By Mitchell Blatt*
The past two weeks have brought developments in the ongoing saga of America’s executive office dysfunction that have shattered even previous high water marks of unbridled incompetence, corruption, and abuse of power. On May 9, Donald Trump fired FBI Director James Comey on transparent pretexts. A couple of days later, Trump admitted his pretexts were false. Later he made a threat to Comey, who is invited to testify before Congress, about having supposed “tapes” of his conversations, and the White House still won’t say if it is recording conversations, even as it faces a subpoena from Congressional investigators. Now, in the past few hours, it has come to light that Comey produced a memo stating Trump had told him to end the investigation into Michael Flynn.
If Trump’s attempts to derail the Russia investigation weren’t enough, Trump met with Russian Ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov literally the next day after firing Comey. Apparently without the White House’s permission, the Russian government photographer shared photos of the two men yukking it up in front of Trump with the Russian media that would go viral around the world—even as Trump didn’t allow any American photographers to capture images of the meeting. Didn’t Trump already learn from Michael Flynn and Jeff Sessions the perils of meeting with Kislyak?
But the optics disaster was only foreshadowing what the public would soon find out happened during the meeting.
On May 16, it was reported by the Washington Post that “Trump revealed highly classified information to Russian foreign minister and ambassador.” The information revealed was reportedly enough to let Russia figure out the source of intelligence shared by an ally (a very strong ally that Trump made much of claiming to support). Trump’s irresponsible mouth puts Israeli spies in ISIS-controlled territory at risk. It may threaten U.S. intelligence-sharing with Israel.
The saddest thing is, this was all completely predictable. Anyone who paid the slightest attention to the 2016 campaign could have seen that Trump was an unhinged narcissist with absolutely no self-control. If someone running for the most powerful office in the world can’t prevent himself from tweeting defamatory attacks about “sex tapes” at 5 am in the morning, how can anyone trust them to deal with classified information?
His slip-up to the Russians reportedly came when he was bragging about what great intelligence he, as president of the strongest nation in the world, has access to. “I get great intel. I have people brief me on great intel every day,” the Post quoted him as saying, via its sources.
The U.S. president bragging that he has access to great intel… That’s like Warren Buffett bragging that he has access to luxurious private jets.
But it’s Trump’s modus operandi. Even more than 100 days in, he seems shocked by even the most obvious details about the government and the military. “We have submarines, very powerful,” he said in an interview about sending ships to the Korean peninsula (that actually didn’t arrive until much later). He was in awe of the White House phones, saying, “These are the most beautiful phones I’ve ever used in my life.”
It’s like his view on nuclear: “I think, for me, nuclear is just the power, the devastation is very important to me,” he said during a primary debate.
We knew Trump was out of his depth when he flubbed questions about things like the nuclear triad, when he mixed up the Quds Forces with the Kurds, when he had no clue what was the difference between Hamas and Hezbollah, when his answer to any foreign policy question was I have a secret plan.
As I noted in writing a personal endorsement before the general election, “Trump … appears confused on any specific issue he is asked about, including the above mentioned questions.”
Earlier when I wrote my rejoinder to Trump during the primary, I noted, “Trump treats questions of war like a game—‘we’ll bomb the hell ought of them’ one day and ‘leave it to Russia’ the next.” Once in office, he proved himself incoherent, going back on years of strongly worded statements to strike the Syrian government and reversing his own administration’s strategy on regime change in just one week.
As I said during the primary, “He certainly hasn’t shown any competence at hiring people who can do the job for him.” At the time his incompetent and corrupt staff included Katrina Pierson, Roger Stone, and Paul Mamafort. Now in the White House he has had Michael Flynn, Sean Spicer, Steve Bannon, and Sebastian Gorka, a member of a Nazi-linked Hungarian group who remains deputy assistant to the president.
All of this behavior that would lead to his obstruction of justice, his gross incompetence on all policy matters, and his hysterical smear campaigns in public was publicly on display for months—years—before he ran for president, even. His base during the primary actually celebrated him for it. And yet Republicans sat back and put him in office knowing full well what they were getting.
Hell, Republican leadership even seemed to know he would be a disaster for the nation and even for the party. In October, Paul Ryan said he “wouldn’t defend” Trump. Even so-called “RINOs” and those Trump himself attacked viciously—John McCain, for example—played nice with Trump as long as they had to. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, who accurately called Trump a “con man” and “utterly amoral” respectively—both endorsed Trump.
They treated the health and stability of the country as a game to be won at any cost. They didn’t have to keep supporting Trump and endorsing him and defending him from his self-inflicted wounds, but they did to defeat the Democrats. Party over country.
Now that Trump is going down in flames, Republicans want to run from the fire—avoiding questions and avoiding responsibility. They can’t do so easily. They poured gasoline on the fire and kept it going when others were trying to put the fire out.
Tom Nichols wrote in February 2016 that “Trump will tar conservatives forever.”
[A]fter four years of thrashing around in the Oval Office like the ignorant boor he is, voters will no longer be able distinguish between the words “Trump,” “Republican,” “conservative,” and “buffoon.” He will obliterate Republicans further down the ticket in 2016 and 2020, smear conservatism as nothing more than his own brand of narcissism, and destroy decades of hard work, including Ronald Reagan’s legacy.
Trump voters said they wanted to “burn it down.” Republicans played with fire. Now they will be consumed.
*Mitchell Blatt has been based in China and Korea since 2012. A writer and journalist, he is the lead author of Panda Guides Hong Kong guidebook and has contributed to outlets including The National Interest, National Review Online, Acculturated, and Vagabond Journey. Fluent in Chinese, he has lived and traveled in Asia for three years, blogging about his travels at ChinaTravelWriter.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @MitchBlatt.