In 1869, Ulysses S. Grant succeeded Andrew Johnson – not the best year in American presidential history – but that was also the year that Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton formed the National Woman Suffrage Association, and the year that the Cincinnati Red Stockings opened that baseball season as the first fully professional team – so there was some good that year. That was also the year that Fyodor Dostoevsky completed The Idiot – an odd tale of young man, a prince no less, whose goodness and open-hearted simplicity and guilelessness make everyone think he’s a total idiot who knows nothing at all about anything. Dostoevsky was toying with idea of what happens when “a positively good and beautiful man” turns up in this real world of careless and awful people. It doesn’t go well. Everyone is ruined in the end, even the good Prince Myshkin. This is Don Quixote turned inside-out. No one is ennobled. This prince really was an idiot.
There are always some people who don’t fit in. Idiot literally means a “private person” – from the Greek idios – “one’s own” and only one’s own. These wholly unique people are idiotic, and they can ruin everything, and themselves. Donald Trump is one of those. He is a bit idiosyncratic – or idiotic – the words are related. 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. But he is, he says, 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 – but he’s the opposite of Dostoevsky’s idiot. What happens when a positively awful and nasty man turns up in this real world of careful people trying to do their best to keep things from falling apart?
The same thing happens. Everyone is ruined in the end. Forget Dostoevsky. That’s what NBC News reported here:
White House chief of staff John Kelly has eroded morale in the West Wing in recent months with comments to aides that include insulting the president’s intelligence and casting himself as the savior of the country, according to eight current and former White House officials.
The officials said Kelly portrays himself to Trump administration aides as the lone bulwark against catastrophe, curbing the erratic urges of a president who has a questionable grasp on policy issues and the functions of government. He has referred to Trump as “an idiot” multiple times to underscore his point, according to four officials who say they’ve witnessed the comments.
Kelly says those four officials who say they’ve witnessed the comments are lying:
Kelly called the allegations “total BS.”
“I spend more time with the president than anyone else and we have an incredibly candid and strong relationship,” said Kelly in a statement. “He always knows where I stand and he and I both know this story is total BS. I am committed to the president, his agenda, and our country. This is another pathetic attempt to smear people close to President Trump and distract from the administration’s many successes.”
Trump loves that kind of thing and Kelly knows that Trump has to hear him say that, to keep his job, so this was a bit of a private message delivered publicly, but NBC stands by their sources:
Officials said Kelly’s public image as a retired four-star general instilling discipline on a chaotic White House and an impulsive president belies what they describe as the undisciplined and indiscreet approach he’s employed as chief of staff. The private manner aides describe may shed new light on why Kelly now finds himself – just nine months into the job – grappling with diminished influence and a drumbeat of questions about how long he’ll remain at the White House.
“He says stuff you can’t believe,” said one senior White House official. “He’ll say it and you think, ‘That is not what you should be saying.'”
Trump, who aides said has soured on his second chief of staff, is aware of some though not all of Kelly’s comments, according to the current and former officials.
That’s trouble, but it might look bad for Trump to just fire “his general” in a fit of personal pique – Trump should be better than that – any president should be better than that – so, to buy time for things to cool down, it’s best to say that this could all be a misunderstanding:
The White House spokespeople said they haven’t heard Kelly talk about himself as the one saving the country, and that if anything he may have spoken in jest along those lines.
Okay, it was a joke, but Trump isn’t better than that:
The last time it became public that one of Trump’s top advisers insulted his intelligence behind his back it didn’t go over well with the president. White House aides have said Trump never got over former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson calling him a “moron” in front of colleagues, which was first reported by NBC News. Trump later challenged Tillerson to an IQ test and fired him several months after the remark became public.
There was no public IQ-test competition on national television – the president versus his secretary of state. Trump does tend to overreact, but this time he may have enough reason to overreact, because there’s a sexist element to this too:
Current and former White House officials said Kelly has at times made remarks that have rattled female staffers. Kelly has told aides, multiple times, that women are more emotional than men, including at least once in front of the president, four current and former officials said.
And during a firestorm in February over accusations of domestic abuse against then-White House staff secretary Rob Porter, Kelly wondered aloud how much more Porter would have to endure before his honor could be restored, according to three officials who were present for the comments. He also questioned why Porter’s ex-wives wouldn’t just move on based on the information he said he had about his marriages, the officials said.
Women! They care about the oddest of things, don’t they? Rob Porter beat both his wives. Those two should get over it. Let it go.
Again, the White House bought some time on that too:
The White House spokespeople said they haven’t seen Kelly have a negative effect on the morale of women staffers. If anything, they said during meetings Kelly is the “bigger gentleman” who steps in when aides use foul language to note “a lady is present” and similarly says he shouldn’t use foul language in front of a lady if he’s used an expletive. The spokespeople, who would not speak for the record, said it’s possible that Kelly may have said women are more emotional than men, with one of them agreeing that “generally speaking, women are more emotional than men.”
That didn’t help, but Trump does have enough reason to overreact now:
In one heated exchange between the two men before February’s Winter Olympics in South Korea, Kelly strongly – and successfully – dissuaded Trump from ordering the withdrawal of all U.S. troops from the Korean Peninsula, according to two officials.
For Kelly, the exchange underscored the reasoning behind one of his common refrains, which multiple officials described as some version of “I’m the one saving the country.”
“The strong implication being ‘if I weren’t here we would’ve entered WWIII or the president would have been impeached,'” one former senior White House official said.
NBC News offers no inside information on why Trump wanted to withdraw all of our troops from the Korean Peninsula. Maybe it would be just to see what would happen, but Kelly knows his man:
Kelly has made similar comments to lawmakers, at times making fun of what he sees as Trump’s lack of knowledge about policy and government, current and former officials said.
He’s been particularly cutting when it comes to immigration issues, which he considers one of his policy strong suits, having served as Homeland Security secretary and head of the combatant command for U.S. military operations in Central America and South America, the officials said.
In short, he knows his stuff and Trump doesn’t:
Kelly held a series of meetings in his office with White House officials during negotiations with lawmakers on funding for the president’s border wall and a resolution on a program – known as DACA – that allows some people who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children to remain in the country, according to four officials who either attended or were briefed on the meetings.
He often used the settings to express concern that Trump would agree to a deal that’s not hardline enough on immigration and criticized the president’s knowledge of the issues to underscore his point, the officials said.
“He doesn’t even understand what DACA is. He’s an idiot,” Kelly said in one meeting, according to two officials who were present. “We’ve got to save him from himself.”
After the talks on a bipartisan deal fell apart, a collapse Kelly helped orchestrate with some conservative Republicans, he told aides in his office: “If it weren’t for me the president was going to agree to some hasty deal,” according to two officials who were present at the time.
“We’ve got to save him from himself” because he’s an idiot. That’s the implication here and somewhat justified:
Trump was suspicious that Kelly would try to ensure someone he favored would replace former National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, three current and former officials said. Trump had for months complained that McMaster’s briefing style was irritating and would do impressions of the three-star general bellowing out a list of points in staccato, his body puffing up and down as he spoke, the officials said. Sometimes Trump would see McMaster on his schedule and ask aides to have him write up a memo instead, the officials said, so he didn’t have to meet with him. The president ultimately settled on a successor for McMaster whom officials said was not a Kelly pick, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton.
Kelly doesn’t like that kill-them-all-and-sort-out-later Bolton fellow. He sees himself as one of those careful people trying to do their best to keep things from falling apart, but that’s hard to do these days:
Most recently, Trump fumed over reports on a passage in former FBI Director James Comey’s book about Kelly calling Comey, after the president unceremoniously fired him, to say he didn’t want to work for “dishonorable” people, according to five officials.
When reports of the phone call first surfaced last summer, Kelly denied disparaging the president, three officials said.
Kelly will be gone soon. Everyone is ruined in the end, but Clio Chang put it nicely – One Idiot (John Kelly) Has Realized He’s Working for Another Idiot (Donald Trump) – which makes this as dark as the Dostoevsky novel.
Kelly is not alone, however. Others want to save Donald Trump from himself, and save the world. Emmanuel Macron came to Washington to save Donald Trump from himself. He talked sense. Don’t pull out of the Iran deal. They’ve stopped building nukes. Don’t throw that away because they’re still building missiles and behaving badly. Build on that. Work out supplemental additional deals on those things. Add, don’t subtract. Kill the first deal and they will build nukes. Instead, use that first deal as a baseline starting point – and Angela Merkel came to Washington two days later and told him the same thing. Don’t be an idiot, the odd man out.
That may not work, because there’s another idiot, as Slate’s Fred Kaplan explains here:
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has issued the lamest critique of the Iran nuclear deal that one might imagine. Though his avowed aim was to convince President Trump to back out of the deal, he in fact unwittingly made a strong case to stay in.
In his Monday broadcast, which he recited in English and Hebrew, Netanyahu did publicize a remarkable heist by Israeli intelligence agencies – if his claims are true – of 55,000 pages of “files” and “archives” showing that 15 years ago, Iran did have a plan with an avowed intent to build nuclear weapons.
But did the prime minister think his viewers, at home and abroad, would glide over those key words – files and archive – or that they wouldn’t notice that the quotations from some of those files were dated 2003?
John Kelly would understand that this too is BS, Netanyahu BS:
He said and showed nothing to suggest that the Iranians ever put their plan into motion or that they are violating the deal’s restrictions on nuclear activities now. In fact, at one point in his telecast, he acknowledged that Iran stopped the program – supporting the conclusion of a US National Intelligence Estimate, published in 2007, that Iran had halted its nuclear weapons program in the fall of 2003.
Netanyahu said the newly uncovered files indicate that Iranian officials have violated an article of the Iran deal requiring them to reveal their PAST plans or intentions to build nuclear weapons.
That means that Netanyahu proved the opposite of what he thought he was proving:
The larger message of the archive – and Netanyahu’s briefing – is that the Iran nuclear deal, now more than ever, is worth preserving. Netanyahu pointed to documents suggesting that Iran had plans – he talked of secret documents, charts, presentations, and blueprints – for every aspect of designing, building, and testing nuclear weapons. What he neglected to point out is that the deal gives international inspectors highly intrusive powers to verify whether Iran is taking any steps to pursue those plans.
So there was another idiot on the world stage, two of them now, standing alone:
Trump faces a May 12 deadline on whether to certify that Iran is in compliance with the deal and thus extend sanctions relief or to pull out of the deal and re-impose sanctions. He has signed the certification twice before but has threatened to pull out this next time. On the earlier occasions, he was pressured to stay in the treaty by Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and his national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster. Tillerson and McMaster have since been replaced by Mike Pompeo and John Bolton, who are fervent critics of the deal and supporters of regime change in Iran.
Several allied leaders have urged Trump not to withdraw from the deal. Ironically, many Israeli security and intelligence officers have publicly said that the deal is better for Israel than the abandonment of the deal. Netanyahu, ignoring their analyses, is trying to whip up a frisson of alarm but without any substance.
The Greeks had a word for it. Idiots do stand alone, and Jennifer Rubin adds this:
If pulling out of the deal – or threatening to pull out of the deal – would fix its infirmities, the Europeans would be in lock step with Trump. The problem, however, is that the West currently has little or no leverage to force Iran back to the table. Iran is in compliance; sanctions are suspended and the Europeans are happy to do business to the extent possible in Iran. Pulling out means Iran is free to pursue its program, and the United States as odd man out.
Idiots do stand alone:
Why would Netanyahu put on this show if ultimately it didn’t deliver the killer proof of Iran cheating? Most likely, he figured (not unreasonably) that he’d bamboozle Trump into believing Iran is currently cheating. Trump hears what he wants to hear, and is already disposed to undo the Obama administration’s signature achievement. It is altogether possible that President Trump will nix the deal – with just a little push from Netanyahu.
Nevertheless, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis (and perhaps others) will have to break it to Trump: There is no evidence Iran is in violation of the deal, and the Europeans won’t agree to re-impose sanctions absent such proof. The choice remains whether to isolate ourselves or stay in the deal while building up leverage in other ways.
We will isolate ourselves. Emmanuel Macron has said that he now realizes that Trump will, in the end, pull out of the deal. Angela Merkel has said the same. It’s hard to deal with idiots. It may be pointless, and as in the Dostoevsky novel, idiots ruin everything, but now it doesn’t to matter if they’re angelically good or just plain nasty. They just have to be idiots.
Richard Cohen explains that this way:
President Trump’s way of governing and his almost absolute lack of political principles are often referred to as “Trumpism.” This is a dandy term, because it moves us past the temptation to say “fascism” – the subject of countless articles and books… But to Americans the term fascism is off-putting. It comes freighted with all sorts of baggage that does not describe Trump.
Cohen says that this describes Trump:
He sometimes mentions jobs, but that’s just a talking point. His most consistent reference points are his own grudges. For all his wealth, Trump is a bundle of insecurities and resentments. In that way, he validates similar feelings in others. If they loathe the establishment, so does he. If they loathe foreign aid, so does he. If they misunderstand trade agreements, so does he. If they fret over an America that is less white and more tolerant of homosexuality and immigrants, then so does he. If they recoil from a news media that talks the PC language they abhor, so does he. They are him. He is them. That’s the program.
That’s idiosyncratic to Trump, but Cohen points out that not idiosyncratic to Trump alone:
Trumpism did not come out of nowhere. The GOP has long reviled the so-called mainstream media. Trumpism is Sarah Palinism updated. It is the GOP’s acceptance of white racism – the reason segregationist Strom Thurmond left the Democratic Party – and is an extreme version of Reaganism and his dictum that “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” In a way Ronald Reagan did not intend, that is certainly the case now.
And that means there will more Trumps, or maybe not:
The woods are thick with Trumps-in-waiting, but none so far have his celebrity mojo. More likely, America’s political immune system will kick in and install a more conventional government.
That’s possible, but read Dostoevsky. That’s not likely. One idiot can ruin everything forever.