Finding a rational explanation in Donald Trump’s politics is much like seeing a pattern in a Rorschach splodge of ink. Most people stare into the random eruptions and see whatever they want to project on to the 45th president of the United States.
Some political observers discern a deliberate pattern of distraction and diversion in the early morning tweets that are the product of the president’s prodigious fingers. When the media coverage, or the congressional pressure, gets too tough, a simple tweet is enough to send the press stampeding in the other direction.
Other insiders see an inexorable path to normalcy and the establishment. The burdens of the office – combined with so much wise counsel – will weigh down and discipline even someone as headstrong and inexperienced as Trump.
This view was best summed up by his predecessor, Obama, who delivered this dose of realism as advice to Trump in his final presidential press conference: “This is a job of such magnitude that you can’t do it by yourself. You are enormously reliant on your team … reality has a way of biting back if you don’t pay attention to it.”
Judging from the events of the past week, it’s not clear what Trump is paying attention to. Nor is it clear whom he relies on at any given time.
This was a week when the pundits were almost united in seeing amid the inkblots something that started to look presidential. Trump’s first address to a joint session of Congress was the polar opposite of his first press conference: he stuck to his script rather than riffing at length on his pet peeves. That meant speaking in a subdued tone and complete sentences, which was such a departure from his natural style that the contrast led once again to talk of a presidential pivot.
“The most presidential speech Mr Trump has ever given,” said the New York Times, summing up the kind of reaction that left Trump’s aides elated as they returned to the White House. Anonymous sources cited the influence of his daughter Ivanka or his chief of staff, Reince Priebus.
The Washington Post reported that those same aides were surprised at how many plaudits they were earning, since the substance of the speech represented no pivot at all. Trump spoke harshly about immigrant criminals even as he made a vague promise of immigration reform. He claimed that the nation’s voters were all united behind his campaign promise to make America great again, despite the fact that he lost the popular vote by three million.
The reaction was good enough the White House decided to defer the release of the new executive order banning travel from several Muslim-majority countries. What used to be an urgent national security priority was now deferred so they could bask in the briefly good press.
But that was so Wednesday.
By the next day Trump’s entire grip on politics slipped back to its usual tenuous state as revelations emerged about his attorney general’s contacts with Russian officials through the course of the 2016 election. Jeff Sessions had testified under oath, during his own confirmation hearings, that he had no such contact. After dismissing the news reports as false, Sessions was forced to recuse himself from the ongoing investigations into the Trump campaign’s Russian ties, while also refusing to confirm the existence of any such investigations.
What followed amounted to a desperate grasping at straws by the White House and its Republican allies in Congress. They defended Sessions by pointing to past meetings between Russian officials and Democratic senators. They claimed that all such allegations were the result of a dark conspiracy between President Obama and career government officials currently buried deep within the Trump administration. The various tactics sounded much like the homepage of Breitbart, whose publisher, Steve Bannon, is now sitting inside the West Wing as Trump’s political guru.
Sessions is the second Trump confidant to be laid low by the Russian saga that is unfolding on a social network near you. Michael Flynn, Trump’s first national security adviser, was forced out of his job for lying to the vice-president about his Russian contacts during the presidential transition. Sessions lied to the Senate under oath in what other justice department officials usually consider a case of perjury.
Still, the reality is that the Trump administration has every available tool to block the Russian investigation. Sessions would need to appoint a special counsel to investigate Russian ties to lead to any prosecution. Without a special counsel, the current FBI investigations will grind to a halt before any decision to prosecute.
Congress could pick up those investigations and lead to impeachment. But given the solid Republican control of both sides of Capitol Hill, that is unlikely – unless public opinion turns even more decisively against Trump, especially among Republican voters.
In the meantime, we are left with Trump’s unprecedented Twitter trolling this weekend. Projecting his own plotting on his predecessor, Trump accused Obama of “McCarthyism” before grasping for another historical comparison, complete with the usual misspelling: “How low has President Obama gone to tapp my phones during the very sacred election process. This is Nixon/Watergate. Bad (or sick) guy!”
Minutes after declassifying this blockbuster intelligence about a new Watergate, Trump had already moved on to more weighty matters.
“Arnold Schwarzenegger isn’t voluntarily leaving the Apprentice,” he wrote. “He was fired by his bad (pathetic) ratings, not by me. Sad end to a great show.”
You can almost feel the burn, or the narcissism, or the attention deficit disorder. It’s up to you.