It’s entirely possible that the Trump presidency is beyond repair. President Donald Trump has accomplished none of his major priorities (except for putting Neil Gorsuch on the Supreme Court) and has proved himself to be an unreliable and inept partner for the Republicans on Capitol Hill. He surely isn’t going to be able to accomplish more in his second six months than he was in his first, when he was supposedly at the peak of his popularity and power.
Moreover, special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, along with his ace team of 16 lawyers, at least one grand jury and a somewhat serious Senate Intelligence Committee, are pursuing not just the Trump campaign’s possible cooperation with Russia but also possible obstruction of justice. So, yes, even if Trump does everything right from here on out, his presidency may never recover, even if he manages to stay in office until January 2021.
That said, Trump’s most immediate problem - and the country’s - is establishing himself as a sober, competent and calm commander in chief. So far this week he has shown himself to be irrational, excitable, ill-prepared and thoroughly unfit to lead the country in a tense standoff against North Korea. His rhetoric has been so intemperate that we’re now back to fretting about his possession of the nuclear codes. The Washington Post reports:
“As with most things Trump, the furor over the ‘fire and fury’ has divided the nation in two - those who believe the president is a loose cannon, impulsively blurting whatever flits through his mind, and those who believe his inflammatory talk is a wily combination of politically savvy instincts and a gut-driven populism that simply aims to please.
“When President Trump went off script Tuesday to deliver a startling threat to North Korea - ‘They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen’ - it was as if the nation relived the most lurid themes of the 2016 campaign in one chilling moment. . . . At the core of the anxiety over Trump’s remarks is the worry that the president made his threat without consideration of what might follow.”
Trump’s presidency will court disaster - a shooting war - so long as his chief of staff, John Kelly, and senior staff treat his unhinged, unthinking outbursts as acceptable:
“Presidents don’t usually improvise comments on global crises. ‘What would be “normal” in the Bush or Obama or Clinton administrations would be for the combination of strategic communications people and policy people - including the national security adviser - to develop, in consultation with the State Department and the Defense Department, a messaging strategy with top lines that they felt the president needed to emphasize,’ said a senior diplomat who served in all three administrations.”
Trump’s broadside against Pyongyang was so out of sync with his advisers that they rushed forward to explain the president was speaking extemporaneously. That’s the cleanup message, mind you. In other words: “Don’t listen to him, and it’s not our fault.” But it is their fault and their problem.
Kelly and other senior advisers cannot tiptoe around the president nor enable his erratic behavior. If his national security team cannot control him, perhaps his family or the vice president will have better luck. Trump needs to understand he has called into question his mental fitness and ability to uphold his oath. If this does not abate, his own utterances will fuel talk of impeachment and/or invocation of the 25th Amendment. In the meantime, the question hangs over our military: How do they manage their obligations to the country with respect to civilian control of the military in the event that he orders them to pursue ill-conceived and possibly cataclysmic military action?
This calamitous week (and it’s only Thursday!) should dispel the fantasy that Kelly can save the president from himself. If he cannot control Trump’s outbursts and keep him off Twitter, Kelly will fail in arguably the most important assignment of his career. And the country’s security and democratic institutions will be stressed like never before.