Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Everything Old is News Again

As Josh Marshall pointed out, we knew this already; and so did Trump:  

Trump already knew these things didn’t happen. Sessions didn’t unrecuse. Corey Lewandowski never sent his backchannel messages to Sessions. And of course Robert Mueller was never fired. What I suspect is most angering to Trump, most humiliating is precisely that these narratives show he never did anything about it. He could have fired McGahn and gotten another White House Counsel. He could have fired Mueller himself. (Some people disagree on this. But as a technical legal/constitutional matter, he could have.) More straightforwardly, like Richard Nixon, he could have fired McGahns and Rosensteins until he found someone who would carry out his orders. But he didn’t. (Revealingly, in the one case of a real firing, he had a letter hand-delivered to James Comey at FBI headquarters when he knew Comey was on a trip to California.)

Trump, Marshall concludes, is a coward.  Or a bully, "someone who blusters but is actually surprisingly, paradoxically conflict averse."  Nobody disobeys Trump; but everybody does.

I remember the concerns among historians (as it was long before my day) about Woodrow Wilson's wife running the government while he was incapacitated.  Eventually such concerns led to the 25th Amendment.  Alexander Haig rushed to the microphones when Ronald Reagan was shot to reassure the world that he was in charge, and the world jerked his leash hard.  The idea is, we have only one President at a time, and he alone has the authority and the responsibility of the office.

What these reports are telling us is that we have no President, and no one is in charge.

I remember a story I read in a science-fiction anthology, almost 50 years ago now.  A corporate employee, a "company man" as he'd have been called then, arrives at work one day to find a not summoning him to the top floor.  The rest of the story deals with his journey through the maze of the building and the levels of bureaucracy to finally be admitted to the route to the top.  When he gets there, he finds nothing:  a vast, empty space that obviously has not been occupied for sometime, with windows looking out on, not a verdant parkland, but a wasteland.  He has anxiously anticipated the summons, feared the powerful men he would meet there, wondered why he was chosen for such a singular honor, and when he arrived:  nothing, at all.  No one in charge; no one even there.

More and more that story seems like a prophecy, a chilling metaphor that has gone from fantasy to reality.  And here is the question:  if Trump's staff are regularly ignoring Trump, who is the President?  Who is in charge?*

That, too, is a potent question of accountability, and the people with the final authority on that question are not in Congress.

*of course, staff have no obligation to carry out illegal orders.  That's why people like McGahn didn't "save" Trump from obstructing justice; they saved themselves from being charged with obstruction of justice.  But if a President cannot issue legal directives, and if the staff has to regularly ignore his directives to keep themselves from facing criminal trial, then the top floor is unoccupied, and no one is in charge.

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