Making the News Disappear

Some news has to disappear. The Republicans’ seven-year campaign to get rid of Obamacare just ended. It’s over. The third Senate try at something – anything – to end Obamacare wasn’t going to end it. A few hours after midnight, in the wee small hours of the morning, three Republican senators, McCain and Collins and Murkowski, voted no to the last odd bill their party had come up with – and that was that. Mitch McConnell gave a little speech, a rather bitter little speech, but said it was time to move on – there were other things for the Senate to do. Donald Trump’s base will be puzzled. He can do no wrong. How did this happen? They’ll just have to work that out – but that’s not a big problem. They will work that out, but someone will tell America that the Republicans are hopeless – they have no idea how to govern – they have no ideas – and others will disagree. Some will say that Trump was humiliated. Others will disagree. He will disagree – unless he can move on too.

He can do that. All he has to do is make this failure of his central promise to America – no more Obamacare – disappear. All he has to do is make bigger news, so he did just that:

President Trump ousted White House chief of staff Reince Priebus and replaced him with Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly on Friday, a major shake-up designed to bring order and military precision to a West Wing beset for six straight months by chaos, infighting and few tangible accomplishments.

With his legislative agenda largely stalled, Trump became convinced that Priebus was a “weak” leader after being lobbied intensely by rival advisers to remove the establishment Republican fixture that has long had friction with some of Trump’s inner-circle loyalists, according to White House officials.

This will fix everything, because generals always fix everything:

Kelly’s hiring is expected to usher in potentially sweeping structural changes to the turbulent operation and perhaps the departures of some remaining Priebus allies. Kelly intends to bring some semblance of traditional discipline to the West Wing, where warring advisers have been able to circumvent the chief of staff and report directly to the president and sidestep the policy process, according to people with knowledge of his plans.

Kelly, a retired four-star Marine general, earned Trump’s approval for his work combating illegal immigration and his leadership qualities, both in the battlefield and at the Department of Homeland Security.

Kelly will establish an actual tiered chain of command, and perhaps stop this nonsense:

The change comes after deep personal animus between Priebus and Anthony Scaramucci, newly appointed as White House communications director, burst into public view Thursday when Scaramucci accused the chief of staff of leaking damaging information about him to the news media and savaged Priebus in a profanity-laced interview with The New Yorker.

The less said about that the better, but that doesn’t change this basic fact:

“I think any observer – including one that did not speak English and knew nothing about politics and came from another planet and solar system – could, after observing the situation in the White House, realize the White House is failing,” said one informal White House adviser, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share a candid assessment. “And when the White House is failing, you can’t replace the president.”

And there’s the matter of loyalty:

Kelly, who is widely admired by Trump family members and loyalists, has formed a bond with the president over recent months which was fortified when he aggressively defended the travel ban policy. Their relationship has only grown stronger since, with Trump telling aides that he sees Kelly as someone who dutifully follows through on his agenda – including a border security crackdown and sharp reduction in illegal immigration – and does not cause him problems.

Kelly will be a good little boy, but Amber Phillips sees something else at play here:

With every staff move, Trump seems to be moving ever further away from the Republican establishment and building a much more insular team that fits his narrow worldview. Nowhere is this more evident than in the Priebus-Kelly switch.

It seems that Trump has had it with those damned Republicans:

Kelly isn’t a traditional choice for such a political job. He’s a retired Marine Corps general who has expressed no nuance about the war on terrorism. He has described terrorists as a “savage” enemy and publicly clashed with former president Barack Obama on whether to close Guantanamo Bay.

Kelly and Trump don’t agree on everything. During his confirmation hearing, Kelly distanced himself from Trump’s border wall (“a physical barrier in and of itself will not do the job”) and torture (“Absolutely not,” he said about whether he would carry out a hypothetical Trump order to bring back waterboarding.) The Senate approved him 88-11, with all Republicans voting for his nomination.

By contrast, Priebus is the very definition of the Republican establishment. He ran the Republican National Committee during the election. He’s buddies with that other Republican establishment figure, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) – they’re both from Wisconsin – and has been a GOP operative for years.

Actually, it’s not much of an overstatement to say that Priebus, along with Vice President Pence, was Trump’s connection to Capitol Hill insiders.

Trump tried dealing with those Capitol Hill insiders and got nothing but embarrassed by them:

Trump clearly hasn’t liked the results. He’s tried to play nice with the Republican Party establishment and appears to have concluded that is what has plagued his presidency.

Donald Trump will now be a party of one, or the head of a party of generals and hedge fund managers and Goldman Sachs executives, but Phillip Carter sees Kelly’s four big challenges:

First, Kelly must persuade his boss to take it down a notch and focus on the job instead of creating spectacles and fighting with his enemies, real and imagined. Trump oscillates so fast between issues that his own staff cannot keep up, let alone the network of legislators, surrogates, and political supporters necessary to give momentum to a White House. This White House will remain stuck in neutral unless Kelly can convince Trump to settle down and let him navigate a steadier ship.

Second, Kelly must bring order to a White House team that is at war with itself. Contrary to what Trump’s vulgar communications director, Anthony Scaramucci, may think, the Trump White House is leaking because no one trusts each other or much likes their bosses. On health care, immigration, foreign policy, trade, and so many other issues, the White House has devolved into hostile camps led by various chieftains like family advisers Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, and chief economic adviser Gary Cohn. These camps not only disagree on policy. They also dislike and distrust each other. Kelly must make these teams work well together or disband them and fire their leaders.

That may be impossible, but there’s more:

Third, Kelly must discipline the president and the White House to function amid an increasingly toxic political environment that includes the special counsel’s investigation into the White House and Trump campaign, numerous congressional inquiries, and a hostile press corps. In a sense, the combat veteran must teach the White House staff to function as if they’re walking through a steady barrage of incoming mortar rounds. This is, of course, easier said than done. But if the White House cannot learn to walk and chew gum simultaneously, it will be paralyzed by l’affaire Russe and the myriad other scandals emerging from the White House.

Good luck with that, but then there’s the biggest challenge:

Fourth, Kelly must reinvent himself to succeed. His bluster and bluntness served him well as a Marine; he could afford to make enemies more easily when given political cover by the secretary of defense and chairman of the Joint Chiefs. Kelly’s aggression in his former job succeeded because it played so well internally and was consistent with what many expected of a law enforcement chief. This bluster is undoubtedly why Trump hired Kelly and brought him over to the White House. But to succeed – and to make Trump succeed – Kelly must now shed this skin and become a smoother political operator.

All if this may be impossible after this one disastrous week, which Andrew Sullivan explains this way:

We have become, at this point, inured to having an irrational president in an increasingly post-rational America. We’ve also come to tell ourselves that somehow (a) this isn’t really happening, (b) by some miracle, it will be over soon, or (c) at some point the Republican Party will have to acknowledge what they are abetting, and cut their losses. And yet with each particular breach of decency, stability, and constitutionality, no breaking point seems to have arrived, even as the tribalism has deepened, the president’s madness has metastasized, and the norms of liberal democracy are hanging on by a thread.

But surely this week must mark some kind of moment in this vertiginous descent, some point at which the manifest unfitness of this president to continue in office becomes impossible to deny.

Consider this:

Day after day, the president has publicly savaged his own attorney general for doing the only thing possible with an investigation into a political campaign he was a key part of: recusing himself. And the point of the president’s fulminations was that the recusal prevented Sessions from obstructing that very investigation. The president, in other words, has been openly attacking his own attorney general for not subverting the rule of law.

He is also complaining that Sessions is not investigating his former opponent, Hillary Clinton, even though an extensive FBI investigation has already taken place and no charges were deemed sufficient for prosecution and even though the president himself said, after the election, that he would oppose such an investigation. What special kind of madness is this?

Then we were subjected to the spectacle of the president going to the Boy Scout jamboree, of all places, and delivering a series of partisan jabs, campaign-rally catcalls, and completely inappropriate personal ramblings to a crowd of thousands of boys. The speech was, in some ways, a metaphor for everything Trump is and has done. He took a regular, civil, apolitical American gathering of mainly children and turned it into diatribe of deranged and nakedly partisan narcissism. He is actively despoiling our civic culture.

Now consider this:

And then, in what can only be analogized to a royal proclamation, Trump tweeted out a sudden change in military policy. Asked to back defunding the specific medical care for transgender service members, he declared instead – via social media – that all transgender troops are now barred from serving “in any capacity.” He did not inform the Defense secretary in advance; and he did not issue a directive through the proper channels. He revealed in a flash a sociopathic indifference to the lives of thousands of patriots currently serving their country and contempt for the regular rules and procedures of the military he supposedly commands.

The impulsive move was so outside the norms of presidential behavior that it brought Senators Orrin Hatch and Richard Shelby to the defense of transgender troops, and prompted the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs to announce that no such policy change had happened, and no such change would ever happen by presidential tweet. The maneuver was also so politically crude and off-key that even social conservatives became worried it might backfire on them.

Thereupon, like comic relief in a Shakespearean tragedy, the president’s new director of communications, Anthony Scaramucci, arrived in Washington. He called up a reporter, The New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza, and threatened to fire the entire White House staff if Lizza didn’t reveal the identity of a source. He also declared on the record that the president’s chief-of staff is a “fucking paranoid schizophrenic” and that one of the president’s chief advisers, Steve Bannon, came to Washington to “suck his own cock.” The man, we are told, has the president’s full backing.

Now consider this:

And at the same time, as if to beggar belief, we just witnessed in the Senate a travesty of anything that might be called parliamentary democracy. In the early hours last night, a week of secrecy, confusion and lies – almost a parody of how not to pass a law – eventually culminated in an ignominious defeat for a “skinny” repeal and replacement of the Affordable Care Act. It was a bill that would have openly sabotaged an existing law on which millions of Americans rely, with no effective or coherent alternative. This “horrible” piece of legislation – in Senator Lindsey Graham’s words – was almost designed to force the ACA into a death spiral, and was being passed like a kidney stone through our constitutional system. The point of pushing the legislative and health-care system to this level of dysfunction and danger? A “win” for a president who is utterly indifferent to the actual content of such a “win.”

Sullivan sees only one hope:

After the last few days, someone in the GOP leadership somewhere is surely going to have to take responsibility for running this country since we have a president who cannot.

Sullivan wrote that too soon, given what Aaron Blake notes here:

It has been almost exactly one month since incoming press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders assured us that President Trump has never “promoted or encouraged violence.” He just proved her wrong again.

Speaking to law enforcement officers on Long Island on Friday, the president appeared to sanction officers roughing up suspects after arresting them and while putting them into their vehicles.

“When you see these towns, and when you see these thugs being thrown into the back of a paddy wagon, you just see them thrown in – rough – I said, ‘Please don’t be too nice,'” Trump said. “Like when you guys put somebody in the car, and you’re protecting their head, you know? The way you put your hand – like don’t hit their head, and they’ve just killed somebody? Don’t hit their head? I said, ‘You can take the hand away, okay.'”

Some officers present applauded.

That was Trump being Trump:

You can add this to the lengthy pantheon of examples of Trump subtly – and not so subtly – advocating a form of violence against those he deems bad people, without due process. During the campaign, he repeatedly urged the roughing up of protesters, even getting sued over inciting violence in one case. Trump repeatedly spoke fondly of a time when hecklers were dealt with more severely. He promised to pay the legal bills of supporters who got too rough. He mouthed that he would “beat the crap” out of someone. He defended his supporters for beating up a man who Trump claimed had been violent first.

Trump’s comments Friday occupy a similar zone of plausible deniability. He didn’t technically say that police should be violent while taking suspects into custody. He instead said “please don’t be so nice” and “take the hand away” from their heads when putting them into cars. Trump’s message wasn’t so much “beat them up” as “don’t worry too much about them getting beat up.” It was less “do something” and more “be a little more negligent.”

That might not go down well with many people:

Freddie Gray died in Baltimore in April 2015 after a spinal injury that occurred in the back of a police van. Prosecutors said Gray had been given a “rough ride” in the van, causing the injuries that would kill him a week later. In other words, police need not bash a suspect’s head while putting him in the squad car to inflict violence.

Trump sided with the officers in that case. After the last of the charges against them was dropped, he targeted State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby. “I think it was disgraceful what she did and the way she did it, and the news conference that she had where they were guilty before anybody knew the facts,” Trump said.

No good will come of this:

And at the very least, his approach would seem to inflame the already sensitive issue of police brutality. With so many high-profile debates over the shootings of black men in recent years, Trump has generally sided with police officers. Earlier this year, he embraced a “Blue Lives Matter” effort to increase penalties for those who target police.

But even against that backdrop, telling police that they can actually be rougher when dealing with suspects is an unprecedented step.

Others noticed, starting with Long Island’s local Suffolk County police:

“The Suffolk County Police Department has strict rules and procedures relating to the handling of prisoners, and violations of those rules and procedures are treated extremely seriously,” the department said in an emailed statement. “As a department, we do not and will not tolerate ‘rough[ing]’ up prisoners.”

Trump’s remarks also drew a rebuke from the International Association of Chiefs of Police. In a statement, the group did not specifically mention Trump by name but appeared to respond to his speech by stressing the importance of treating all people, including suspects, with respect.

“Managing use of force is one of the most difficult challenges faced by law enforcement agencies,” the group said. “The ability of law enforcement officers to enforce the law, protect the public, and guard their own safety, the safety of innocent bystanders, and even those suspected or apprehended for criminal activity is very challenging.”

“For these reasons, law enforcement agencies develop policies and procedures, as well as conduct extensive training, to ensure that any use of force is carefully applied and objectively reasonable considering the situation confronted by the officers,” the statement continued.

Someone has to take responsibility for running this country since we have a president who cannot:

Janai Nelson – the associate director-counsel NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund – said Trump’s comments “encouraging police officers to disregard the safety of individuals in their custody rises to a new level of danger.”

“We need law enforcement who do not share the Trump Administration’s outdated and unlawful views to promote protecting the rights and safety of all Americans by condemning those who condone impunity among law enforcement,” Nelson said in a statement.

The American Civil Liberties Union posted on Twitter that Trump was “urging lawlessness” with his speech.

And Long Island’s local Suffolk County police did have to release that statement:

Several Suffolk County police officers were indicted last year and accused of beating a suspect after he was arrested in 2012. In November, a week before Trump was elected, the former Suffolk County police chief was sentenced to 46 months in prison after pleading guilty to a federal civil rights violation and conspiring to obstruct justice; authorities said he beat a man handcuffed and in police custody.

Sullivan may be right about the manifest unfitness of this president to continue in office, but George Will sees a silver lining:

Trump is something the nation did not know it needed: a feeble president whose manner can cure the nation’s excessive fixation with the presidency.

That’s the silver lining, as Trump is making the presidency disappear, or at least the inflated “imperial presidency” that has developed:

Executive power expanded, with only occasional pauses (thank you, Presidents Taft and Coolidge, of blessed memory), throughout the 20th century and has surged in the 21st. After 2001, “The Decider” decided to start a preventive war and to countenance torture prohibited by treaty and statute. His successor had “a pen and a phone,” an indifference to the Constitution’s take care clause (the president “shall take care that the laws be faithfully executed”) and disdain for the separation of powers, for which he was repeatedly rebuked by the Supreme Court.

Fortunately, today’s president is so innocent of information that Congress cannot continue deferring to executive policymaking. And because this president has neither a history of party identification nor an understanding of reciprocal loyalty, congressional Republicans are reacquiring a constitutional – a Madisonian – ethic. It mandates a prickly defense of institutional interests, placing those interests above devotion to parties that allow themselves to be defined episodically by their presidents.

Furthermore, today’s president is doing invaluable damage to Americans’ infantilizing assumption that the presidency magically envelops its occupant with a nimbus of seriousness. After the president went to West Virginia to harangue some (probably mystified) Boy Scouts about his magnificence and persecutions, he confessed to Ohioans that Lincoln, but only Lincoln, was more “presidential” than he. So much for the austere and reticent first president who, when the office was soft wax, tried to fashion a style of dignity compatible with republican simplicity.

Consider this a return to regular order:

Fastidious people who worry that the president’s West Virginia and Ohio performances – the alpha male as crybaby – diminished the presidency are missing the point, which is: For now, worse is better. Diminution drains this office of the sacerdotal pomposities that have encrusted it. There will be 42 more months of this president’s increasingly hilarious-beyond-satire apotheosis of himself, leavened by his incessant whining about his tribulations (“What dunce saddled me with this silly attorney general who takes my policy expostulations seriously?”). This protracted learning experience, which the public chose to have and which should not be truncated, might whet the public’s appetite for an adult president confident enough to wince at, and disdain, the adoration of his most comically groveling hirelings.

So, this is a learning experience, at the end of which America will know it wants an adult president once again, and, presumably, forever, after this.

That’s a curious argument. All that Donald Trump wanted to do was make the bad news on Obamacare, and his humiliation, disappear. He managed that. It seems he also managed to make the concept of the modern “imperial presidency” disappear. We do return to regular order, to three coequal branches of government once again. Donald Trump did not intend that. He intended the opposite – but there’s always a silver lining – except for the damage already done. Some things don’t disappear.

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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 Making the News Disappear

  1. I like your pull quote from George Will: “Trump is something the nation did not know it needed: a feeble president whose manner can cure the nation’s excessive fixation with the presidency.” The problem is that Will, and all the other ideologues who comment on most any side of any issue fashion their criticism around their own “spin”. The fact does remain that “the President” whoever it is has become a convenient scapegoat, “trumping” citizen activism and dialogue. No doubt, Trump is a disaster; only “we, the people”, are the short and long term solution.

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