Not everyone is beaten down. Not everyone has shrugged and given up. We’ve seen this movie before – Spartacus – the 1960 Stanley Kubrick sword-and-sandals epic about a slave revolt in ancient Greece. Kirk Douglas, who also produced the film, is Spartacus. Dalton Trumbo wrote the screenplay, based on the novel by Howard Fast. Trumbo was blacklisted at the time as one of the Hollywood Ten. Douglas publicly announced that Trumbo was the screenwriter and president-elect Kennedy crossed American Legion picket lines to catch the film. Howard Fast was also blacklisted and had been jailed for his refusal to testify in those odd HUAC hearings where witnesses had to “name names” of communist sympathizers, or else. He wrote the novel Spartacus while in prison. That explains the scene in the movie when the slaves, asked to give up their leader by pointing him out in the big crowd, each stand up and shout out “I am Spartacus!”
That’s the heroic part. There is a resistance. Spartacus does not stand alone. Everyone is now Spartacus. Their names don’t matter. They fight the good fight. Here’s another – I Am Part of the Resistance inside the Trump Administration – but he or she is not giving his or her name. Call this person Spartacus:
President Trump is facing a test to his presidency unlike any faced by a modern American leader.
It’s not just that the special counsel looms large. Or that the country is bitterly divided over Mr. Trump’s leadership. Or even that his party might well lose the House to an opposition hell-bent on his downfall.
The dilemma – which he does not fully grasp – is that many of the senior officials in his own administration are working diligently from within to frustrate parts of his agenda and his worst inclinations.
I would know. I am one of them.
Who is this – Secretary of Defense Mattis, Secretary of State Pompeo, Larry Kudlow, or someone else who contacted the New York Times and convinced them to publish this and to keep their name secret? The New York Times couldn’t resist. This is the first time anyone at the top in the White House has said, yes, everyone knows this president is totally unfit for office, but don’t worry – we’ve got this covered. America, we may be hard-ass conservative Republicans, but we have your back:
To be clear, ours is not the popular “resistance” of the left. We want the administration to succeed and think that many of its policies have already made America safer and more prosperous. But we believe our first duty is to this country, and the president continues to act in a manner that is detrimental to the health of our republic.
This particular Spartacus explains the problem:
The root of the problem is the president’s amorality. Anyone who works with him knows he is not moored to any discernible first principles that guide his decision making.
Although he was elected as a Republican, the president shows little affinity for ideals long espoused by conservatives: free minds, free markets and free people. At best, he has invoked these ideals in scripted settings. At worst, he has attacked them outright.
In addition to his mass-marketing of the notion that the press is the “enemy of the people,” President Trump’s impulses are generally anti-trade and anti-democratic.
This particular Spartacus explains the issue with Trump and Russia and all the rest, but it comes down to this:
From the White House to executive branch departments and agencies, senior officials will privately admit their daily disbelief at the commander in chief’s comments and actions. Most are working to insulate their operations from his whims.
Meetings with him veer off topic and off the rails, he engages in repetitive rants, and his impulsiveness results in half-baked, ill-informed and occasionally reckless decisions that have to be walked back.
“There is literally no telling whether he might change his mind from one minute to the next,” a top official complained to me recently, exasperated by an Oval Office meeting at which the president flip-flopped on a major policy decision he’d made only a week earlier.
But don’t worry:
The erratic behavior would be more concerning if it weren’t for unsung heroes in and around the White House. Some of his aides have been cast as villains by the media. But in private, they have gone to great lengths to keep bad decisions contained to the West Wing, though they are clearly not always successful.
It may be cold comfort in this chaotic era, but Americans should know that there are adults in the room. We fully recognize what is happening. And we are trying to do what’s right even when Donald Trump won’t.
This isn’t the work of the so-called deep state. It’s the work of the steady state.
That’s nice, but there’s this:
Given the instability many witnessed, there were early whispers within the cabinet of invoking the 25th Amendment, which would start a complex process for removing the president. But no one wanted to precipitate a constitutional crisis. So we will do what we can to steer the administration in the right direction until – one way or another – it’s over.
In short, this won’t get better and there’s nothing they or anyone else can do about that, without real chaos, so they’ll hold the fort until the nation does something about this in the midterm elections and then in the 2020 presidential election. The nation can thank them later. For now, they have to get back to ignoring what Trump tells any of them to do. It’s for the best.
That’s a good thing, right? The Atlantic’s David Graham sees this:
The title of Bob Woodward’s new book, Fear, contains a multitude of meanings. For one thing, it describes the attitude of many of President Donald Trump’s own aides toward his judgment.
It’s not just that many sources were willing to tell Woodward damaging stories about Trump: The most stunning examples are those in which top aides reportedly thwarted his will. Even more stunning is an anonymous op-ed published in The New York Times Wednesday afternoon written by a purported “senior official in the Trump administration.”
What the anonymous official says lines up closely with the accounts in Woodward’s book, in which officials steal documents, act on their own, and simply disregard orders from the president.
That can’t be a good thing:
If you believe that Trump does not have the judgment and temperament for office – not a difficult conclusion to draw – this is a win of a sort. Yet the actions described in the book and in the op-ed are extremely worrying, and amount to a soft coup against the president. Given that one of Trump’s great flaws is that he has little regard for rule of law, it’s hard to cheer on cabinet members and others openly thwarting Trump’s directives, giving unelected officials effective veto power over the elected president.
That is NOT how things are supposed to work:
There is at least one historical occasion on which previous cabinet members were ready to sabotage a president this way. Defense Secretary James Schlesinger, worried by Richard Nixon’s heavy drinking, instructed generals not to launch any strikes without his say-so – effectively granting himself veto power over the president. There’s no evidence he ever actually used that veto, though.
The scale of the apparent resistance to Trump is much grander that Schlesinger’s fail-safe – even if it’s limited only to what we already know, which seems unlikely. While the president has railed against a “deep state” of liberal bureaucrats throttling his administration, the reality is much stranger: The saboteurs are the president’s own appointees and close aides.
Apologists for figures like Mattis and Chief of Staff John Kelly have argued that whatever compromises they make by being in the administration, they are serving and protecting their country best by remaining in office and acting as a check on the president. Insofar as they are able to talk the president out of his worst impulses, that might be convincing. But if checking the president requires disobeying orders and acts of deception, it becomes harder to defend.
In fact, Graham is forced to agree with the president’s shallow shill:
White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders blasted the op-ed in a statement, saying, “The individual behind this piece has chosen to deceive, rather than support, the duly elected president of the United States. He is not putting country first, but putting himself and his ego ahead of the will of the American people. This coward should do the right thing and resign.”
Say what you will about the wisdom of voters, but it is the bedrock of the nation, and Trump is the duly elected president, as Sanders says. Cabinet members are at least confirmed by the Senate, but they’re still unelected… If protecting the rules requires tearing down the rules, what is there to be gained?
David Frum, no fan of Donald Trump, to say the least, is blunt about this:
Impeachment is a constitutional mechanism. The Twenty-Fifth Amendment is a constitutional mechanism. Mass resignations followed by voluntary testimony to congressional committees are a constitutional mechanism. Overt defiance of presidential authority by the president’s own appointees – now THAT’S a constitutional crisis!
There are other alternatives:
If the president’s closest advisers believe that he is morally and intellectually unfit for his high office, they have a duty to do their utmost to remove him from it, by the lawful means at hand. That duty may be risky to their careers in government, or afterward, but on their first day at work, they swore an oath to defend the Constitution – and there were no “riskiness” exemptions in the text of that oath.
Frum sees trouble ahead:
The author of the anonymous op-ed is hoping to vindicate the reputation of like-minded senior Trump staffers. See, we only look complicit! Actually, we’re the real heroes of the story.
But what the author has just done is throw the government of the United States into even more dangerous turmoil. He or she has enflamed the paranoia of the president and empowered the president’s willfulness.
And that will lead to this:
What happens the next time a staffer seeks to dissuade the president from, say, purging the Justice Department to shut down Robert Mueller’s investigation? The author of the Times op-ed has explicitly told the president that those who offer such advice do not have the president’s best interests at heart and are, in fact, actively subverting his best interests as he understands them on behalf of ideas of their own.
He’ll grow more defiant, more reckless, more anti-constitutional, and more dangerous.
And those who do not quit or are not fired in the next few days will have to work even more assiduously to prove that they are loyal, obedient, and on the team.
Things will be worse after this article. They will be worse because of this article.
They already are worse. The Washington Posts’ Philip Rucker and Ashley Parker and Josh Dawsey report this:
President Trump and his aides reacted with indignation Wednesday to an unsigned opinion column from a senior official blasting the president’s “amorality” and launched a frantic hunt for the author, who claims to be part of a secret “resistance” inside the government protecting the nation from its commander in chief…
Trump reacted to the column with “volcanic” anger and was “absolutely livid” over what he considered a treasonous act of disloyalty and told confidants he suspects the official works on national security issues or in the Justice Department, according to two people familiar with his private discussions.
Trump has his suspicions. He will hunt this person down, or he’ll force that damned newspaper to turn this person over to him:
Trump questioned on Twitter whether the official was a “phony source,” and wrote that if “the GUTLESS anonymous person does indeed exist, the Times must, for National Security purposes, turn him/her over to government at once!”
Otherwise THEY go to jail!
Frum was right, that op-ed was doing more harm than good, by creating panic:
The column, which published midafternoon Wednesday, sent tremors through the West Wing and launched a frantic guessing game. Startled aides canceled meetings and huddled behind closed doors to strategize a response. Aides were analyzing language patterns to try to discern the author’s identity or at a minimum the part of the administration where the author works.
“The problem for the president is it could be so many people,” said one administration official, who like many others interviewed for this story spoke on the condition of anonymity to be candid. “You can’t rule it down to one person. Everyone is trying, but it’s impossible.”
The phrase “The sleeper cells have awoken” circulated on text messages among aides and outside allies.
“It’s like the horror movies when everyone realizes the call is coming from inside the house,” said one former White House official in close contact with former co-workers.
Nothing like this has ever happened before:
“For somebody within the belly of the White House to be saying there are a group of us running a resistance, making sure the president of the United States doesn’t do irrational and dangerous things, it is a mind-boggling moment,” historian Douglas Brinkley said.
The column added to the evolving narrative of Trump’s presidency, based on daily news reporting and books like Woodward’s that rely on candid accounts of anonymous administration officials.
“This is what all of us have understood to be the situation from Day One,” Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) told reporters. He added, “That’s why I think all of us encourage the good people around the president to stay.”
This has never happened before. No one is surprised. Both are true. Let the good people stay. And then there’s fantasy:
“The failing New York Times has an anonymous editorial – can you believe it? – anonymous, meaning gutless, a gutless editorial,” Trump told reporters during an event with sheriffs in the East Room of the White House.
The president went on to brag about his popularity, although nearly all public polls show that more Americans disapprove of his job performance than approve of it. “Our poll numbers are great, and guess what? Nobody’s going to come even close to beating me in 2020,” Trump said, as the sheriffs assembled behind him burst into applause.
The president later tweeted a single word alleging a possible crime: “TREASON?”
What? No one is aiding and abetting any enemy of the nation in a time when there’s an actual official declaration of war, against someone or other. Something else is going on here:
The president was already feeling especially vulnerable – and a deep “sense of paranoia,” in the words of one confidant – after his devastating portrayal in Woodward’s book. He was upset that so many in his orbit seemed to have spoken with the veteran Washington Post investigative journalist, and he had begun peppering staffers with questions about who Woodward’s sources were.
Trump already felt that he had a dwindling circle of people whom he could trust, a senior administration official said. According to one Trump friend, he fretted after Wednesday’s op-ed that he could trust only his children.
The op-ed did make things worse:
Brinkley, the historian, said the most analogous example of disloyalty, and advisers disregarding the president’s wishes, was in Richard Nixon’s final year as president. He explained that Nixon would “bark crazy orders” to aides that they intentionally disregarded.
Woodward, with Carl Bernstein, drove Nixon to barking those orders to a staff that tried to save the country, and the world, from disaster, and Woodward just did that again:
President Donald Trump, showing his outrage over Bob Woodward’s explosive new book, is ordering a real witch hunt in the West Wing and throughout his administration, asking loyal aides to help determine who cooperated with the book.
“The book is fiction,” Trump said Wednesday in the Oval Office alongside the Emir of Kuwait.
Even as the President publicly fumes, he’s privately on a mission to determine who did and didn’t talk to Woodward…
It’s that movie again. The slaves will be asked to give up their leader by pointing him out, but each might stand up and shout out “I am Spartacus!”
It’s not quite like that:
The President is directing the response strategy personally, officials say, in consultation with top communications official Bill Shine and other aides. At this point, it seems unlikely that anyone is immediately fired because of the book, one official says, because that would “lend credence to a book he is trying to discredit.”
More broadly, the White House’s emerging strategy to push back against Woodward’s reporting seems to be going after those former officials suspected of sharing documents and stories, according to several people familiar with the game plan.
“You don’t discredit Bob Woodward. You discredit the motives of the people” who provided the information, one person said.
Trump will make the pain local to his people, and Gabe Sherman reports this:
“It’s pandemonium. He literally isn’t talking to anyone. He’s canceled meetings and is on the phone calling up his friends,” one source said. Current and former staffers, meanwhile, pointed fingers in all directions as they sought to deflect blame for the damaging leaks. “I’d rather be an unapologetic defender of Donald Trump than Judas,” one West Wing official told me.
This is a matter of survival now:
Woodward’s book isn’t officially on sale until next week, and aides fear how Trump will react as more embarrassing bits are reported.
“It’s bad and it’s going to get worse,” a former West Wing staffer said. An outside adviser added, “Everybody on the inside knows it’s true. It’s just Fox News people who don’t want to admit how crazy he is.”
Kelly and Mattis issued strong statements denying the quotes attributed to them, but two former administration officials said the book has rekindled Trump’s desire to fire both officials after the midterms. “That’s back on the table,” one said. Trump’s advisers also worry about how the president will respond to the increasing pressure of Mueller’s probe and the growing likelihood that Democrats will win back the House in November, thereby making impeachment a real possibility.
“You can normally only do 10 percent of what he tells you to do. Ninety percent is fucking crazy,” a former West Wing official said, fretting about what Trump may instruct aides to do.
It’s all crazy. In that old movie, Laurence Olivier, as the Roman general and politician Marcus Licinius Crassus, demands that the assembled slaves give up that traitor Spartacus. Who is Spartacus? One by one, each of those slaves stands up and says that he’s Spartacus, because all of them kind of are Spartacus. We’ve seen this movie before. Everyone is Spartacus now.
Now what? This isn’t an old movie. This only feels like one.