‘Witch Hunt’

Pence Looms as Chaos Reigns in Trumpland

As the hits keep coming, the president keeps doubling down on the same losing bet.


Mary F. Calvert/Reuters

With the news that James Comey says that President Trump, before firing him, had asked the FBI director to drop his investigation of Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, Republican stalwarts like Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker, and Sens. Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski joined long-time critics like Sen. Jeff Flake in harshly criticizing Trump’s “downward spiral,” his constant “chaos,” and stressing the need for him to “right his ship.” Rep. Jason Chaffetz promised subpoenas, and Rep. Justin Amash his own hearings. Sen. John McCain observed that Trump’s travails had reached “Watergate size and scale.”

By Wednesday, after the appointment of former FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III as special prosecutor to investigate Russian interference with the 2016 election, you could even hear yearning for President Mike Pence, with his one marriage, his weekly church attendance, the hair God gave him, and the possibility of getting tax cuts passed. Republicans repress those thoughts by expressing them as jokes—better make nice to Pence, prepare to be bored—but it’s looking more like gallows humor as Trump eerily resembles Richard Nixon.

President Pence looked a little more real after news broke Wednesday that he’d taken the very unusual step for a vice president of forming his very own political action committee. Right-leaning columnists, including Russ Douthat of The New York Times, have pined for Pence for a while. A Fox News reporter risked being stoned for heresy when he asked Speaker Paul Ryan on Thursday morning if the GOP wouldn’t be better off with Pence in charge. Ryan could have flatly said no, not at all, but didn’t. Instead he sputtered, “Good grief, I’m not even going to give credence to that,” political speak for “I think about it all the time.”

The Watergate comparisons are not all that appropriate, at least not yet. It took Woodward and Bernstein, a Senate committee, and Republican statesmen many months to uncover the coverup of the Watergate break-in. With Trump, every day is break-in day and he routinely exposes his own attempted coverup of what’s really going on. Assertions out of the White House that Trump had been “extremely measured,” with no yelling or screaming, about Mueller’s appointment were contradicted by Trump the next morning yelling and screaming in a tweet that he was the victim of “the single greatest witch hunt of a politician in American history.”

It is always thus. No matter the scandal, Trump’s first instinct is to have aides throw spaghetti at the wall, then monitor the reaction on his 60-inch TV screen while eating two scoops of ice cream, to see what sticks. He adjusts his story accordingly.

On the firing of Comey, aides said Trump took Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein’s counsel to get rid of him (with Rosenstein fessing up Thursday that he knew when he wrote the memo that the decider had already decided) and because of the way Comey treated Hillary Clinton. Laughable. The next day, Trump told NBC News’ Lester Holt, “Regardless of any recommendation, I decided to fire Comey” over the “made-up” Russia investigation. In fact, he’d been thinking about it for a very long time.

Trump won’t get anywhere hollering “witch hunt” at Mueller. A man who led Justice’s criminal division and the FBI under two presidents with distinction is no one’s lackey and he will not be under the supervision of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who sometimes behaves like one. Rosenstein, who wouldn’t play ball with Trump even if he weren’t upset at being manipulated by him, is Mueller’s immediate boss, to the extent he’ll have one, since his boss, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, had to recuse himself from all things Russia to land the job.

Events of the last few weeks explode the myth of Trump as a savvy operator, outfoxing everyone in his path. The only person who clears a room (of his vice president and attorney general no less) to have a one-on-one with the FBI about letting a “good guy” like Flynn off the hook is a guilty person. The only person who doesn’t realize Comey is going to write a memo of the conversation is someone who doesn’t belong in the Oval Office.

Mueller was barely installed before another bombshell hit. It turns out that Team Trump knew the worst about Flynn—that he was a secret and highly paid agent of the Turkish government—before he appointed him national security adviser, giving him access to the president’s classified intelligence briefings. And that Flynn, in his historically brief tenure as the national security adviser, made a key decision about the fight against ISIS that just happened to conform with the wishes of his (then-secret) Turkish patrons.

Those stories came out the day Trump warmly welcomed Flynn’s client, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, a thug who employs thugs, into the White House even as Erdoğan’s security detail was beating up peaceful demonstrators at his embassy on the mean streets of the Kalorama neighborhood where Ivanka Trump lives.

Trump also embarrassed his national security adviser, three-star general H.R. McMaster, by sending him out to declare “false” a Washington Post report that Trump had given classified information about terrorist plots in Syria to the grinning Russians visiting him on Tuesday. Trump copped a plea to doing it the next day, tweeting that he has “the absolute right” to share “facts” with anyone he wants. Poor McMaste, one more person soiled by the president.

With each new explosion, we learn more about what is going on inside Trump’s White House, a staff with their hair aflame as they say anything, to not to be treated as abused children. See the pictures of Sean Spicer explaining Comey’s firing behind bushes in the dark, literally and figuratively. Read Senate testimony where, according to former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates, White House counsel Donald McGahn wonders what the big deal is if one official (Flynn) lies to another (the vice president). Listen as substitute press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders says that Trump doesn’t have time to be briefing surrogates. Be amazed as Trump responds that if we expect honesty at press briefings, well, he will just stop having them. That will show us.

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Even before the Mueller announcement, a seething Trump had entered the martyr stage, telling graduates at the Coast Guard Academy to “look at the way I’ve been treated lately. No one’s been treated worse or more unfairly.” He’s complaining about his foreign trip, asking if eight days couldn’t be cut to four. Trump is so disgusted with his advisers he’s turned on the lot of them, even  golden boy Jared Kushner, according to The New York Times. This leaves Trump in a terrible pickle because Kushner is in charge of just about everything, including bringing peace to the Middle East, and is married to daughter Ivanka, who is in charge of everything else. Cue the Godfather comparisons with a warning to Kushner to keep outside of kissing range.

Trump isn’t just furious; he is cruelly disappointed. He may have never expected to be elected but given that he was, he thought it would provide everything missing in his life: the constant roar of the crowd, the approval of the elites who shunned him, the opportunity as king to remake the world however he sees fit with the stroke of a pen.  

One day, Trump’s best hope may be that President Pence provides the most important thing missing in his life: a pardon.