The Embattled Trump Presidency: Lessons from Fiction

By William Hausdorff

It’s easy to get overwhelmed by information overload regarding the colorful Trump White House, its defenders and its attackers.  But as I learned from Libra, Don DeLillo’s fictionalized account of the John F. Kennedy assassination, one doesn’t need to know exactly what is happening to understand the main plot lines. 

That novel suggested that the essence of the Kennedy story was that there were at least three potentially murderous groups who felt aggrieved. These included Mafia figures furious that he named his brother as Attorney General, anti-Castro figures seething at Kennedy’s lack of support for the Bay of Pigs invasion, as well as pro-Castro figures outraged at the administration’s open hostility to Cuba.

As described in Philip Shenon’s excellent non-fiction analysis, the latter group, to which Lee Harvey Oswald belonged, may have been especially enraged by the news of US attempts to assassinate Castro.  In some ways, then, it didn’t matter who ended up pulling the trigger.

What are the broad lines of the Trump story here?

First, there unquestionably is a multipronged, serious effort to undermine the major sources of news in the US.  Where it’s coming from is not always clear, nor the extent to which it is fully orchestrated.  Nonetheless, Trump, his minions, and his p.r. firms (Breitbart, Fox etc) have been thundering from day one of his campaign against the New York Times, the Washington Post, CNN, MSNBC etc in an undisguised attempt to discredit them. 

Simultaneously, there are active attempts to destabilize the mainstream media by feeding them false information, as was vividly experienced by the Washington Post at the hands of “Project Veritas” two weeks ago.   The same people who are verbally attacking the media are financially supporting these efforts to undermine it:  the Trump Foundation directly funds “Project Veritas,” and the Republican establishment, in the person of Virginia Thomas (Clarence Thomas’ wife) on behalf of a political/evangelical group, promptly gave the group an award.  Breitbart, while denying it was “aware or involved”, euphemistically refers to the scam of trying to pass fraudulent information as an “investigation.”

It is difficult to imagine that Project Veritas is the only one trying to poison the waters.  The media is also being undermined, as pointed out by Glenn Greenwald (of Edward Snowden fame), and no friend of Trump’s, by their own sloppiness in rushing to publish anything negative on Trump, especially with regard to Russia, without taking the time to verify the information.  These mistakes, of course, allow Trump and friends to fuel their conspiracy narrative.

Greenwald suggests that the sources for some of these errors are Democratic members or staff on the House Intelligence Committee, but doesn’t offer any plausible explanation as to why they would leak information that would be easily demonstrated to be false.  In contrast, such erroneous leaks from Republican operatives would fit right in with the Trump game plan.

Secondly, there clearly is a concerted effort to tarnish Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller, and prepare the way for Trump to potentially fire him.  The steadily increasing drumbeat of attacks on Mueller from congressional Republicans, flacks like Newt Gingrich, and house organs like Breitbart and Fox News, is not incidental music.  I can’t recall, in my lifetime, such virulent right-wing Republican attacks against other life-long Republicans (not just Mueller, but also Assistant Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and FBI head Christopher Wray.) 

It is of course reminiscent of the Joe McCarthy era, which culminated with President Eisenhower being called a communist by his henchmen. Roy Cohn, one-time McCarthy aide, and two decades later Trump’s mentor and lawyer, was in the center of that.  The difference is that Trump IS the president and is leading the attacks.

Perhaps even more ominous is the sudden lack of Republican interest in bills they had once co-sponsored, with fanfare, to shield the Special Counsel from Trump.  This can only be interpreted in one of two ways.  Either Senators Tillis and Graham truly believe, following the recent indictments of his former campaign manager, his former national security advisor and others, that Trump is now LESS likely than in August to fire Mueller, or….

As a parenthesis, it’s perhaps worth remembering what the hysteria was really about in the 1950s.  In Richard Hofstadter’s analysis, a major driver was frustration with the Eisenhower administration's  unwillingness to cut taxes and overturn New Deal programs put in place 15 years earlier.  One wonders if that is the same driver today—the burning desire to gut social programs—Paul Ryan’s greatest dream.

Thirdly, the “debate” over the President’s powers to pardon or obstruct justice is a purely academic (in the pejorative sense of the term) exercise.  With all due respect to my legal friends, in the real world common sense says that in a representative democracy, the President can’t pardon himself or obstruct investigations into his wrongdoing, even when run under the auspices of his Justice Department.

To say that the only possible check on a President’s powers enumerated in the Constitution is the political decision to impeach and convict effectively means that, whenever the President’s party controls one house of the Congress, all that stands between him and being a king are political calculations by his own party.

I say this in spite of legal advice from the highly esteemed Professor John Yoo, Univ. of California at Berkeley:

President Trump can clearly pardon anyone — even himself — subject to the Mueller investigation.

When last we heard from Prof Yoo, as deputy assistant attorney general under George W. Bush, he was justifying how to keep US officials from being charged with war crimes for the way prisoners were being detained and interrogated—i.e., tortured.

The “debate” about presidents not being able to obstruct justice is equally academic. Not just in his lawyer John Dowd’s royal formulation, immediately widely ridiculed:

The president cannot obstruct justice because he is the chief law enforcement officer 

but also in its slightly narrower sense, as promulgated by emeritus Professor Alan Dershowitz:

You cannot charge a president with obstruction of justice for exercising his constitutional power to fire Comey.

For a dissenting view, just ask Richard Nixon.  Intriguingly, in the past Dershowitz has offered a slightly narrower legal pathway than Yoo on another topic, legalizing torture by US government officials.

Trump is being cornered by Mueller, who seems to be crossing the only “red line” mentioned by the President.  While there’s no question that Trump’s campaign, son, and advisers were colluding with the Russians to defeat Hillary Clinton, from a personal point of view it’s not at all clear whether Trump himself would ever be in legal jeopardy.  But what seems to be a treasure trove—and what Trump himself is evidently most concerned about, as he himself said—are investigations into the seamy financial dealings with various international actors that allowed him to escape utter bankruptcy multiple times.  Even if he’s not exactly there, Mueller seems to be in the neighborhood.

It doesn’t take a PhD in rocket science to imagine what will happen when Trump is finally cornered.  Perhaps it’ll be a Friday morning.  First, our wacky President will do something much more destructive on the international front than recognizing Jerusalem to garner all the attention—for example, he could tear up the Iran Agreement and call for restoration of sanctions.  Or, alleging some real or manufactured (it doesn’t really matter) provocation, he could even shoot missiles at North Korea.  And then later Friday evening, past the evening news deadlines, Trump will fire Mueller.  What would he have to lose?

If he does so, there is no rational reason to believe that the INITIAL reaction of the Republican Congress will be anything other than mighty words of dismay.  In fact, based on past performance, it is likely we’ll hear something lofty from Senator Ben Sasse, who will then disappear into the mist.  Senators Flake and Corker, as they wave goodbye, will tweet indignantly.  I don’t see how one could expect anything else from them:  despite one questioning Trump’s mental stability and the other terming him a threat to democracy, causing Democrats to hyperventilate, each has dismissed impeachment as well as invocation of the 25th amendment. It makes you wonder what it would take. 

It is also not rational to expect more than high-sounding rhetoric from John McCain, given his meek acquiescence on the tax bill despite it being guilty of exactly the same issues as the health care bill that he thunderously condemned just a few weeks ago.  Not to mention that it was the noble McCain who named the first female Trump, Sarah Palin, as his nominee for Vice President. 

The likelihood that the Republican leadership—Ryan, McConnell--will take ANY action is zero.

UNLESS the public reaction, even in the red states, is sheer outrage, and this well before the 2018 elections.  Then, if we’re really lucky, we might have the following scenario, straight out of the movie Casablanca: 

Renault [McConnell] walks into the middle of the room and blows his whistle
Renault [McConnell]:  Everybody is to leave here immediately! This café [White House] is closed until further notice. Clear the room, at once!
Rick [Trump]: How can you close me up? On what grounds?
Renault [McConnell]: I am shocked- shocked- to find that gambling [corruption, obstruction of justice, sexual harassment] is going on in here!
Croupier [Ryan]: [hands Renault [McConnell] money] Your winnings, sir.
Renault [McConnell]: Oh, thank you very much. Everybody out at once!

(Yes, it is painful to give Trump the Humphrey Bogart part, even for one line.)

As an amusing footnote, based on the Watergate playbook, it seems that whoever fires Mueller will end up getting a significant career boost.  Nine years after the 1973 Saturday Night Massacre the former solicitor general, Robert Bork, was named to the Court of Appeals and only five years later was nominated to the Supreme Court, in both cases by President Reagan.

Perhaps Attorney General Jeff Sessions will do the dirty deed, momentarily forgetting about his “recusal.”  If not, we’d like to think Assistant Attorney General Rod Rosenstein will resign rather than fire the Special Counsel, like his Watergate counterpart William Ruckelshaus.  You may thus want to put your bets on Solicitor General Noel Francisco, only 48 years old and with a long career still ahead.  (Bork was 46 in 1973.)

Some more recent cinematic fiction may best sum up the Trump Experience to date.   One scene in The Square is set in an elegant 19th century dining room where the donors to a modern art museum are being feted.  As entertainment, the organizers brought in a bare chested man who had featured as a ferocious man/beast in a museum video.

Playing the part convincingly, he grunts as he prowls around the dining room, bullying some of the patrons while everyone avoids eye contact.  At one point, he jumps on a table, crunching plates and wine glasses, and then begins to seriously menace, grope and finally assault a young woman.  All eyes still stay averted.  I won’t spoil the ending of the scene, but it does sound like our President, doesn’t it?