
He’s a bit of an asshole, and Cordelia tells him to snap out of it, damn it – so he cuts her out of the will. He rages about her ingratitude, and about the unfairness of life in general, for fives acts. Why doesn’t everyone see that he’s wonderful?
He isn’t. Cordelia tells him he’s being used. That ticks him off. The other two daughters must be right. He wanders about in the storm, raging and feeling sorry for himself, until he finally gets it – but Cordelia doesn’t change his mind. The Fool – there’s always a court fool – mocks him until he gets it. Cordelia had been right all along. And of course ass-kissers are never on your side. They’re looking out for themselves. Okay, he gets it – the end.
This makes for bad theater, because everyone knows all this already. Those who play Lear have a great deal of fun chewing the scenery, but this is no fun for the audience. No one wants to watch an asshole rage for three hours on stage until he finally figures out that he had been being an asshole all along. Of course this could be played as a comedy. Imagine a cartoon version with Homer Simpson’s father, Abe, as Lear. It’s the “old man yells at cloud” thing – but then that’s not tragedy. That’s farce. Not all of Shakespeare is wonderful.
This is also why America is having no fun at the moment either, because the parallels are obvious. Donald Trump is our King Lear. The New York Times’ Anna North spells it out:
In the wake of reports that he shared classified intelligence with Russian officials and allegations that he asked James Comey to stop the investigation into Michael Flynn, the president’s mood “has become sour and dark, and he has turned against most of his aides – even his son-in-law, Jared Kushner – describing them in a fury as ‘incompetent,'” Glenn Thrush and Maggie Haberman reported at the Times.
On Wednesday, he told United States Coast Guard Academy graduates, “No politician in history, and I say this with great surety, has been treated worse or more unfairly.”
That was Trump as Lear, raging against the unfair tragedy of his life, or it was farce – and he was mocked mercilessly for that – but North sees only Lear:
It’s not hard to imagine President Trump railing against the heavens, orange pate standing in for Lear’s “white head,” proclaiming himself “a man more sinn’d against than sinning.” Even the language of news reports has a Learian feel: “President Donald Trump, amid his own swirling controversies”; “the maelstrom raged around the staff”; “the tempest in Washington.”
Of course, Mr. Trump’s storm, unlike Lear’s, is of his own creation.
That is obvious too:
On Tuesday morning, he tweeted, “I have been asking Director Comey & others, from the beginning of my administration, to find the LEAKERS in the intelligence community,” then trailed off with an ominous ellipsis. His only tweets since then have been anodyne – or at least anodyne for President Trump – a link to a story about industrial production and a video of his speech welcoming President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey.
His aides must be relieved. “We are hoping the president doesn’t tweet,” one told Politico on Tuesday night. “Fingers crossed.”
This is, after all, more farce than it is tragedy:
During their break from doing Twitter damage control, Mr. Trump’s staff has been busy preparing him for his first trip abroad as president. They are giving him lots of charts, graphs and photos and inserting his name at regular intervals in briefing materials “because he keeps reading if he’s mentioned,” according to a Reuters report.
Meanwhile, NATO is telling heads of state to keep their remarks at a May 25 summit under four minutes to accommodate the president’s attention span, according to Foreign Policy. “It’s like they’re preparing to deal with a child – someone with a short attention span and mood who has no knowledge of NATO, no interest in in-depth policy issues, nothing,” a source with knowledge of the preparations told Foreign Policy.
As farce, that’s funny, but there may be tragedy here:
At this point, regardless of what happens with Mr. Comey, the Russians and anything else that comes out of the White House in the next few days, it’s hard to see how Mr. Trump can function as the president. Reports cast him as someone who cannot be trusted to perform the core duties of his office. Before the Inauguration, some speculated that Mr. Trump might operate as a head of state, flying around the world and meeting dignitaries while leaving the day-to-day workings of government to his vice president. It now appears he cannot even manage that: Mr. Thrush and Ms. Haberman report that some of his advisers “fear leaving him alone in meetings with foreign leaders out of concern he might speak out of turn.”
That’s where the parallel to the the Shakespeare play matters:
He seems to lack a Cordelia who will speak to him honestly. Instead, Mr. Trump has been Regan and Goneriled all the way to the presidency, flattered and coddled by his advisers, the Republican establishment and his family to the point where flattery and coddling are useless and no amount of careful management can keep him from revealing state secrets and then bragging about it on Twitter.
It’s not clear whether someone who refuses to lie, flatter or curry favor would have much influence with Mr. Trump, so surrounded is he by people willing to do all of those things.
And we have to sit through this damned play, but the plot thickens:
Sen. John McCain stood up in front of the media Tuesday night and compared President Donald Trump’s daily scandals to Watergate and Iran-Contra.
And no one from the White House bothered to call up the Arizona Republican afterward and check in with him.
“I’m going to wait by the phone,” McCain said dryly Wednesday.
The Trump White House has done essentially no damage control in the aftermath of reports that ousted FBI Director James Comey wrote a memo alleging that Trump tried to kill a probe into former national security adviser Michael Flynn. No talking points have been distributed, and few reassurances have been given to Republicans, leaving frazzled and exhausted lawmakers to freelance their own response.
Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), whose job in leadership is to help Republicans formulate a message and conceivably defend a president of their own party, had received no outreach from the White House as of Wednesday afternoon.
Several Republican sources said they’re not sure if the White House fully realizes that the alleged Comey memos and accusations of obstruction of justice are going to be a big problem for Trump’s standing on Capitol Hill.
“I have been here for years and I have never felt the tension I felt on the floor yesterday,” said one House Republican source. “I was picking up on this vibe. It’s bad. It’s palpable, and it needs to be addressed by the White House because members are off floating around and not sure how to respond.”
Every good play should have a bit of mystery about it, and then one point where the hammer drops:
The Justice Department appointed a special counsel Wednesday to investigate possible coordination between President Trump’s associates and Russian officials – a clear signal to the White House that federal investigators will aggressively pursue the matter despite the president’s insistence that there was no “collusion” with the Kremlin.
Robert S. Mueller III, a former prosecutor who served as the FBI director from 2001 to 2013, has agreed to take over the investigation as a special counsel, Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein announced. The move marks a concession by the Trump administration to Democratic demands for the investigation to be run independently of the Justice Department. Calls for a special counsel intensified after Trump fired FBI Director James B. Comey last week.
The hammer really did drop:
“In my capacity as acting attorney general I determined that it is in the public interest for me to exercise my authority and appoint a special counsel to assume responsibility for this matter,” Rosenstein said in a statement. “My decision is not a finding that crimes have been committed or that any prosecution is warranted. I have made no such determination. What I have determined is that based upon the unique circumstances the public interest requires me to place this investigation under the authority of a person who exercises a degree of independence from the normal chain of command.”
Mueller, often described by those who worked for him as a stern and press-averse disciplinarian, issued a characteristically terse statement: “I accept this responsibility and will discharge it to the best of my ability.”
Impeachment is now in the air, and Trump had to drop his King Lear impression:
Trump reacted to the news by saying “a thorough investigation will confirm what we already know – there was no collusion between my campaign and any foreign entity. I look forward to this matter concluding quickly. In the meantime, I will never stop fighting for the people and the issues that matter most to the future of our country.”
The White House did not learn of Rosenstein’s decision until just 30 minutes before the public announcement was made. Rosenstein called White House Counsel Donald McGahn at 5:30 p.m. to inform him, at which point McGahn walked downstairs from his second-floor office to the Oval Office to notify Trump…
Trump summoned his senior staff to the Oval Office, and together they drafted a statement reacting to the decision, coming from the president, that was distributed to reporters shortly after 7 p.m.
One senior White House official who was present for the discussions described Trump as “unbelievably calm and measured.”
“I expected him to be ranting and raving, but he was like, ‘Fine, let them do what they have to do, but we’ll be focused on our agenda,'” said this official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the private talks.
This may mean that the daily Trump tweetstorms may stop – for now – but Trump has only himself to blame:
Rosenstein was put in charge of the Russia probe after Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself. Democrats have challenged Rosenstein’s impartiality in the Russia probe because he wrote a memorandum initially used as the rationale for Comey’s firing. In the memo, Rosenstein said Comey had violated long-standing Justice Department practices in his handling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server, but shortly after the announcement of the firing, the president said he had decided to fire Comey before he received the recommendation from Rosenstein.
Rosenstein is scheduled to brief the full Senate in a closed session on Thursday.
Former colleagues said Rosenstein’s move may help restore his battered reputation among current and former government lawyers. “He got absolutely pummeled by people that he knows,” said a former senior Obama administration lawyer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk candidly. “I think this move, as so often happens in Washington, where there is the opportunity to wash away your sins, was a thorough scrubbing.”
Out, damned spot! No, wait – that’s Macbeth. This is King Lear:
In his new role, Mueller answers to, and in theory could be fired by, Rosenstein, but in practice a special counsel is not subject to daily supervision by any Justice Department official. And given that Mueller’s appointment came about largely because of the firing of the FBI director, it would probably touch off a new political firestorm if Mueller were ever dismissed.
Trump may want those around him who will tell him he’s wonderful, but now he’s stuck with Cordelia – the honest one.
Josh Marshall adds further detail:
Mueller has a strong reputation for professionalism. He was in DC for years. So people will have disagreements about this or that. He also headed the FBI for the whole post-9/11 era, during which the US pursued numerous highly controversial law enforcement and counter-terrorism policies. But with Mueller overseeing the investigation, I think that if anyone under scrutiny broke any laws they’re likely in pretty big trouble. For the purposes of this appointment, that’s what matters. I don’t think Mueller has any interest or willingness to cover for President Trump or any of his associates.
And there was this:
This was Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein’s call. Initial reports say he did not consult with the White House about the decision and had finalized the order with his signature before notifying the White House. He apparently gave the White House about 30-minutes heads up. Reading between the lines, piecing together the embargoes that the big news organizations waited on until 6 pm, it sounds like this happened: The DOJ contacted the White House and the major news organizations around the same time, made the news organizations agree to an embargo until 6 pm and that brief period from 5 or 5:30 until 6 pm was the White House’s heads up.
That is about the absolute minimal courtesy Rosenstein could have provided.
I still think Rosenstein deserves all the reputational damage he incurred over the last ten days or so. He knew what he was participating in when he involved himself in the Comey firing. What he probably didn’t realize was that Trump would essentially blame him for the decision. How much this is payback, an attempt to repair his reputation or simply put things right, you’re as good a judge as I am.
That may not matter, because the hammer did drop:
I believe this decision was close to inevitable. It is a major investigation, with a focus directly on the White House, with massive public interest. The President has already demonstrably tried to end the investigation. There’s simply no way that investigation can be credibly carried on by personnel serving at the pleasure of the President.
But here’s the key. This is important and necessary but not sufficient.
There also needs to be an independent commission to investigate what happened in the 2016 election. These two options – special counsel or independent commission – are often bandied about as two separate options, one or the other, or as steps of escalation in a scandal. None of those things is true.
In short, this wasn’t enough:
It is critical to understand that the most important details we need to know about the Russian disruption campaign and the Trump campaign’s possible collusion with it may not be crimes. Indeed, I would say that the crimes we’re likely to discover will likely be incidental or secondary to the broader actions and activities we’re trying to uncover. Just hypothetically, what if Russia had a disruption campaign, Trump campaign officials gave winks and nods to nudge it forward but violated no laws? That’s hard to figure but by no means impossible. (Our criminal laws are not really designed for this set of facts.) The simple point is that the most important ‘bad acts’ may well not be crimes. That means not only is no one punished but far, far more important, we would never know what happened.
People who committed crimes should be punished… but the truest and deepest national interest is that the whole story be thoroughly investigated and the full story gets a public airing. That is far more important to the health of the Republic and its safety than whether particular individuals spend time in prison. Again, it’s not either/or. But one is far more important than the other. A counter-intelligence probe or even a criminal investigation could wind up and the details and findings never be known. That can’t be allowed to happen. We need a fully empowered commission charged not with investigating and prosecuting criminal conduct but ascertaining, as far as possible, what happened and then bringing that information before the public.
That’s critical. This is an important step – great that it happened – but the country can’t get past this without that full accounting.
That’s a tall order, and if Marshall is right, the Mueller appointment may end with no more than as few secondary figures charged and convicted of crimes that don’t matter a whole lot. Trump will be fine. We’ll still have our mad King Lear, and the only remedy for that may be the Twenty-Fifth Amendment – everyone agrees to remove the guy who cannot do the job, who is unfit for office.
Dahlia Lithwick, however, has some issues with that:
Will impeachment happen? Could Trump simply admit defeat and stand down? Or could proving his mental incompetence to be president force his hand?
The last option has gained traction in the past few days – perhaps because it is increasingly obvious to anyone following the news that Congress has no stomach for impeachment, and also that the president is demonstrably not up to the job. Trump’s missteps have more frequently revealed themselves to be blunders of incompetence rather than blunders of malice (though they can often be both). It’s become standard for reports coming from the inside of the White House to acknowledge, slyly at first but now overtly, that Trump is in constant need of managing. He believes false reports and refuses to read truthful ones. He lashes out at anyone who hasn’t lied for him adequately. There are now entire reports devoted to his rage, his anger, his madness and his inability to accept responsibility.
And that could trigger Article 4 of the Amendment:
Whenever the Vice President and a majority of either the principal officers of the executive departments or of such other body as Congress may by law provide, transmit to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives their written declaration that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, the Vice President shall immediately assume the powers and duties of the office as Acting President.
Lithwick says dream on:
The most practical problem with the 25th Amendment option is that it won’t happen. The selfsame Cabinet and vice president tasked with assessing the president are still enabling him. That’s how you get lines like the closer of this New York Times’ piece assessing the president’s alleged blurting of classified intelligence reports to Russian officials: Three administration officials privately reported “that they could not publicly articulate their most compelling – and honest – defense of the president: that Mr. Trump, a hasty and indifferent reader of printed briefing materials, simply did not possess the interest or knowledge of the granular details of intelligence gathering to leak specific sources and methods of intelligence gathering that would do harm to United States allies.”
Put more simply, these officials know the president didn’t leak anything of deep and granular significance with respect to sources and methods because he doesn’t read or comprehend well enough to understand them.
That’s Goneril and Regan doing their dishonest thing:
Even the people on Trump’s side see his incompetence. Unfortunately, they also still work for him. They’re not going to fire him: They know he’s simply a useful stooge (though his level of usefulness depends on the time of day, they’re realizing).
That’s the problem with tilting at the 25th Amendment windmill – the people who would need to trigger it won’t. Invoking it would not only require the moral backbone they clearly lack, it would also implicate the same people who benefit from Trump’s deficiencies.
But it’s more than that:
Many of the Cabinet officials who might rightly affirm that Trump is unable to discharge his duties are similarly unable to discharge their own. Trump’s chief infirmity – the vanity, wealth, and self-regard that was mistakenly confused with effective leadership – is actually shared by the vast majority of his cabinet, most of whom – in the manner of any individual Kardashian – seem to prize money and power more than they prize governance or democracy. For instance, it’s abundantly clear that neither Betsy DeVos nor Ben Carson is fit to execute their own Cabinet positions. Are they also to be summarily removed? Jeff Sessions has gone along with the worst of Trump’s plans, drafting the legal justification for the stalled-out Muslim ban. If we can see clearly enough to judge Trump unfit, surely Sessions is as well.
Then add this:
We already know that the people with the power to stop Trump – the Republicans in the House and Senate who declare themselves “troubled” and “concerned” by his actions – are so hell-bent on destroying the regulatory state, harming the weak, imposing Christianity on nonbelievers, and giving tax breaks to the wealthy, that Trump’s fitness raises no alarms. Unfortunately, that isn’t a DSM-IV=level diagnosable pathology. It’s what we call conservatism in America.
So it is essentially guaranteed that the 25th Amendment will not be invoked. And here’s the kicker: It shouldn’t be. Disturbing and shattering as it is that the president cannot read and understand classified security briefings, it does not make him mentally ill. It makes him exactly what many Americans voted for: an incurious self-obsessed man with a middling mind who happened to reach great heights thanks to a perfect storm of privilege, cheating and fame. He isn’t necessarily unfit or unwell; he is the same Donald Trump who won the Oval Office on the unspoken proposition that anyone could do it.
Dahlia Lithwick is obviously auditioning for the part of Cordelia in our current production of King Lear:
Let’s stop calling it a disability and call it what it is: What we are now. That American exceptionalism came to be represented by fact-free-apology-free table-toppling melodrama instead of sane and sober governance means that Donald Trump isn’t the disease that plagues modern America, he’s the symptom. Arguing that ritual acting out of these qualities makes him too mentally infirm to execute the office of the president only allows him to become the ultimate victim of his own toxic reality show. It would also allow the people who might theoretically gather together to oust him to absolve themselves for their complicity in colluding with and covering for him. Removing Trump from office on a mental health pretext will not fix America – it will merely allow the people who put him there to receive accolades for having finally done the right thing.
Cordelia always was a buzz-kill, but Lithwick is onto something. Cordelia was right. She tells the old man to get it together – the whole world isn’t out to get him – and he’s not all that wonderful. Cordelia was also ignored – the Fool got the old man to snap out of it. Trump needs one of those, a court jester. That may be the only solution now. No one wants to sit through this play any longer. It wasn’t Shakespeare’s best.