Like motorists passing the scene of a horrific highway crash, I cannot look away from the ten-car pileup that is the Donald Trump presidency.
Nor can I make sense of it. How did it happen? Who, or what, started it? What caused the chain reaction — wet roads? Drivers following too closely at high speed? Was it a whiteout or a sudden, dense fog bank? Was the president on his phone, tweeting, when he should’ve had his eye on the road?
At its root, the morbid curiosity about the ten-car pileup is this: did anyone die? That’s cold, but honest. We don’t slow down to look at the wreckage because we’re speculating whether the auto body shop can get all the dents hammered out. That’s just not how the human mind works when confronted with its own mortality.
The human species is confronted with its mortality in the case of an unstable presidency with access to the launch codes, but I’m not sure that’s what drives our morbid curiosity as this presidency unravels. I think it’s more like this — imagine that a country is a person. The United States is therefore, in our imagination, a person who appears gravely injured right now…and with that same morbid curiosity that makes us look at the car accident, we wonder, can the patient survive?
Yes, you read that right. I’m not asking whether Trump can last as president — although we’ll get back to that shortly. I am asking whether the United States can survive having Trump as president. Trump and his minions are the windshield thru which the victim was catapulted, the gunshot wound to the gut — you get the metaphor.
24 days into his presidency, Donald Trump’s national security advisor, Michael Flynn, was forced out of his job for — the Trump White House would have you believe — lying to Vice-President Pence about having discussed sanctions against Russia with the Russian ambassador.
These were the sanctions President Obama imposed in response to Russian interference in the US presidential election, and Flynn discussed them with the Russian ambassador the day before Obama imposed them. Having such discussions before Trump took office would’ve been bad enough, as US law prohibits private citizens — which Flynn was, at the time — from engaging in diplomacy. Tipping off an adversary foreign power before the sanctions were imposed, in my reading of US law and history, borders on treason.
Crimes are made worse by covering them up. And we now know that Trump knew Flynn had misled Pence for nearly three weeks before Trump bothered to let his VP in on that inconvenient fact — because the Department of Justice had told Trump what was going on. The DOJ advised Trump that Flynn was compromised and therefore vulnerable to being blackmailed by the Russians — something you don’t really want in a national security advisor — and Trump chose to keep Flynn in his job and his vice-president in the dark until the Washington Post broke the story and the ensuing media pressure forced the issue.
So what is the US (and the rest of the world) dealing with here — a coverup? A conspiracy? Acts of treason? Who told Flynn to discuss the sanctions with the Russian ambassador? By virtue of his nearly three weeks of inaction after the DOJ alert, Trump now bears a certain degree of culpability, even if Flynn’s discussions with Ambassador Kislyak took place without his knowledge. But of course, it is much worse if Trump or his senior advisors did know.
The Trump presidency, less than a month old, is clearly in serious trouble.
But here’s the thing: it doesn’t really matter whether this was done with malice aforethought by an evil administration or with blundering criminal negligence by a gang of idiots. It landed us here, and I am feeling cautiously optimistic that we are here because the American system is actually working.
Y’see, we all worried — and by the way, you should continue to be concerned because this is by no means over yet — that Trump and his minions would subvert democracy and turn the US into a fascist police state, while doing untold damage to the rest of the world. That they would muzzle the media, undermine the authority of the courts, turn the Houses of Congress into rubber stamps like so many other phony show-parliaments in so many other dictatorships, suppress free speech, jail dissidents and “undesirables”, and so on. And the series of executive orders issued in Trump’s first weeks on office certainly gave credence to our fears.
Except, things aren’t turning out as planned. The people have turned against him, the courts have shut down his Muslim ban, the media are standing their ground and doing their jobs, his attempts to intimidate the leaders of Mexico and Australia have backfired, his threat to tear up NAFTA has downsized to the promise of a few “tweaks”, the likelihood of a border adjustment tax is fading, and the White House is in turmoil over the Russian scandal.
It is early days…but the institutions of American democracy appear to be protecting American democracy from tyranny.
Hope that I’m right….but remain vigilant.