There are ways to know how things really were at a certain place and time. There was Paris in the twenties and the Lost Generation there – Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises will take you there. There’s American teen culture as the fifties gave way to the sixties – those Happy Days – and American Graffiti will take you there. Then those kids went to college – Animal House will take you there – and The Big Chill will take you where it all ends up – those kids getting together, fifteen years later, as reluctant adults, for the funeral of the one of them who committed suicide. That’s the new truth. Hemingway’s novel and the three movies capture particular years in Paris and America. They are that certain time and that certain place. Everyone agrees. This is how it was.
That’s nostalgia. Nostalgia is easy. The here and now is harder. What’s the new truth? What can capture this time and place, the Trump Years in America, with its chaos, with half the nation hating the other half of the nation, egged on by the new president, with too much happening at once, with no one quite knowing what is actually going on? What clever bit of storytelling can capture that?
The Onion can capture that:
In a shocking development revealed just moments ago, sources confirmed that – oh, wait, sorry, false alarm. Multiple reports confirmed that, despite late-breaking suggestions to the contrary, you can actually forget about this news item and return to whatever you were doing before seeing this. In fact, sources have now informed reporters that we kind of jumped the gun on publishing this article at all, let alone labeling it “breaking” news. Frankly, sources concluded, this was our bad for getting you all worked up over nothing. Although, hold on one second, because several reports are now suggesting that it might still be worth keeping an eye on this story to see if – no, hold on, on second thought, just forget we said anything.
This is how it is. Everyone has breaking news. Stayed tuned! No wait, it was nothing, unless it really is something, which it isn’t, but which it might be – or not. Those are the Trump Years in America.
That played out again:
Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein’s SUV pulled into the White House complex shortly before 11 a.m. – about 20 minutes after the first headline blared the dramatic news.
Rosenstein was scheduled to meet with chief of staff John Kelly before attending a previously scheduled national security meeting with other senior officials at the White House. But he didn’t expect to actually attend that second meeting.
Indeed Rosenstein had already offered Kelly his resignation on Friday after The New York Times reported that he had suggested secretly recording President Donald Trump and discussed an effort to oust Trump from office via the 25th Amendment. And as he pulled up to the White House on Monday morning – still the deputy attorney general, his resignation pending – he expected he would leave a private citizen, fired by President Donald Trump.
Instead, about two hours later, Rosenstein clambered back into his official SUV and returned to the Justice Department having emerged, unscathed, from his two meetings at the White House and a phone call with the President.
That was the breaking news – Government Employee Not Fired!
Well, not yet:
Minutes before, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders had released a statement that delayed a decision on his fate until Thursday, so that Rosenstein and Trump — who is in New York attending the United Nations General Assembly – can meet in person.
“I’m meeting with Rod Rosenstein on Thursday when I get back from all of these meetings,” Trump said later in the day. “And we’ll be meeting at the White House, and we’ll be determining what’s going on. We want to have transparency, we want to have openness and I look forward to meeting with Rod at that time.”
And that was that:
The President’s comments, at least for Monday, put a cork in the bubbling cascade of confusion, tumult and anxiety that had quickly swept the capital, promptly leading to discussions about the fate of the special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation – which Rosenstein oversees – and drawing comparisons to Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey, which triggered Mueller’s appointment.
But what had happened here? Josh Marshall suggests this:
Kelly thought or wanted to think that Rosenstein said he was willing to resign. But he refused to resign and made clear that if they wanted him gone Trump would have to fire him. Trump didn’t have the nerve to pull that trigger. Perhaps Kelly made clear that this was something Trump needed to do himself. So here we are.
That’s a cool story. Rosenstein refuses to resign – Trump will have to fire him – and Kelly agrees – Trump should fire Rosenstein. But he won’t do it. He won’t do Trump’s dirty work. Trump will have to grow a pair and do the deed himself. He’ll have to look the guy in the eye and say the words he used to say on Celebrity Apprentice – “You’re Fired!”
Kelly remembers how James Comey was fired – from a distance and after the fact. Comey saw that he had been fired on television – news to him – and then he got a call from a low-level flunky confirming the fact. Kelly was appalled and perhaps now he doesn’t want to be that low-level flunky, doing what Trump isn’t man enough to do himself.
That’s a cool story and that’s total speculation. It’s better to have sources in the White House willing to let the world know, not for attribution, what’s really going on. What’s the new truth? Gabriel Sherman has those sources. His sources say this is what was really going on:
At the beginning of one of the most consequential weeks of Donald Trump’s presidency, an enormous smoke bomb was detonated in the news cycle when Axios, deeply wired in Trump’s West Wing, reported that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein had resigned. Quickly, a head-spinning-array of conflicting accounts were put forth. Had he been fired? Was he heading to the White House to be fired – or was he going to a regularly scheduled meeting? Finally, Sarah Huckabee Sanders brought a measure of clarity by tweeting that whatever was going to happen to Rosenstein would happen on Thursday, when the president returned from New York.
For all the morning’s madness, there may have been an underlying logic. Over the weekend, as Brett Kavanaugh’s prospects appeared increasingly imperiled, Trump faced two tactical options, both of them fraught. One was to cut Kavanaugh loose. But he was also looking for ways to dramatically shift the news cycle away from his embattled Supreme Court nominee. According to a source briefed on Trump’s thinking, Trump decided that firing Rosenstein would knock Kavanaugh out of the news, potentially saving his nomination and Republicans’ chances for keeping the Senate.
“The strategy was to try and do something really big,” the source said. The leak about Rosenstein’s resignation could have been the result, and it certainly had the desired effect of driving Kavanaugh out of the news for a few hours.
This, then, was just a smoke bomb – something that would change the subject for a moment – but perhaps useless:
The confusion surrounding Rosenstein’s tenure may not give Kavanaugh a reprieve. In public, Trump continues to voice support for his embattled Supreme Court nominee, telling reporters at the United Nations earlier this morning that he stands with Kavanaugh “all the way.” But in private, Trump is growing increasingly frustrated by being mired in a deteriorating political situation beyond his control. On Monday morning, a Republican briefed on Trump’s thinking said the president has been considering pulling Kavanaugh’s nomination.
According to the source, Trump allies are imploring him to cut Kavanaugh loose for the sake of saving Republicans’ electoral chances in the midterms. The argument these advisers are making is that if Kavanaugh’s nomination fails, demoralized Republicans will stay home in November, and Democrats will take the House and the Senate and initiate impeachment proceedings. The end result: Trump will be removed from office. “The stakes are that high,” the source said.
Another Republican adviser told me: “Trump is very worried now, and is finally waking up that it’s the end of his presidency if he loses the Senate.” Trump’s outside-allies are advising him to nominate Amy Coney Barrett and fast-track her confirmation before the midterms. “Some in the White House think you can only appoint a woman now,” a former administration official told me. An outside adviser added: “Democrats won’t be able to pivot fast enough to attack her, since she’s a woman.”
It may be too late for that, and there’s this too:
According to sources, Trump blamed Mitch McConnell and Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley for agreeing to delay Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony until Thursday. “He thinks they look weak,” a Republican briefed on Trump’s thinking said.
A White House official told me Trump was also angry that Senate Republicans waited hours to respond to Ford’s interview with The Washington Post, creating a vacuum in the news cycle that allowed the narrative to take hold. “You don’t let that happen,” the official said.
But it happened, so they’ll have to live with that, and everyone will have to live with the Trump Years in America, with half the nation hating the other half of the nation, egged on by the new president. That may be the new Truth too, and Jenna Johnson and Robert Costa explain these troubled times:
The battle over the Supreme Court nomination of Brett M. Kavanaugh has inflamed the culture wars, with conservatives casting their support for the nominee as a stand against the forces of political correctness and liberals striking back with a passionate mantra: “Believe women.”
That’s about it:
On social media and in protests that swarmed the Capitol on Monday, liberal and conservative activists have used apocalyptic terms to describe the stakes and have rallied behind the two key figures, who have taken on larger-than-life roles: Kavanaugh, a federal judge, and Christine Blasey Ford, a California professor who has accused Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her when they were teenagers.
Kavanaugh has become a stand-in for Republicans, Christians and self-identified “deplorables” who feel bullied and smeared by liberals, while Ford has come to symbolize the many women who have been victimized with impunity by powerful men.
There is no middle ground here:
“It’s the culture war on steroids, an incredible divide and intense to the point where people won’t talk to each other in some cases,” said William J. Bennett, a conservative commentator and former education secretary in the Reagan administration. “You have the anti-Trump resistance, the MeToo movement and the Supreme Court making for a perfect storm of controversy.”
Supreme Court nominations are nearly always contentious because justices serve for life and make decisions on hot-button issues such as abortion and religious liberties. An opening on the court prompts a reflection on where the country has been and where it should aim to go.
But many prominent Republicans and Democrats say they have never seen a nomination process like this one, with the hyper-charged politics, 24-7 news coverage and social media firestorms. They say the contentiousness surpasses the failed high-court bid of Robert Bork in 1987 and Justice Clarence Thomas’s hearings in 1991, when he was accused of sexual harassment.
This is the world as it is now:
Many Republicans have accused Democrats of unfairly smearing Kavanaugh, using similarly graphic language. The scrutiny of Kavanaugh has been called an “ambush” and a “drive-by shooting” by elected Republicans. Kavanaugh called it a “last-minute character assassination” in a letter to members of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Monday.
“The GOP is getting bullied. It must stand up to the bullies and defend Brett Kavanaugh,” conservative commentator Erick Erickson wrote in a column this week. “The GOP rejecting Kavanaugh will be rejecting the desires of its base, embracing false accusations, and rendering itself utterly useless.”
Media personality Michelle Malkin sounded even more ominous in a Sunday tweet. “This is a cultural & sociopolitical battle of all battles,” she wrote. “The stakes are high for all upstanding Americans, not just GOP candidates.”
Meanwhile on Monday, thousands of women rallied in support of Ford and Ramirez on Capitol Hill and in communities throughout the country, including at Yale Law School, Kavanaugh’s alma mater. Twitter was filled with testimonials and messages of support from politicians, actresses, Hollywood writers and hundreds of others, accompanied by the hashtag #BelieveSurvivors.
This is the new truth:
For years, America has become more and more polarized – a trend hastened by Trump’s election. A Washington Post-ABC News poll in January found that 84 percent of Democrats were concerned about the issues raised through the #MeToo movement, compared with 59 percent of Republicans. A Fox News poll released this weekend found that 59 percent of Democrats believe Ford’s accusations, compared with 14 percent of Republicans.
A rallying point for the right came in recent days at the annual Values Voter Summit in Washington, where talk of Kavanaugh dominated speeches. The message from GOP leaders to the party’s evangelical base: Stand by Kavanaugh, and blame Democrats.
“Don’t get rattled by all of this,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) urged the crowd. “We’re going to plow right through it and do our job.”
The tone was similar on the other side of the ideological spectrum Monday. At a rally in Denver, one protester held a sign that read: “Women are screaming ‘NO’ while the GOP just turns up the music & plows ahead.”
And so on and so forth – it only gets louder – the Trump Years in America, with half the nation hating the other half of the nation, egged on by the president, but this isn’t just domestic. Ishaan Tharoor covers the world stage:
President Trump’s address before the U.N.’s General Assembly on Tuesday will underscore a now-familiar message: American sovereignty and supremacy are not to be challenged, nor is Washington’s right to act unilaterally on the world stage.
He’ll tear the world apart too:
Trump has acted according to those principles since taking office last year. He has sparked trade disputes with close allies, cast doubt upon traditional alliances in the West, withdrawn the United States from global agreements such as the Paris climate accords and upset the apple cart at multilateral summits like this year’s meeting of the Group of Seven nations. His public appearances have often sounded like the campaign rally he last week held in Las Vegas, where he attacked the “globalism” of his political enemies and linked liberal internationalism to economic hardship at home.
And this is his message:
“The forces opposing us in Washington are the same people who squandered trillions of dollars overseas, who sacrificed our sovereignty, who shipped away our jobs, who oversaw the greatest transfer of wealth in the history of the world,” Trump said. “In 2016, the American people voted to reject this corrupt globalism. Hey, I’m the president of the United States – I’m not the president of the globe.”
That’s the problem:
Such rhetoric, when delivered from the dais of the General Assembly chamber, was still a shock last year. But as Trump makes his second appearance at the United Nations as president, no world leader or foreign dignitary will be surprised to hear more of the same.
The key question is whether Trump is an outlier – or the new normal.
“Many foreign policy experts, and most of the foreign leaders pouring into New York this week for the United Nations’ General Assembly, have been counting on the former,” wrote Robert Kagan, a prominent Washington neoconservative and the author of a new book on America’s waning role in the world.
“They place their hopes on the 2020 elections to get America back on its old path. But they may have to start facing the fact that what we’re seeing today is not a spasm but a new direction in American foreign policy, or rather a return to older traditions – the kind that kept us on the sidelines while fascism and militarism almost conquered the world.”
And then this is the new truth:
U.S. allies, once willing to follow America’s lead, are increasingly forging their own paths, building new partnerships independent of Washington and, at times, even acting against the Trump administration’s plans. On trade, Canada, the European Union and Japan have all stepped up their cooperation. Initiatives to tackle climate change – a cause for which Trump has repeatedly expressed disdain – will be raised by numerous world leaders, including French President Emmanuel Macron, who will convene a special session on the future of the planet.
Trump probably will receive minimal support when he chairs a Security Council session on Wednesday, where he is expected to berate Iran – every other permanent member of the council was opposed to Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal with Tehran. Diplomats at the United Nations have also objected to the White House’s other attacks on U.N. bodies, including its defunding of the U.N.’s Palestinian-aid agency and threats leveled at the International Criminal Court.
“For the first time in history, America will find itself consistently isolated on major issues before the Security Council,” wrote Brett Bruen, a former director of global engagement for the Obama White House. “That’s a role more commonly played by the likes of Russia or China. Sure, there were a few cases in the past when it had been in the minority on matters like Israel or Iraq. But, it has never struggled to rally a majority behind most of our diplomatic agenda.”
Welcome to the Trump Years in America and in the world. One day a novelist or filmmaker will look back on these years and create the story that ties it all together, and everyone will say yes, that’s how it really was, at a certain time and a certain place, long ago – when there was an America.