Oscar Wilde was onto something. In An Ideal Husband one of the characters says this – “In England people actually try to be brilliant at breakfast. That is so dreadful of them! Only dull people are brilliant at breakfast.”
No one is brilliant at breakfast. After a whole lot of coffee, and perhaps something a bit sugary – and in France, four or five Gauloises smoked to the butt-end – they may end up marginally functional. That’ll get them to work. They can be brilliant there – and dull people only seem brilliant at breakfast. They’re still dull. It’s just that everyone else is in a haze. It’s a matter of contrast. They’re more irritating than brilliant. They’re a pain in the ass.
That, however, is only a minor matter in the Wilde play, which is actually about blackmail and political corruption, and about public and private honor. There isn’t much of that anywhere to be seen. There’s much to laugh at. The play is full of dull people who think they’re brilliant.
Beware of such people, particularly at breakfast. They’re not really brilliant. The Washington Post’s Ashley Parker and Philip Rucker provide an example:
President Trump has a new morning ritual. Around 6:30 a.m. on many days – before all the network news shows have come on the air – he gets on the phone with a member of his outside legal team to chew over all things Russia.
The calls – detailed by three senior White House officials – are part strategy consultation and part presidential venting session, during which Trump’s lawyers and public-relations gurus take turns reviewing the latest headlines with him. They also devise their plan for battling his avowed enemies: the special counsel leading the Russia investigation; the “fake news” media chronicling it; and, in some instances, the president’s own Justice Department overseeing the probe.
They may be humoring him, because these seem to be only presidential venting sessions:
His advisers have encouraged the calls – which the early-to-rise Trump takes from his private quarters in the White House residence – in hopes that he can compartmentalize the widening Russia investigation. By the time the president arrives for work in the Oval Office, the thinking goes, he will no longer be consumed by the Russia probe that he complains hangs over his presidency like a darkening cloud.
In short, let the dull man think he’s brilliant at breakfast. Let him get the nonsense out of his system. Then he can be (relatively) brilliant at work, later, like a normal person.
That’s the plan, but this may be just a snarky Oscar Wilde comedy:
Asked whether the tactic was effective, one top White House adviser paused for several seconds and then just laughed.
Trump’s grievances and moods often bleed into one another. Frustration with the investigation stews inside him until it bubbles up in the form of rants to aides about unfair cable television commentary or as slights aimed at Attorney General Jeff Sessions and his deputy, Rod J. Rosenstein.
And, of course, it emerges in fiery tweets about the “WITCH HUNT” – or, as he wrote Thursday morning, shortly before an event promoting leadership in technology, “a big Dem HOAX!”
This is a lost cause, and all that’s left is damage control:
Interviews with 22 senior administration officials, outside advisers, and Trump confidants and allies reveal a White House still trying, after five months of halting progress, to establish a steady rhythm of governance while also indulging and managing Trump’s combative and sometimes self-destructive impulses.
The White House is laboring to prevent the Russia matter from overtaking its broader agenda, diligently rolling out a series of theme weeks, focusing on topics including infrastructure and workforce development. West Wing aides are working to keep the president on schedule, trotting him around the country in front of the supportive crowds that energize him.
Oscar Wilde would have fun with that, but this really isn’t funny:
Some in the White House fret over what they view as the president’s fits of rage, and Trump’s longtime friends say his mood has been more sour than at any point since they have known him.
They privately worry about his health, noting that he appears to have gained weight in recent months and that the darkness around his eyes reveals his stress.
Parker and Rucker go on to describe what follows that. Everyone is one edge. No one knows who the next target of Trump’s rage is. Some hide, some leak to the press to save their hides should it all implode. Some hope to ride it out and come out on top. Parker and Rucker discuss them all, and it’s not a comedy. The dull man is dangerous. He may be a danger to the country.
He also may be in denial. CNN’s Jeremy Diamond covers that:
White House press secretary Sean Spicer on Tuesday said he didn’t know whether President Donald Trump believes Russia was behind interference in the 2016 election.
“I have not sat down and talked to him about that specifically,” Spicer said, again repeating the same explanation when pressed.
Donald Trump doesn’t want to talk about that, but everyone knows the facts:
The US intelligence community concluded months ago that Russia was behind the hacking of Democratic groups and other activity in the 2016 election designed to help elect Trump and hurt his Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton’s chances in the election. The intelligence community released its conclusions in a public report in January.
The final report followed the US intelligence community’s initial statement in October 2016 that claimed senior Russian officials directed the hacking of Democratic Party organizations during the 2016 presidential campaign.
Donald Trump has a problem with that:
Trump has repeatedly cast doubt on the intelligence community’s conclusions, though he did concede in January that Russia was likely responsible.
“As far as hacking, I think it was Russia, but I think we also get hacked by other countries and other people,” Trump said at a January news conference before his inauguration.
Asked again in April about the intelligence community’s conclusions, Trump appeared ambivalent.
“I’ll go along with Russia,” Trump said, adding: “Could’ve been China, could’ve been a lot of different groups.”
Now he always says “if” Russia did this, for obvious reasons:
The President’s refusal to pin the blame full-stop on Russia for its campaign to influence the 2016 election stems from allegations that of collusion between Trump campaign associates and Russians – which Trump has emphatically denied. Trump has said that the allegations are aimed at undermining his electoral victory in November.
One thing leads to another. He is sure that there was no collusion between his campaign associates and the Russians – but he’s worried that their might have been, and he didn’t know it, so to cover all possibilities he’s convinced himself that the Russians may have done nothing at all.
That fixes everything. If they did nothing, he has nothing, something he might not yet know, to worry about. They did nothing. That solves that problem. All he has to do is say he’s agrees with Vladimir Putin, who keeps saying the Russians did nothing at all, and say our intelligence agencies don’t know shit. He did call the CIA a bunch of Nazis after all. Then he has to convince all good Americans to stand with him, shoulder to shoulder with Vladimir Putin, against our intelligence services, and our military, top to bottom, and every other Republican, and just about everyone else in America.
That might not be the way to go. Maybe it’s best not to know:
Former FBI Director James Comey testified earlier this month that Trump never asked him about Russia’s efforts to influence the 2016 election. But Trump did ask him on multiple occasions about the FBI’s investigation into ties between Trump campaign associates and Russians.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions – who did not recuse himself from the Russia probe until a month into his tenure – testified last week that he has never received a classified briefing on Russian interference in the 2016 election.
That’s the White House directive. Let’s not talk about this.
Forget that. The Washington Post just published a lengthy exclusive detailing the Obama administration’s response in its last days to reports that Russia had worked to interfere in the 2016 election that opened with this:
Early last August, an envelope with extraordinary handling restrictions arrived at the White House. Sent by courier from the CIA, it carried “eyes only” instructions that its contents be shown to just four people: President Barack Obama and three senior aides.
Inside was an intelligence bombshell, a report drawn from sourcing deep inside the Russian government that detailed Russian President Vladimir Putin’s direct involvement in a cyber campaign to disrupt and discredit the U.S. presidential race.
But it went further. The intelligence captured Putin’s specific instructions on the operation’s audacious objectives – defeat or at least damage the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, and help elect her opponent, Donald Trump.
The CIA has Putin’s specific instructions, and Slate’s Osita Nwanevu summarizes the rest:
The Post’s report details internal debates about how to respond to the information, which was tightly guarded with extraordinary measures. The administration ultimately decided to pursue a set of limited sanctions in December, disappointing some officials. “The punishment did not fit the crime,” former Russia ambassador Michael McFaul told the Post. A broader array of options was considered and efforts were undertaken to bolster electoral security, but the administration’s response was stymied by a number of factors.
It got complicated:
Obama was wary of politicizing the scandal: As has been previously reported, President Obama and others in the administration were deeply wary of creating the impression that responses to Russia’s actions were motivated by a desire to aid Hillary Clinton’s election. The Post reports, for instance, that in September, Obama intentionally refused to place his signature on the intelligence community’s public statement about Russia’s actions. “To some, Obama’s determination to avoid politicizing the Russia issue had the opposite effect,” the Post’s Greg Miller, Ellen Nakashima, and Adam Entous write. “It meant that he allowed politics to shape his administration’s response to what some believed should have been treated purely as a national security threat.”
Republicans obstructed efforts to address the situation: The Post’s report mentions Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson’s effort to warn state officials about the vulnerability of their election systems to attack. At a House hearing Wednesday, Johnson said that the responses had “ranged from neutral to negative.” This was in part because Republican officials framed the effort as a nefarious attempt to infringe on state sovereignty. Republicans on the Hill were no more responsive.
The Post was clear about that:
The Dems were, ‘Hey, we have to tell the public,’ recalled one participant. But Republicans resisted, arguing that to warn the public that the election was under attack would further Russia’s aim of sapping confidence in the system.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) went further, officials said, voicing skepticism that the underlying intelligence truly supported the White House’s claims. Through a spokeswoman, McConnell declined to comment, citing the secrecy of that meeting.
Key Democrats were stunned by the GOP response and exasperated that the White House seemed willing to let Republican opposition block any pre-election move.
Nwanevu adds this:
Clinton’s likelihood of victory shaped the response: The administration assumed that a highly likely Clinton victory in November would give the new administration ample time to pursue aggressive counteraction. Trump’s election, of course, upended things.
The Post was clear about that too:
Suddenly, Obama faced a successor who had praised WikiLeaks and prodded Moscow to steal even more Clinton emails, while dismissing the idea that Russia was any more responsible for the election assault than “somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds.”
“The White House was mortified and shocked,” said a former administration official. “From national security people there was a sense of immediate introspection, of, ‘Wow, did we mishandle this.'”
Trump’s victory changed things, so we began a war:
The cyber operation is still in its early stages and involves deploying “implants” in Russian networks deemed “important to the adversary and that would cause them pain and discomfort if they were disrupted,” a former U.S. official said.
The implants were developed by the NSA and designed so that they could be triggered remotely as part of retaliatory cyber-strike in the face of Russian aggression, whether an attack on a power grid or interference in a future presidential race.
Officials familiar with the measures said that there was concern among some in the administration that the damage caused by the implants could be difficult to contain.
As with a nuclear war, things could get out of hand. They shut down our power grids, we shut down their power grids. They shut down our financial system, we shut down theirs. Either way, it’s back to the Stone Age.
Nwanevu notes we settled for this:
Amid the sanctions, Obama’s State Department shut down a pair of Russian compounds in the U.S. suspected to be centers for espionage. And the motivation behind those closures included a previously unreported confrontation between a Russian military helicopter and “a vehicle being driven by the U.S. defense attaché on a stretch of road between Murmansk and Pechenga in northern Russia.”
It’s going to be hard for Trump to hide in denial now, and Ed Kilgore adds this:
Yes, the Obama administration took “punitive measures” right before it left office, but there was little or no follow-up from the Trump administration. You don’t have to believe the Trump campaign colluded with the Russians to understand why the new administration did not want to “go there”: Why should it undermine its own electoral legitimacy?
And so, Russia interfered, Obama couldn’t stop it, and Putin was rewarded for his very bad behavior. Will the Trump administration and its allies in Congress do anything other than wish the whole thing away? Probably not. And that is a travesty, even if Team Trump was an innocent beneficiary of the Kremlin’s intervention.
Will Saletan goes further than that:
Did President Obama blow the 2016 election? Should he have spoken up sooner and louder about Russia’s interference? That’s what many Democrats are wondering, particularly after reading the Washington Post’s latest investigative report on Obama’s reticent response to the Russian attack…
There’s plenty to second-guess in Obama’s management of this episode. But the idea that he failed because Trump won is wrong. Obama’s job wasn’t to prevent the election of a particular person, even one as awful as Trump. Obama’s job was to preserve the country. That meant protecting the integrity of our elections and public faith in them, which he did, to the extent possible after Russia had already hacked into the Democratic National Committee and spread misinformation. The next task – exposing the full extent of Russia’s interference, punishing it, and deterring future attacks – is up to Trump. If he fails, the responsibility to hold him accountable falls to Congress. And if Congress fails, the job of electing a new, more patriotic legislature falls to voters.
Until then, don’t blame Obama:
According to the U.S. intelligence community’s Jan. 6 assessment, Vladimir Putin’s long-term goal in directing the interference campaign was to “undermine public faith in the US democratic process.” Obama responded accordingly. “We set out from a first-order principle that required us to defend the integrity of the vote,” Obama’s former chief of staff, Denis McDonough, told the Post. Russia’s hacks and leaks were bad, but corruption of voter rolls and election tallies would be far worse. So the Obama administration focused on alerting state officials, fortifying cyber-defenses, and privately threatening Russia with retaliation.
Why didn’t Obama raise public alarms about Russian infiltration? Because that might have backfired. “Trump was predicting that the election would be rigged,” says the Post. “Obama officials feared providing fuel to such claims, playing into Russia’s efforts to discredit the outcome.” According to the paper, Obama and his team “worried that any action they took would be perceived as political interference in an already volatile campaign.” Rather than speak up when the CIA first warned him about Putin’s moves, Obama waited for “a high-confidence assessment from U.S. intelligence agencies on Russia’s role and intent.” He asked congressional Republicans to join him in cautioning citizens and state election officials. You can argue that this was politically naïve. But Obama wasn’t playing politics. He was trying to unite the country.
And then there’s the counterfactual:
We don’t know what would have happened had he acted differently. If he had raised a stink before the intelligence community reached a consensus, or if he had warned the public explicitly that Russia was trying to help Trump, imagine the outrage. It’s quite plausible that Trump would have won – perhaps even coming out ahead in the popular vote – and Democrats would now be castigating Obama for ruining everything.
Obama and his aides wrongly assumed the next administration would punish Russia, that’s true. But what the anonymous Obama official told the Post – that there would be “ample time after the election, regardless of outcome, for punitive measures” – is also true. Holding Putin accountable and deterring him from future aggression isn’t Obama’s job. It’s Trump’s.
Yeah, well, good luck with that:
Putin sought to hurt Clinton and help Trump. That’s clear in the intelligence community’s Jan. 6 assessment. But in the heat of the election, Clinton was poorly positioned to make that case. So was Obama, her benefactor and fellow Democrat. The most credible messengers would have been Republicans. The most credible of all, to this day, would be Trump. Nothing in Trump’s history suggests he has the moral comprehension or will to speak the truth about what Putin did, much less to confront him. But every president must be held to a presidential standard.
Obama met that standard. He focused on protecting democracy, not on electing Clinton. He did this so that an American republic could be passed to his successor. Trump’s duty is to safeguard that inheritance.
That may not happen:
Trump has repaid Obama’s patriotism by rewarding and protecting Putin. Trump refuses to concede that Russia was behind the election hack. He has tried to loosen, not tighten, sanctions on Russia. He has invited Russia’s foreign minister to the White House and assured him, in a meeting closed to the press, that by firing Comey, Trump relieved “pressure” on the U.S.-Russia relationship.
Saletan is a bit outraged by all this:
The Russia investigation was never about Russia. It was, and is, about America. It’s about whether you put your country before a partisan or personal agenda. It’s about understanding that America isn’t just a plot of land. It’s an idea. We elect our leaders, our leaders follow rules, and they represent all of us. Obama was determined to preserve that idea, even at the risk of relinquishing the White House to Trump. The successor who betrayed him – and us – is unworthy of his office.
Ah, but he is brilliant at breakfast. At breakfast, Donald Trump schemes and plots, and vents, and finally calms down, for a few minutes. That’s his brilliant moment each day, but only dull people are brilliant at breakfast – and dangerous people.