Trump's White House A Vortex of Scandal, Chaos and Absurdity
The White House is becoming more chaotic by the day. Now, a special counsel has been brought in to investigate possible connections between President Donald Trump's team and Russia. But the most important question is now whether Trump is mentally stable enough to be president.
On Wednesday, a few hours before the special counsel was set loose on him, Donald Trump was standing before the graduates of the Coast Guard Academy. He was supposed to hold an inspiring talk, to spread a positive message, as one does at graduation speeches. Instead, he once again spoke about himself. "Over the course of your life, you will find that things are not always fair," he said to the graduating students. "Look at the way I've been treated, especially by the media," Trump said. "No politician in history, and I say this with great surety, has been treated worse or more unfairly."
No politician in history. Not Nelson Mandela. Not Mahatma Gandhi, not John F. Kennedy. Him. There stood a billionaire, inhabiting the most powerful office in the world, complaining about how unfair the world was. Because there seems to be one rule with Donald Trump: He is never to blame, even though almost everything currently happening to him is his fault.
Donald Trump's presidency has been somewhat unreal since the beginning, it has had an element of reality TV since he started his campaign. But this past week, it began to feel like a screenwriter on drugs had taken command. Since May 9, when Trump fired FBI Director James Comey, almost every day in Washington has ended with a bombshell revelation by the New York Times or the Washington Post.
On Monday, it turned out that Trump was so proud to have the "best intelligence" that he apparently revealed some to prove it, to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov of all people. That wasn't illegal, but it was certainly not smart.
On Tuesday came the explosive report that FBI Director Comey had maintained a written record of his conversations with Trump, excerpts of which were published. They indicated that Trump had asked Comey to call off the investigation into fired National Security Advisor Michael Flynn. This came to light only days after a report about Trump's alleged Mafia-style request of loyalty from Comey. Comey rejected both requests, and was later fired by Trump as a result. The Comey memos will now become a focus of the Russia investigations by the Senate and House committees. Trump now stands accused of obstruction of justice.
The Brink of a Nervous Breakdown
On Wednesday, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein surprised the White House by independently naming a special counsel to investigate the connections between Trump and his team to Russia. Since the attorney general had recused himself from this investigation, Rosenstein had the power to do so and took everybody by surprise.
By then, only the first half of the week had passed.
The special counsel, former FBI Director Robert Mueller, is formally under the supervision of the Justice Department, but is well-liked by all sides and known for his independence. He now has the task of finding the facts, and maybe also revive the country's faith that something like a trustworthy, independent authority still exists.
It is hard to believe, but Trump has only been in office for 120 days. Politically, he has accomplished little, but he has managed to drive the United States to the brink of a nervous breakdown. It is hard to imagine how the country can handle another 120 days similar to the last four months, let alone another three years and eight months.
Trump's presidency is sinking into a vortex of scandals, chaos and lunacy, circling around the president's neuroses. Trump is a man who sometimes seems to view his position as vehicle for personal gratification and who seems willing to weaken state institutions just to protect his allies. As of this week, not only Democrats but also a few Republicans are raising the possibility of Trump's impeachment.
If it's true that Trump sought to impede the FBI investigation, that would, theoretically at least, be grounds for removal from office. Obstruction of justice was the first charge in the articles of impeachment against Richard Nixon in 1974, before he decided to resign on his own.
Because He Likes to Brag
Even if historical comparisons are never quite perfect, the Watergate Scandal is the only one that currently applies. Back then, the constitutional state was also faced with defending itself against a president whose actions were possibly illegal, someone who had a disregard for the institutions. As was the case then, it's not the act itself, but the cover-up that proved dangerous to the president.
In other ways, Donald Trump is the exact opposite of Richard Nixon, the cold, calculating man who memorized his answers ahead of press conferences. New York Times columnist David Brooks compared Trump to a child who can't sit still, cannot concentrate, constantly needs affirmation, brags with exaggerated claims and cannot control himself.
Sign up for our newsletter -- and get the very best of SPIEGEL in English sent to your email inbox twice weekly.
The current crisis isn't just about whether the president broke the law, but also his entire psychological state - and whether it prevents him from properly fulfilling his role. Whether he, the impulsive narcissist, might not even realize that his actions are wrong.
Why did he fire FBI Director Comey? Because he was annoyed. Why did he reveal confidential information to the Russians? Because he likes to brag.
Conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat wrote that he doesn't think that the president is capable of sinister conspiracies - because he simply doesn't understand fully enough the post that he occupies. "A child cannot be president. I love my children; they cannot have the nuclear codes."
Douthat recommends not pursuing the Russia investigation and eschewing the formal impeachment process in favor of removing the president using the 25th Amendment of the Constitution. For this to happen, the vice president and a majority of the cabinet would need to inform Congress that the president is "unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office"
This, however, is unlikely to happen. Even from a constitutional perspective, the suggestion is dubious. But it shows that even in conservative circles, many people are worried about his psychological health.
A Cry for Help
The administration is in constant crisis mode these days, and if there is a clear sign of how bad the atmosphere inside the White House is, it's the constant leaks to the media. Every inside detail makes its way out. In some reports, American media cite up to one- or two-dozen anonymous sources - which sounds not unlike a collective cry for help.
The anecdotes are revealing. The employees at the National Security Council, who brief the president about military and intelligence issues, have reportedly begun to put the word "Trump" into as many paragraphs as possible in their briefings because he keeps reading when his name appears. Trump is 70 years old, his attention span is famously short. And he continues to use cable news rather than dry intelligence briefings as his main source of information.
Many White House aides and Republicans are concerned about the degree to which the president still obsesses about the past, including about his election victory, instead of concentrating on his legislative agenda. Trump is so enchanted with his win that he has had an oversized map hung in the West Wing, according to the New York Times, dark red, showing electoral results not by state, but by electoral district. He gives visitors copies of the map, he has a whole pile. And he likes to brag about it not only in public, but in meetings with other heads of state.
It is becoming increasingly apparent that the only goal of Trump's candidacy was the victory itself - demonstrating that he could win - rather than living up to his promises to his voters regarding health care reform or job creation. This is why Trump is obsessed with the critics he sees as trying to diminish his victory by reminding him that he didn't win a majority of the votes. This is why the investigation of Russian influence in the election makes Trump so angry. He sees it as an attempt to undermine the legitimacy of his triumph, something for which he believes he is not being praised enough.
In public, Trump's senior aids are desperately trying to defend him. When it emerged that he had apparently told the Russian foreign minister sensitive information about Islamic State (IS), that was reportedly so secret that the United States hadn't even shared it with close allies, National Security Advisor Herbert Raymond McMaster took an interesting line of defense: The president couldn't have known that the information was secret, he hadn't been briefed. But is it reassuring to argue that the president didn't know what he was doing?
Considering a Shake-Up
The information Trump accidentally shared came either from the Israeli or the Jordanian intelligence service, according to reports - apparently they had an agent in the inner-most circle of IS. This source had informed the U.S. that the terror group is able to create a laptop bomb that can't be detected by security measures. The valuable source could now be in mortal danger.
While administration staff tries to cover for the president, Trump is mercilessly wearing them down. He forces them to lie for him in public and then regularly disavows their measured statements the next morning when he tweets admissions to accusations they had denied the previous evening.
As such, the fact that no member of the administration has wanted to personally deny the revelations of the Comey memo speaks volumes. Meanwhile, Trump spoke personally about the revelations during a press conference together with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos. Asked whether he had requested Comey to lay off the Flynn investigation, he said: "No, no. Next question."
Trump is angry at his team and is apparently considering a significant shake-up, according to media reports. From Chief of Staff Reince Priebus to Press Secretary Sean Spicer to his chief ideologue Stephen Bannon, all are thought to be in danger. But hopes that the wayward nature of Trump's presidency might be resolved by such a shake-up are in vain. His team isn't to blame, it's him.
On top of this, Trump can't stand people who aren't yes-men. Trump is reportedly irritated by McMaster, a highly decorated military officer who is known for speaking his mind, because he too often contradicts him.
European monarchies had the figure of the crazy king, such as French Charles VI and England's Henry VIII. Even back then, their closest allies had to decide whether they would cover for the crazy ruler or topple him. In a democracy, there is the option of impeachment.
It has only been used twice in American history: against Bill Clinton in 1999 and against Andrew Johnson in 1868. But no president has ever been removed from office in this manner - because it requires the support of two thirds of the Senate. Both Clinton and Johnson's impeachments ultimately failed to surmount this obstacle.
The Looming Midterms
The probability that Trump will be removed from office via impeachment is extremely small. In Washington, politics are more polarized than ever. The majority of Republicans who do not come from swing counties don't feel much pressure from their voters. Although the president has an approval rate of 40 percent, a record low, with Republican voters he is still above 70 percent, though he is sinking there too.
And there is one thing that makes Trump a very useful president for the Republican leadership despite his scandals: his ideological flexibility, or, one could also say, disinterest in the details of politics. He isn't bothered when the Republicans decide on a health care reform bill that contradicts most of his campaign promises on the issue and that would affect his core voters the most. He leaves the details to the speaker of the House. This, too, helps explain why Republicans are so unwilling to distance themselves from Trump: He allows them to implement their agenda unhindered. In the end, Trump will sign their laws and is satisfied with being celebrated as the victor.
But the further the president's favorability ratings drop and the longer the drama lasts, the more Republicans are worrying about the fall 2018 midterm elections. In midterm elections, the president's party has historically lost seats - and the Democrats are up to 10 points ahead nationally in the polls. In the worst-case scenario, the Republicans could lose their majority in both chambers. Three upcoming by-elections in Republican districts in Georgia, South Carolina and Montana will be an important test. The Democrats are hopeful: If they win, the Republicans may become even more nervous.
But for now, Washington can expect a long, hot summer full of investigations by the special counsel and Congress. The White House is crippled, Trump's and the Republicans' legislative plans - building the wall, the entry ban, tax decreases - weren't moving before either, and the situation will apparently stay that way.
And in just a few days, we could see a noteworthy development: The Senate Intelligence Committee, among others, has called for Comey to testify both in public and behind closed doors. It has also asked for all of Comey's notes as well as all documents from the White house, including possible tapes of the conversations between Trump and Comey, which Trump mysteriously tweeted about.
And soon the special counsel will begin his work: Former FBI Director Robert Mueller has the power to pursue the investigation as he sees fit. He can investigate the Trump team's Russia connections as well as the circumstances surrounding Comey's firing. Mueller will likely take an especially close look at Mike Flynn, who Trump named national security advisor even though his team, and possibly he himself, had long known that the FBI was investigating him. Flynn was only national security advisor for 24 days before Trump was forced to fire him, but the revelations about him have been unsettling. The special counsel will ask uncomfortable questions, for example about the fact that Flynn wanted to end cooperation with the Kurds in Syria - a longtime hope of the Turks, which is sensitive because Flynn was paid by Ankara as an advisor.
A Dire Situation
According to Reuters, Flynn and other campaign employees were in contact with the Russian ambassador and Moscow representatives at least 18 times in the final seven months of the election campaign - apparently, a direct line of communication had been planned between Trump and Putin. Thus far, however, there is no evidence for any kind of collusion between Trump's campaign and Russia to manipulate the election.
Mueller's investigation could take months, maybe even years. Similar investigations, such as the one into Bill Clinton, went far beyond what originally caused them. The special investigation is likely to overshadow Trump's presidency from now on - and constantly bring new developments to light.
When the president received the surprising news that a special counsel had been brought in on Wednesday, he initially reacted with a surprisingly muted communique. But the next morning he angrily tweeted: "This is the single greatest witch hunt of a politician in American history!"
Now his situation is dire. His only hope is that Mueller really cannot prove any involvement between Russia and his team - and officially acquits him of all accusations. Then, even the fact that he tried to interfere with the investigation might be overshadowed by a clear acquittal.
But if Trump and his people are guilty of anything, then they now need to be worried.
Many members of the White House staff will need to find legal counsel for the special counsel's questioning - and they will have to pay for it themselves. That will not improve the atmosphere in an already demoralized White House.
Trump is now leaving Washington for the first time for a major foreign trip. Starting on Friday, he will spend more than a week away from his familiar surroundings on a trip that, according to media reports, he is approaching with trepidation due to its length. The trip will head to Saudi Arabia and Israel, to the Vatican, to the NATO summit in Brussels and ultimately to the G7 Summit in Sicily.
It could prove to be a bad time for him to be away from Washington. New revelations could come out at any time in the next few days, especially given that Comey could testify soon. On the other hand, there are also plenty of opportunities during the trip for him to bring attention to himself - and thus to distract from the scandals at home.
Trump will meet kings, princes, heads of state and the pope: There is a lot of room for faux-pas and new anecdotes. In Riyadh, he wants to give a speech about Islam. That, certainly, will be a topic of discussion.