At least once a week, somebody says something to me like: “Well, you must have plenty to write about these days!” And every time, I have to suppress the urge to scream.
Sure, there’s a lot going on in Washington, but while the headlines may change, the larger narrative of perpetual shame remains remarkably constant. And you know, I had a lot to write about when I was covering crime on the night shift, too, but that doesn’t mean I enjoyed seeing people get killed.
The latest fiasco in Donald Trump’s Washington — I mean, if you leave aside for a moment the stunningly rapid accumulation of public debt that will, within a decade or so, almost certainly lead us into a catastrophic crisis from which our kids may never recover, thanks to this last gasp of complete recklessness from self-involved boomers who keep rising back up like zombies at the end of some predictable horror film — involves the White House staff secretary, Rob Porter, who had to resign after a British newspaper revealed that not one but two of his ex-wives had accused him of beating them.
This was quickly followed by the resignation of another White House aide, a speechwriter named David Sorensen, whose ex-wife also accused him of abuse (including burning a cigarette into her hand), although he claims she was the one beating him, and he says he intends to shine a light on the “grossly underreported and unacknowledged issue of female-on-male domestic violence.”
There’s an old saw about reporters asking politicians: “When did you stop beating your wife?” It’s meant as an outrageous illustration of biased questioning. I never thought it would sound like a totally reasonable thing to ask in the White House Briefing Room.
Let’s get back to my initial point, though, about how the larger story of this completely dysfunctional administration never really changes. At bottom, it’s about bad people acting badly, or good people enabling bad behavior because they’re in so far over their heads that they can almost touch the bottom.
As I said during the last presidential campaign, there was never any reason to think that Donald Trump would run his White House any differently than he did his business.
The rise of the Trump Organization was always fueled by a combination of garish spectacle and mountainous debt. Trump entrusted much of the company to his dilettante children. And when it came to filling out the top ranks, Trump once actually said he made it his practice not to surround himself with anyone smarter than he was.
Check, check and check.
The sad thing about Porter’s sudden implosion, aside from what it says about the culture of the place, is that he was probably one of Trump’s few truly qualified hires, serving in a job that’s actually quite important. Porter is a Harvard-educated Rhodes scholar and former chief of staff to Sen. Orrin Hatch, which means he would have been a solid candidate for a senior post in any serious-minded administration, provided it didn’t bother listening to the FBI or care much about domestic abuse.
That’s more than you can say for Trump’s daughter and son-in-law (who also hasn’t been able to get the security clearance he ought to have as a senior adviser). Or for the communications director, Hope Hicks, a former model and corporate flack with no government experience. Or for Stephen Miller, a fringy young press aide who somehow ended up in charge of domestic policy. Or for Omarosa Manigault, a reality TV star, who recently quit and started dumping on the place, which was a real shock, given that she has no history at all of seeking attention.
These were some of the “best and brightest” promised by Sean Spicer, the long-since-departed press secretary, who apparently didn’t realize that the term itself, coined by the journalist David Halberstam to describe the men who led us into the Vietnam War, was meant ironically. Or maybe he did.
There are some serious people in this administration. One of them, the former Sen. Dan Coats, took a detour from his work as director of national intelligence to scold the Congress this week for its criminal disregard of all fiscal sanity. Another, Rex Tillerson, presides over the hollow shell of a building that used to be the State Department.
But according to Peter Baker, my former colleague at the New York Times, this administration has an unprecedented turnover rate of 34 percent (meaning that a third of the people hired ended up leaving in their first year), and scores of key posts remain unfilled. Trump’s second chief of staff and designated grown-up, the retired Gen. John Kelly, seems likely to exit in a matter of weeks.
One insider who’s been mentioned as a possible replacement for Kelly is Mick Mulvaney, who somehow manages to run the critical budget office while moonlighting as the head of an entire separate agency. Mulvaney said something truly remarkable during an appearance on CBS’s “Face the Nation” last Sunday.
The host, Major Garrett, asked Mulvaney, a former congressman, if he himself would have voted for the president’s profligate budget proposal.
“Oh, probably not,” Mulvaney replied. “But keep in mind I’m not Congressman Mick Mulvaney anymore. … My job as the director of the Office of Management and Budget is to try to get the president’s agenda passed. And right now the top priority for this president was getting the Defense Department the money necessary to defend the nation.”
Let me translate that into normal-person speak: “You and I both understand this budget would be completely ruinous for the country — I can’t even pretend I’d support it. But you know, it’s never going to be enacted anyway, and there’s really no point in arguing with the guy.”
I guess that’s what passes for integrity in the West Wing right now. Or maybe it’s just the equivalent of sending up a flare for rescuers.
The really sad part, to me, is that it didn’t have to go down this way. Like John Kennedy or Barack Obama, Trump had a moment when he probably could have persuaded anyone he wanted to come serve at his side in Washington.
No, he wasn’t the uplifting new leader those men were, but there was a sense after Trump won in 2016 that he was unprepared for the job and in need of shoring up. There was a feeling then, among Republicans anyway, that the patriotic thing was to help him succeed.
All Trump had to do was say some version of: “The people have put me here, and I know what I don’t know, and I’m calling on the very best minds that our party and our country have to offer. I need your help, and I need your expertise.” He could have built a truly first-rate administration.
That moment has long since passed, and now no one with a reputation still to lose wants to have anything to do with this calamity. What we sensed then, and know now, is that Trump isn’t a guy who asks for help. He’s not inspired by talent and intellect; he’s threatened by it.
Trump told us long ago exactly what kind of manager he is — the kind who needs to know he’s the smartest guy at the table.
No wonder he’s had so much trouble filling the chairs.
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