Woodward book and anonymous White House staffer show US crisis goes deeper than an erratic president – America is an empire in decline
Kevin Rafferty says that the recent unflattering portraits of Donald Trump should surprise no one. The question is why the US tolerates a capricious, disloyal deal maker in its highest office
Bob Woodward, with Carl Bernstein, did more than anyone else to expose the misdeeds of US president Richard Nixon and bring about his downfall. Now, 45 years later, Woodward is in full spate with explosive claims against President Donald Trump in his book, Fear: Trump in the White House. His basic charge is that Trump is unfit to be president and is destroying America, democracy and any claims by the US to be a leader in global affairs.
Then, an anonymous op-ed writer in The New York Times, who claimed to be a senior White House official and “part of the resistance inside the Trump administration”, added fuel to Woodward’s fire.
The danger is that in the excitement of the daily turmoil, the important issues might be forgotten. For example: how broken is the US claim to be a democracy? What powers do a president or government get by winning an election, and what are the best checks and balances to keep a democracy democratic? How is Trump changing America’s place in the world, and with what consequences?
Anonymous in the White House was damning of Trump: “The root of the problem is the president’s amorality. Anyone who works with him knows he is not moored to any discernible first principles that guide his decision making … The president’s leadership style … is impetuous, adversarial, petty and ineffective.”
The critical official is not one of Washington’s leftist chattering classes. Indeed, she or he complains that the “bright spots” of Trump’s rule – “effective deregulation, historic tax reform, a more robust military and more” – have been spoiled by the president’s behaviour. The official complains about Trump’s affinity for autocrats, like Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-un, and lack of support for America’s steadfast allies.
Trump slams NYT’s op-ed as ‘gutless’
Concerned cabinet members, the official claims, discussed invoking the 25th Amendment – where the president is declared mentally or physically unfit for office – but decided not to do so for fear of a constitutional crisis.
Woodward adds colourful chapter and verse. Among his most vivid scenes are senior officials trying to thwart Trump’s impulses, including by snatching papers from his desk to prevent him from signing them, or giving him elementary lessons in foreign policy.
He quotes John Kelly, Trump’s chief of staff, as calling the president “an idiot” and saying, “We’re in Crazytown”.
Defence Secretary James Mattis had to deal with the president asking why the US “wasted” money keeping troops on the Korean peninsula: to help prevent the third world war, replied Mattis. The defence secretary also faced down an order from Trump to assassinate Bashar al-Assad after the US president learned that Assad had used chemical weapons in Syria’s civil war.
Equally seriously, Woodward claims that after Trump was put through a rehearsal for testifying before special counsel Robert Muller, his then-lawyer advised, “Don’t testify. It’s either that or an orange jump suit (of a prisoner)”.
Kelly denied calling Trump an idiot, even though he has been quoted before as using the word, but did not mention “Crazytown” or the claims of a chaotic White House.
In spite of denials, Woodward’s book has traction because of his meticulous methods. Australian author Clive James claimed that Woodward “checks his facts until they weep with boredom”.
The controversial New York Times article prompted Vice-President Mike Pence to lead a rush of obsequious denials by cabinet and other senior officials that they were the offending author.
Trump furiously suggested collecting affidavits that could be used in court or making everyone take polygraph tests, though polygraphs are not admissible in court: what a pervertedly amusing thought, given Trump’s propensity to lie.
Republican loyalists dutifully added how dastardly the author was. Hardly anyone stopped to reflect on the truth or the seriousness or consequences of a White House and US government in turmoil – or indeed the constitutionality of unelected officials trying to thwart America’s supreme elected official.
Trump’s White House is not so much an unbelievable modern soap opera as an old Roman or Mughal court with a paranoid emperor. There is a key difference that, in Roman and Mughal times, the emperor was most worried about his family trying to bump him off, but Trump believes only in his family.
Why should Washington and America have expected anything different in electing a businessman – and a real estate mogul, not a corporate man from a blue chip company – as president?
Trump is behaving as he did as when he was a real estate dealer, wheeling and dealing by the seat of his pants, expecting utmost loyalty but offering none back, treating the country as his own to play with, demanding that his justice department enforce his idea of justice, changing his mind on a whim in the constant quest for an ever better deal. But is this how to run a country?
There appears to be no soul-searching, especially not among Republican leaders, who have forgotten why America’s founding fathers established separation of powers to provide checks and balances against a tyrannical ruler.
Should winning an election, especially with a minority of the popular vote, make the president a king/emperor? For the US especially, why should any other country or leader respect a man who presides over such chaos? How much is a promise today worth when tomorrow may bring a better deal? Are these the last days of Washington’s empire?
Kevin Rafferty has reported from Washington under seven US presidents