Democracy & Government

As the Wheels of the Trump Juggernaut Come Off

Cracks in Republican Senate servility are beginning to show, while right-wing media hang tough.

As the Wheels of the Trump Juggernaut Come Off

President Donald Trump meets with members of the airline industry at the White House Feb. 9, 2017 in Washington, DC. Trump held a listening session with the group to advance issues relative to the airline industry. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Say this for Donald Trump: He sets records. It took more than a year of Warren G. Harding’s administration before the Teapot Dome scandal of 1921-22 brought down his Interior secretary for taking a massive oil company bribe. A half-century later, it took two years to expose the immensity of the Watergate crimes and force the conspirators out of their White House holes. It took almost that long for the Reagan administration Iran-Contra revelations to pour forth in the mid-‘80s, though that scandal left the enfeebled incumbent in place.

In just four weeks, Trump has breathlessly caught up with his predecessors in power abuse.

Now, congressional Republicans’ marriage of convenience to the crackpot showman of Fifth Avenue shows signs of post-honeymoon stress. For in just four weeks, Trump has breathlessly caught up with his predecessors in power abuse. Having crashed into a big, beautiful wall, he is, by all accounts, reeling. The wall is of his own making, constructed with the collusion of a party that found him a useful vehicle and will likely continue to do so until the day comes when they discover that they are so, shocked, shocked, that Donald Trump is exactly the wrecking ball that tens of millions of Americans knew he was. Trump’s staffers have barely been able to locate the White House light switches, but in less than a month they have already presided over more known scandal than Barack Obama could muster in eight years. And we’re not counting Trump’s routine lies, obfuscations and blunders, or those of his apparatchiks, faithfully delivered at every press briefing and on every Sunday morning show. The metronome pace of the wrecking ball is breathtakingly rapid.

Now he’s tossed overboard one of his top appointments, national security adviser and former Kremlin-paid dinner companion Gen. Michael Flynn, for lying (such a shocking departure in Trump’s White House!) — or getting caught lying, or committing who knows what other violations of law, decency and decorum may turn up — as leaks continue and more about the Kremlin’s forays into American politics become known. As Julian Borger noted in The Guardian,

Flynn is the third Trump acolyte forced out over the question of links to the Russian government of Vladimir Putin. Paul Manafort, the former campaign manager, and Carter Page, a businessman Trump described as an adviser, both left last summer after reports surfaced about their contacts with the Kremlin.

One tantalizing question already rises to the surface: Who told Flynn to call Russia’s ambassador to the US on Dec. 29, the day Barack Obama announced Russian sanctions? As Daniel Benjamin, the State Department’s former coordinator for counterterrorism, writes in Politico, Flynn is not the kind of guy to undertake strategic initiatives on his own. We await the moment when a critical mass of Republicans, facing the enormity of what they have wrought, bail out.

Who told Flynn to call Russia’s ambassador to the US on Dec. 29, the day Barack Obama announced Russian sanctions?

But let us now take deep breaths and decline the temptation to jump to premature conclusions. El Caudillo de Mar-a-Lago, as Esquire’s Charlie Pierce calls him, remains president of the United States. He commands the nuclear so-called football. He is receiving supine advice and consent from a partisan Senate for his Cabinet plutocrats. If he is not derailed, he will soon be well on his way to molding the future Supreme Court. But he must still be jarred to find himself so soon mid-shakeup.

Whether Trump can contain the damage this week by pinning it on Flynn is anybody’s guess. Trump himself remains silent about his campaign’s contacts with the Russians. But an executive branch leak machine is hard at work. James Comey’s 11th-hour intervention to put Trump over the top in November evidently is being countered by other forces within the FBI and the intelligence community.

Possibly most dangerous of all for Trump, as The Washington Post noted on Valentine’s Day, a fresh romance threatens to burst out between senators of both parties as

the top two members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC) and Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-VA), stood side by side Tuesday to announce that the committee’s ongoing probe must include an examination of any contacts between Trump campaign officials and the Russian government.

Note the Burr-Warner agreement to look into “any contacts.” If any means what I think it does, it ought to include many allegations made by the now-notorious and prematurely discredited Christopher Steele dossier.

Roy Blunt of Missouri, no minor Republican hack in the Senate leadership, now says (in the words of Rosalind S. Helderman and Tom Hamburger in The Washington Post) that

the Senate Intelligence Committee should look into Trump’s Russia connections “exhaustively so that at the end of this process, nobody wonders whether there was a stone left unturned, and shouldn’t reach conclusions before you have the information that you need to have to make those conclusions.”

“For all of us, finding out if there’s a problem or not, and sooner rather than later, is the right thing to do,” he said.

Blunt is probably not the only Republican in Congress to leap to attention now that the words “What did the president know and when did he know it?” are current once more.

Trump’s collapse in the polls is unprecedented. …He has precipitated the largest demonstrations in American history.

Trump’s collapse in the polls is unprecedented. He won Iowa by 9 points while his disapprovals there now outrun his approvals by 7. Republican members of Congress have to flee their own town meetings faced with angry constituents who don’t trust that the Republicans have better medical care in store for them. He has precipitated the largest demonstrations in American history.

So these are demanding days for the Vortex — the Voices of Right-Wing Extremism — who have to scrape together every scrap of ingenuity they can muster to explain why the wheels are coming off their souped-up contraption of a presidency. No surprise, they converge on two stories: (1) The disloyal intelligence services are scheming. And (2) nothing is wrong but the left. And for the most part they are hanging tough.

Breitbart leads by blasting out Trump’s tweets:

“Information is being illegally given to the failing New York Times and Washington Post by the intelligence community,” he wrote on Twitter, suggesting that the NSA and the FBI might be responsible. “Just like Russia,” he added….“The real scandal here is that classified information is illegally given out by ‘intelligence’ like candy,” Trump wrote. “Very un-American!”… “The fake news media is going crazy with their conspiracy theories and blind hatred,” Trump wrote. “MSNBC and CNN are unwatchable. Fox and Friends is great!”

Meanwhile, other voices of Vortex attempt to tar the current resistance with all available smut. “Was Obama too soft on Russia?” Trump tweeted, referring to Putin’s 2014 seizure of Crimea. Obama is a serviceable bogeyman for many purposes, as for example, Breitbart News passing on this item from the New York Post: “Obama is scheming to sabotage Trump’s presidency:”

Obama has an army of agitators — numbering more than 30,000 — who will fight his Republican successor at every turn of his historic presidency. And Obama will command them from a bunker less than 2 miles from the White House.

In what’s shaping up to be a highly unusual post-presidency, Obama isn’t just staying behind in Washington. He’s working behind the scenes to set up what will effectively be a shadow government to not only protect his threatened legacy, but to sabotage the incoming administration and its popular “America First” agenda.

Back on the Russian front, Breitbart relays the view of veteran right-wing columnist Eli Lake, now at Bloomberg News, that Flynn has fallen victim to “political assassination.” Lake warns that the FBI is using “police state” tactics to force Trump to “cave in” and dump Flynn. When Comey released his consequential letter warning that he was reopening the FBI’s Hillary Clinton investigation, on the strength of no new known evidence, 11 days before Election Day, Lake did not worry about the Bureau’s police state tactics. Then, he understood Comey’s intervention as an awkward attempt to overcompensate for the FBI’s failure to vigorously enough investigate…the Clinton Foundation.

Over on Fox News, loyal fan Sean Hannity stepped up to cheer Lake on and give him a platform. But Trump’s hard-core chorus still croons to him in his bunker: Your Majesty is (as it were) unimpeachable. Talk radio’s Kool-Aid-swigging Laura Ingraham fantasized on Fox News Sunday that “people protesting President Donald Trump’s policies are pushing” toward confrontations so intense “that force would have to be used so they can then claim ‘a police state.’” There may be a handful of those, but the millions who turned out for the Jan. 21 Women’s March are not the brainless type.

Even Fox News went up Wednesday morning with a report of malpractice on Trump’s part, headlined: “Trump reportedly kept Pence in dark about Flynn’s Russian phone calls.” And even the venerable Rush Limbaugh equivocates. He’s miffed that any Republican senator would swallow mainstream propaganda, accepting the Democrats’ crazed belief that they were cheated out of election victory. He half-heartedly defends Trump: “It’s the establishment versus the outsiders still,” his idea of the establishment being John McCain and Lindsey Graham. But this is not Rush at his fullest-throated. One feels the poor man struggle for equilibrium. He cannot rejoice at the demolition derby he beholds in the Oval Office.

Todd Gitlin

Todd Gitlin is a professor of journalism and sociology and chair of the Ph.D. program in communications at Columbia University. He is the author of 16 books, including several on journalism and politics. His next book is a novel, The Opposition. Follow him on Twitter: @toddgitlin.