The Undrained Swamp Trump's Washington, One Year On
It has been one year since Donald Trump was elected to the White House, but the mutual hatred between the president and Washington D.C. has not dissipated. And the city has refused to back down to the Trumpian bluster.
Washington is not a place known for humility or modesty. So really, Donald Trump should fit right in. It's a city of gigantic egos and expense accounts, police escorts and armored limos. Everything is about status and power, even when socializing at night. The city challenges its residents and promotes the ambitious, which isn't always a good thing. It has produced great deeds and great power, and often violence as well - ever since George Washington planted the heart of democracy in a mosquito-infested swamp more than two centuries ago.
The streets and avenues are too broad, the massive steps to the Capitol are too big, the buildings, statues and monuments too imposing. There's no center, no core. Only expanse, size, symmetry. A chessboard built for giants. For presidents like Abraham Lincoln, good old Lincoln, who sits on a throne of stone in his own temple on the National Mall, four or five times the size of a mere mortal.
No other city is hated quite as much by the rest of the country. Trump swore that he would drain the swamp, the conglomerate of politics, lobbyism, think tanks and business that has settled here. The disdain is mutual: Ninety-one percent of its residents voted for Hillary Clinton.
It's been a year since the election that pushed the liberal West into crisis. The White House is now occupied by a man who is constantly triggering a new uproar, a man who is perennially angry, wayward, erratic, a besieged, unstable king, almost Shakespearian. Under Trump, the capital has turned into the set of a reality TV show. Old Lincoln, sitting on his throne, appears even more worried than usual.
First, Trump gave his family, his daughter Ivanka and her husband Jared Kushner, posts in the administration. Many in the city found that unbearable enough - a real estate clan running the country, the Kardashians of politics. More recently, he threatened North Korea with nuclear war, launched attacks on senators from his own party and voiced understanding for Nazis and racists. His actions haven't just been chaotic, they've been dangerous. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is alleged to have referred to the president as a "fucking moron" after he supposedly suggested a tenfold increase in the country's nuclear arsenal.
And then there is this administration's original sin: In May, Trump fired FBI Director James Comey because he wouldn't let go of "this Russia thing." For months now, special counsel Robert Mueller has been probing how much influence Vladimir Putin might have had on the U.S. election and whether Trump's team had outside help in defeating Hillary Clinton.
A Lot at Stake
There's a lot at stake, perhaps even the Trump presidency itself. At the very end of October, Mueller filed charges against Trump's former campaign manager Paul Manafort and his business partner Richard Gates, with the indictments including money laundering, tax evasion, failure to register as agents for foreign interests and conspiracy to defraud the U.S. government. Both men had been long-time advisors to the Ukrainian government back when it was pro-Russian.
The case of George Papadopoulos, who was also indicted, is even more severe. He is alleged to have pursued contacts to Russia with the knowledge of the campaign team, and to have lied to investigators. He is now cooperating with the FBI. Mueller's investigation is coming closer and closer to the president, something that has provoked euphoria in liberal Washington.
The White House seems like a besieged fortress these days. "Everyone is freaking out," one Republican told The Washington Post. Trump woke up a week ago Monday at the crack of dawn and followed developments on TV as Manafort turned himself into the authorities at the FBI's Washington headquarters. The president reacted to the news with exasperation and disgust, White House staff said. At 10:28 a.m. he tweeted: "There is NO COLLUSION!"
A few minutes later, the charges against Papadopoulos were announced - and Trump went silent.
On such days, Washington can seem even more tremulous than normal. For 12 months, the city has simmered with anger, conspiracy, disbelief and breathlessness. Every tweet from Trump causes thousands of cellphones to vibrate, every press conference in the White House results in "breaking news." And most U.S. news outlets have had to implement an early shift just to turn Trump's early morning tweets into newsflashes. Many residents feel like they are constantly just seconds away from a major catastrophe. Nothing can be ruled out with Trump: nuclear war, impeachment, or a huge, messy demise.
In the spring, writer David Frum described in The Atlantic how the U.S. could descend into an autocracy under Trump - in a cynical, divided country in which an almost all-powerful president could use aggression and populist decisions to secure a second term. Frum's article resonated widely, a form of dictatorship really seemed possible. So far, the dystopia hasn't arrived and Trump's approval ratings are collapsing. Although he has little respect for the country's institutions, he governs too shortsightedly to pose a real threat to them.
The real question is what sort of damage can this president inflict while in office and what happens now? Can one man endanger democracy?
This drama is playing out in a tiny area, stretching for just three or four kilometers. It's just a 10-minute drive down Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House to the Capitol. On the way, one passes by the FBI headquarters and, across the intersection, the Trump International Hotel, the city's new nerve center of power and money.
Washington was not built for love, like Paris, or money, like London, or adventure like New York. It is a place of discipline, of Prussian-like morality. A triumph of the will. The alarm rings at 5:30 a.m. for a short burst of exercise before the office. Nowhere are there quite as many well-toned bodies sitting behind desks.
Gold Curtains: The White House, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue
The Oval Office is the nucleus of American democracy, the most famous office in the world, where the threads of a global power come together. Franklin D. Roosevelt worked here during World War II, John F. Kennedy addressed the nation about the Cuban Missile Crisis from here, and Richard Nixon spoke with the Apollo astronauts during their moon landing. Under Trump it has become the epicenter of a destructive fury. The man who campaigned against the system suddenly found himself at its very center.
Trump's first mission was to erase all traces of his predecessor. He wanted to destroy the health care system, with which Barack Obama had delivered health insurance to around 12 million U.S. citizens who previously had none. He wanted to cancel trade deals with Mexico and Canada. And he called alliances and organizations into question, such as NATO. But first, he focused on the office itself.
Every newly inaugurated president decorates the Oval Office to his own taste, but none have been quite so radical as Trump. The man with hardly any sense of the past decided to fill his office with history. He moved the bust of Martin Luther King and hung a portrait of Andrew Jackson, a military hero and man of the people who became president in the early 19th century. It's how Trump sees himself, a glorious outsider, brought to power by the people.
He hung six additional flags behind the massive wooden desk once placed in the office by Jackie Kennedy. He replaced Obama's gray couches with brocade sofas, he replaced blinds with gold curtains and chose a damask print to replace the yellow-stripped wallpaper. It looks as though he wanted to replicate a luxury suite in one of his hotels, a "presidential suite" that can be rented for a few thousand dollars.
Trump spends much of his time in a small antechamber where a flat screen TV hangs on the wall. It's usually tuned to Fox News, Trump's favorite channel, where the commentators are just as obsessed with Hillary Clinton as he is.
Early on, global events landed without any vetting on Trump's desk. Because he didn't trust the intelligence agencies, he believed Fox journalists and friends more than he did officials at the CIA or Pentagon. He read texts recommended to him by those he trusted, such as a Breitbart article about Obama's alleged bugging of Trump Tower in New York. He promptly tweeted about it and unleashed an absurd scandal.
In August, Vice reported that twice a day Trump is handed a folder full of only positive newspaper reports. His former chief of staff, Reince Priebus, tried and failed to stem the flow of information and visitors.
Since then, though Priebus has been fired and his replacement John Kelly has imposed stricter control over access to the president. He oversees who and what the president sees, but he must be careful. Trump hates nothing more than the feeling of being patronized.
Kelly is the second most powerful man in the White House and the current victor of this early phase of the presidency, alongside National Security Advisor Herbert Raymond McMaster and Defense Secretary James Mattis. Three military men, all generals, control access to the commander in chief. Ever since Steve Bannon, Trump's chief ideologue, left the White House, they have had undisputed access to power.
It's impossible to overstate their influence on the president. They are the ones who in April persuaded Trump to launch 59 Tomahawk missiles against a Syrian-government airfield following a nerve gas attack. They were also the ones who advised the president to increase troop numbers in Afghanistan by 4,000 soldiers, against the advice of Bannon. Both decisions lost Trump favor with the isolationists. Even today Bannon supporters speak of a "generals' coup."
Trump has, with few exceptions, enormous respect for those who have served in the military and the generals' influence shows how much fear there is in the White House that the president could spin out of control. Kelly and Mattis have reportedly made a pact that one of them should always be in the country so as to be able to monitor Trump's orders.
There was a phase a few months ago when Trump's daughter Ivanka and her husband Jared seemed to have taken on the role of well-meaning advisors. They were the so-called globalists, the good guys in this story. While their opponents were the isolationists, Bannon and Trump's speechwriter Stephen Miller.
These assigned roles spoke more to the hopes that many in Washington had placed in Ivanka and Jared than to their actual influence. They couldn't tame the old man. All that remains are the strange images of Kushner in shades and an overly-tight bullet-proof vest in Iraq.
Trump combines business and family like a mafia godfather, just as he has done his whole life. Under his watch, the White House has become a bastion of the patriarchy once again. Old, rich, angry men make up the personnel. Most of those that Trump has invited to serve in his cabinet are political novices like him, alpha males who are used to private jets. In July, Forbes estimated the combined worth of this supposedly populist cabinet to be $4.3 billion.
And like the court of Henry VIII, they do all they can to remain in the president's good graces. Trump enjoys this, it gives him power over conflicting personalities. It's how he ran his real estate business in New York and it reflects his world view, where brutal social Darwinism rules.
The Swamp Hotel: Trump International Hotel, 1100 Pennsylvania Avenue
Unlike most of his predecessors, Trump is not very familiar with Washington. He mostly catches glimpses of the city from the back seat of the "beast," his armored limo. Trump's favorite place in town is his own hotel, a three-minute drive from the White House.
The first thing one notices in the hotel is the African-American employees who act as valets and porters. The receptionists, meanwhile, are young, female and white. It's as if time has stood still.
The lobby is unobtrusive, airy and expansive, a mix of marble, light carpets and blue silk: a touch of the Ottoman Empire. Crystal chandeliers hang from iron beams beneath the glass dome of the old post office building that now houses the hotel.
Most of the few guests on this particular afternoon are men in suits, drinking white wine. The cheapest cut of meat in the steakhouse costs $55.
This is new center of power in the city. Sean Spicer used to come here when he was still press secretary. In June, the Romanian president ate croissants here with his wife, while Trump's treasury secretary addressed bankers in the ballroom. Trump's advisor Kellyanne Conway often comes by, as does Corey Lewandowski, another of his former campaign managers. The president himself was here with his wife Melania a week ago Saturday.
The hotel has become a luxury extension of the White House, an unofficial office. Many who eat or stay here are hoping to find favor with the president. Trump, the patriarch, sees nothing untoward in this, but in the city's history, it's unheard of - that the president, with his own name in huge golden letters, would promote his own company. Trump and his hotel are inseparable, something his own marketing department has understood. The management admits to primarily targeting conservative clients from the president's circle of supporters. And, it must be said, the $55 steaks are delicious.
A year ago, just a week after the election, the hotel invited a hundred diplomats from around the world to a champagne reception to hear its sales pitch. Representatives of 180 countries work in Washington and their embassies spend millions every year on hotel rooms and conference halls. Why not avail of the president's firm, if that enables access?
Time magazine called it the "Swamp Hotel," arguing that it showed the degree to which the lines between politics and business had been blurred. Trump is first and foremost a businessman, that is one of the problems with this presidency. It's why he has never really fully divested himself from his company, only handing over day-to-day operations to his sons. If he wanted, he could take over again tomorrow.
There are currently three lawsuits against him pending, all of them to do with emoluments. The first lawsuit was filed by the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics, a lawyers group. The second case came from the attorneys general of Maryland and the District of Columbia, while the third is backed by almost 200 Democratic lawmakers. Trump has been accused of violating the Constitution by accepting foreign gifts and payments, because foreign diplomats are staying in his hotels. Ultimately, after all, the question must be answered as to whether Trump the businessman influences the decisions of Trump the president.
The Investigator: FBI Headquarters, 935 Pennsylvania Avenue
The J. Edgar Hoover Building, diagonally across from the Trump International Hotel, takes up an entire block, as though it were preordained to be there - a 1970s bunker-like structure that is dark and defiant. Robert Swan Mueller III is a creature of this building: It was from here that, as FBI boss, he hunted down the suspects involved in 9/11. In the Hoover building, he's known as Bob.
Mueller is the quiet eminence in this drama. A lean, ascetic 73-year-old, he has a preference for dark suits paired with a blue or red tie. His gray hair looks like it's been parted with an ax. His alarm is set for 5 a.m.
It would be a grave mistake to underestimate him. For 12 long years, he led the FBI through the War on Terror. After leaving the position, he went to work for WilmerHale, a prominent law firm - until the Justice Department appointed him as special counsel in May.
Mueller rarely gives interviews and doesn't like to appear before cameras or go to parties. He is difficult to find and only a few people know where his office is located. The writer Garrett Graff spoke with him in depth for his book "The Threat Matrix," which described him as a relentless hustler who went through five chiefs of staff right at the start of his tenure as FBI director. It's not that Mueller was unfair or unfriendly, Graff writes, just "relentless and demanding."
There's a certain irony in the fact that Trump's main opponent is a prototype of the Washington bureaucrat, one who has spent his entire professional life in the swamp without getting dirty. Mueller embodies the ideal Washington: upstanding, patriotic and a bit boring. One could hardly wish for a better adversary for Trump.
Mueller's team consists of two dozen lawyers, money laundering and finance experts, tax inspectors and investigators with experience in mafia cases. His mandate has been broad from the very beginning, allowing him to investigate crimes that are only tenuously linked to Russia, such as Paul Manafort's case. There's no better means of applying pressure to suspects than the prospect of a long prison sentence.
Trump can fire Mueller, or he can sabotage him, and many supporters, including Steve Bannon, are pushing him in this direction. Richard Nixon did the same thing back in 1973, when he fired the special prosecutor who was investigating the Watergate break-in. Firing Mueller, though, would be the last resort. It would also be an admittance of guilt, or at least that is how it would be interpreted by the public at large. And it would perhaps be the beginning of the end.
- Part 1: Trump's Washington, One Year On
- Part 2: Trump Throws Washington's Natural Order into Chaos