It is hard to escape the feeling that the fortunes of President Trump and the country took a decisive, and for Trump a fatal, turn May 9-10, when the president fired the director of the FBI over its investigation of Russian efforts to swing the presidential election to him and the very next day shared top-secret intelligence with Russian officials in an Oval Office meeting closed except to a Kremlin press aide toting electronic gear to capture the intimate session for Russians but not Americans.
In the McCarthy era and maybe during the Nixon siege, 1972-74, conservatives and most others would characterize those shocking events as little short of treasonous, particularly if you link them to 30 years of Trump toadying to the Russians, from Mikhail Gorbachev to Vladimir Putin.
But absolutely no one, not even his worst enemy, suspects Trump of trying to harm America. Democrats, probably most Republicans in Congress and many in Trump’s Cabinet and officialdom know the president’s problems, and they are not about his patriotism. They are deeply personal, psychiatric and longstanding. Donald Trump views the presidency and all of government as extensions of himself, just as he did his business empire. Government must be wholly dedicated to advancing and protecting his image, and nothing else. He had repeatedly demanded a vow of loyalty from the FBI director, who is sworn to look out for the country, not any politician. Not getting them, Trump fired James Comey and, after putting out lies about it, finally admitted he had fired him for the Russian investigation.
Everyone in his circle, including loyal members of Congress, knew the president’s peccadilloes — his naivete about the Constitution and government, his nutty obsessions like tweeting his fleeting thoughts to the whole world, his penchant for lying and standing behind his lies forever while insisting that his underlings support them until he says the opposite or something else. People looked upon them as refreshing, quaint, a good distraction from Washington’s stuffy protocol — or a dangerous psychic disorder.
It would only take this weird blowhard perhaps a little more time to learn how to govern effectively than it did politicians who came up through the political process, like Clinton, the Bushes and Reagan. Wary Republicans like Speaker Paul Ryan, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and 2020 presidential hopefuls like Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz would stand behind him through this process so they couldn’t be accused of disloyalty before the president brought himself down.
But May 9-10 introduced a dilemma — not a new one but a heightened realization of it — to everyone. The president’s bumbling on one thing after another — the Muslim ban, health care reform, his absurd budget, the border wall, his spurious charges that Obama wiretapped his offices, his endless attacks on old foes and the press — all occurred during nearly four months of peace and quiet for the country. The economy continued to hum like no other in the world. The crazy North Korean dictator kept doing the same nutty things he and his daddy had done for 16 years, but there’s been no crisis. Trump’s self-inflicted wounds — not a real crisis — have kept his national approval ratings at the abysmal level.
But these are dangerous times. What if there is a real national security crisis, as every modern president has faced? Will the president act with the same stupid judgment he used to get his Justice Department toadies to craft the firing excuse that Comey had mistreated Hillary Clinton during the 2016 election or in hosting a cozy chat with Russian officials in which he buttered them up by sharing a powerful secret that will allow Russia and its brutal ally, Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, to disrupt U.S. intelligence operations?
What kind of mess, what potentially fatal dilemma, could he blunder the country into, not out of malevolence but out of childish spite or ignorance? What Republican cannot wonder, and shudder?
On Tuesday, the president was back at his old stand, saying the wrongdoer was not he who had leaked national secrets to the enemy, but whoever had leaked knowledge of it to the American people. From Election Day, Trump has attacked people for leaking stuff about his dealings. He wants them prosecuted. Every president — chiefly Bill Clinton — has endured the scourge of leaking aides. It is a natural phenomenon. As an old government reporter, I know.
Who leaked the president’s leak to the Russians? It’s just a guess based on personal experience, but my money is on Gen. H.R. McMaster, Trump’s stern national security adviser, who sat in on the Russian tête-à-tête and who had to be horrified. McMaster manfully came out and inartfully tried to explain away his boss’s mistake (“it was wholly appropriate”) and took a public beating for it. That’s what a patriot would do.