Thursday

The real Adam Smith

He might be the poster boy for free-market economics, but that distorts what Adam Smith really thought 

By  Paul Sagar
 a lecturer in political theory in the Department of Political Economy, King’s College London.

If you’ve heard of one economist, it’s likely to be Adam Smith. He’s the best-known of all economists, and is typically hailed as the founding father of the dismal science itself.

Furthermore, he’s usually portrayed as not only an early champion of economic theory, but of the superiority of markets over government planning. In other words, Smith is now known both as the founder of economics, and as an ideologue for the political Right.

Yet, despite being widely believed, both these claims are at best misleading, and at worst outright false.

Smith’s popular reputation as an economist is a remarkable twist of fate for a man who spent most of his life as a somewhat reclusive academic thinker. Employed as professor of moral philosophy at the University of Glasgow, the majority of Smith’s teaching was in ethics, politics, jurisprudence and rhetoric, and for most of his career he was known for his first book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759). His professional identity was firmly that of a philosopher – not least because the discipline of ‘economics’ didn’t emerge until the 19th century, by which time Smith was long dead. (He died in July 1790, just as the French Revolution was getting into full swing.)

Admittedly, Smith’s reputation as an economist isn’t entirely mysterious. His oft-quoted An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776) was undoubtedly important in the eventual formation – in the next century – of the discipline of economics. But even here things are not as straightforward as they appear. For The Wealth of Nations – a 1,000-page doorstopper that blends history, ethics, psychology and political philosophy – bears little resemblance to the ahistorical and highly mathematical nature of most current economic theory. If anything, Smith’s best-known book is a work of political economy, a once-prevalent field of enquiry that suffered a striking decline in the latter half of the 20th century.

Smith’s reputation, however, began to get away from him early on. Shortly after publication, The Wealth of Nations was fêted in the British Parliament by the Whig leader Charles James Fox. Ironically, Fox later admitted that he had never actually read it (few subsequent non-readers of the book have showed such candour, despite plenty of them citing it). Indeed, Smith suspected that those quickest to sing his praises had failed to understand the main arguments of his work. He later described The Wealth of Nations as a ‘very violent attack … upon the whole commercial system of Great Britain’. Despite this, his vocal political cheerleaders in Parliament continued to prop up the very system that Smith was railing against.

Yet if Smith was disappointed by his work’s immediate reception, he would likely have taken even less cheer from the future uses to which his name would be put. For it has been his fate to become associated with the strain of Right-wing politics that rose to dominance in the early 1980s, and which continues to exert a strong influence on politics and economics today. Usually known as neoliberalism, this development is most famously associated with Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. But it is in fact a movement with deep intellectual roots, in particular in the mid-century writings of the economists Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig von Mises. Later, the Chicago economist Milton Friedman and the British policy adviser Keith Joseph championed it during the 1980s, as did the extensive network of academics, think tanks, business leaders and policymakers associated with the Mont Pelerin Society.

Neoliberals often invoke Smith’s name, believing him to be an early champion of private capitalist endeavour, and a founder of the movement that seeks (as Thatcher hoped) to ‘roll back the frontiers of the state’ so as to allow the market to flourish. The fact that there is a prominent Right-wing British think tank called the Adam Smith Institute – which since the 1970s has aggressively pushed for market-led reforms, and in 2016 officially rebranded itself a ‘neoliberal’ organisation – is just one example of this tendency.

It is certainly true that there are similarities between what Smith called ‘the system of natural liberty’, and more recent calls for the state to make way for the free market. But if we dig below the surface, what emerges most strikingly are the differences between Smith’s subtle, skeptical view of the role of markets in a free society, and more recent caricatures of him as a free-market fundamentalist avant-la-lettre. For while Smith might be publicly lauded by those who put their faith in private capitalist enterprise, and who decry the state as the chief threat to liberty and prosperity, the real Adam Smith painted a rather different picture. According to Smith, the most pressing dangers came not from the state acting alone, but the state when captured by merchant elites.

The context of Smith’s intervention in The Wealth of Nations was what he called ‘the mercantile system’. By this Smith meant the network of monopolies that characterised the economic affairs of early modern Europe. Under such arrangements, private companies lobbied governments for the right to operate exclusive trade routes, or to be the only importers or exporters of goods, while closed guilds controlled the flow of products and employment within domestic markets.

As a result, Smith argued, ordinary people were forced to accept inflated prices for shoddy goods, and their employment was at the mercy of cabals of bosses. Smith saw this as a monstrous affront to liberty, and a pernicious restriction on the capacity of each nation to increase its collective wealth. Yet the mercantile system benefited the merchant elites, who had worked hard to keep it in place. Smith pulled no punches in his assessment of the bosses as working against the interests of the public. As he put it in The Wealth of Nations: ‘People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.’

The merchants had spent centuries securing their position of unfair advantage. In particular, they had invented and propagated the doctrine of ‘the balance of trade’, and had succeeded in elevating it into the received wisdom of the age. The basic idea was that each nation’s wealth consisted in the amount of gold that it held. Playing on this idea, the merchants claimed that, in order to get rich, a nation had to export as much, and import as little, as possible, thus maintaining a ‘favourable’ balance. They then presented themselves as servants of the public by offering to run state-backed monopolies that would limit the inflow, and maximise the outflow, of goods, and therefore of gold. But as Smith’s lengthy analysis showed, this was pure hokum: what were needed instead were open trading arrangements, so that productivity could increase generally, and collective wealth would grow for the benefit of all.

Even worse than this, Smith thought, the merchants were the source of what his friend, the philosopher and historian David Hume, had called ‘jealousy of trade’. This was the phenomenon whereby commerce was turned into an instrument of war, rather than the bond of ‘union and friendship’ between states that it ought properly to be. By playing on jingoistic sentiments, the merchants inflamed aggressive nationalism, and blinded domestic populations to the fact that their true interests lay in forming peaceful trading relationships with their neighbours.

The peace and stability of the European continent was imperilled by the conspiracies of the merchants, who goaded politicians into fighting wars to protect home markets, or acquire foreign ones. After all, being granted militarily-backed private monopolies was far easier than having to compete on the open market by lowering prices and improving quality. The merchants in this manner constantly conspired to capture the state, defrauding the public by using political power to promote their own sectional advantage.

Indeed, Smith’s single most famous idea – that of ‘the invisible hand’ as a metaphor for uncoordinated market allocation – was invoked in precisely the context of his blistering attack on the merchant elites. It is certainly true that Smith was skeptical of politicians’ attempts to interfere with, or bypass, basic market processes, in the vain hope of trying to do a better job of allocating resources than was achievable through allowing the market to do its work. But in the passage of The Wealth of Nations where he invoked the idea of the invisible hand, the immediate context was not simply that of state intervention in general, but of state intervention undertaken at the behest of merchant elites who were furthering their own interests at the expense of the public.

It is an irony of history that Smith’s most famous idea is now usually invoked as a defence of unregulated markets in the face of state interference, so as to protect the interests of private capitalists. For this is roughly the opposite of Smith’s original intention, which was to advocate for restrictions on what groups of merchants could do. When he argued that markets worked remarkably efficiently – because, although each individual ‘intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention’ – this was an appeal to free individuals from the constraints imposed upon them by the monopolies that the merchants had established, and were using state power to uphold. The invisible hand was originally invoked not to draw attention to the problem of state intervention, but of state capture.

Smith was, however, deeply pessimistic about the stranglehold that the merchants had managed to exert over European politics, and despaired of it ever being loosened. Accordingly, he labelled his preferred alternative – of liberal markets generating wealth to be passed on to all members of society – a ‘Utopia’ that would never come to pass. History has to some extent proved him wrong on this score: we now live in an era of comparative market freedom. But nobody should deny that merchant conspiracy, and the marriage of the state to what we now call corporate power, remain defining features of our present-day political and economic reality.

In any case, Smith’s hostility to the merchants is a long way removed from a Reagan-style championing of the entrepreneurial capitalist hero, she who needs only to be released from the constraints of the state to lead us to the sunlit uplands of economic growth. On the contrary, Smith’s analysis implies that a free society with a healthy economy is going to need to put fetters on economic elites if the invisible hand is to have any chance of doing its paradoxical work.

Does this, then, make Smith an early proponent of the political Left? No, and it would be a serious mistake to draw that conclusion. The truth is both more complex, and more interesting, than that.
Although Smith was deeply critical of the way that the merchants conspired to promote their own advantage at the expense of the rest of society, he was under no illusion that political actors might successfully replace private merchants as the necessary conduits of economic activity.

Certainly, when merchants were allowed to rule as sovereigns – as the British East India Company had been permitted to do in Bengal – the results were disastrous. ‘Want, famine and mortality’, themselves the results of ‘tyranny’ and ‘calamity’, had been unleashed on India, all products of an ‘oppressive authority’ based on force and injustice. Under absolutely no circumstances, Smith thought, should merchants be put in charge of politics. Their monopolistic conspiracies would be ‘destructive’ to all countries ‘which have the misfortune to fall under their government’.

Nonetheless, something like the reverse was also true: politicians made for terrible merchants, and ought not to attempt to take over the systematic running of economic affairs. This was a product of the structural predicament faced by political leaders, whom Smith claimed have ‘scarce ever succeeded’ in becoming ‘adventurers in the common branches of trade’, despite often having been tempted to try, and often from a genuine desire to better their nation’s condition.

Politicians, according to Smith, were much poorer judges of where and how to allocate resources than the aggregated outcome of individuals spontaneously undertaking free exchange. As a result, in matters of trade it was usually folly for politicians to try to replace the vast network of buyers and sellers with any form of centralised command. This, however, included precisely those networks structured around the profit-seeking activities of merchant elites.

On Smith’s final analysis, the merchants were a potentially pernicious, but entirely necessary, part of the functioning of large-scale economies. The true ‘science of a statesman or legislator’ consisted in deciding how best to govern the merchants’ nefarious activities. Effective politicians had to strike a balance between granting economic elites the liberty to pursue legitimate commercial activities, while also applying control when such activities became vehicles for exploitation. In other words, Smith was very far from asking us to put our faith in ‘entrepreneurs’, those supposed ‘wealth-creators’ whom neoliberalism looks to as drivers of economic prosperity. On the contrary, giving the entrepreneurs free reign would be rather like putting the foxes in charge of the chicken coup.

Crucially, however, Smith did not offer up any kind of premeditated plan regarding how to strike the right balance between commercial freedom and watchful political control. On the contrary, he pressed home the deep underlying difficulties of the situation that commercial societies found themselves in.
Political actors, Smith claimed, were liable to be swept up by a ‘spirit of system’, which made them fall in love with abstract plans, which they hoped would introduce sweeping beneficial reform. Usually the motivations behind these plans were perfectly noble: a genuine desire to improve society. The problem, however, was that the ‘spirit of system’ blinded individuals to the harsh complexities of real-world change. As Smith put it in The Theory of Moral Sentiments in one of his most evocative passages:
[The man of system] seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chessboard. He does not consider that the pieces upon the chessboard have no other principle of motion besides that which the hand impresses upon them; but that, in the great chessboard of human society, every single piece has a principle of motion of its own, altogether different from that which the legislature might choose to impress upon it. If those two principles coincide and act in the same direction, the game of human society will go on easily and harmoniously, and is very likely to be happy and successful. If they are opposite or different, the game will go on miserably, and the society must be at all times in the highest degree of disorder.
Smith’s point is easily misunderstood. At first glance, it can look like a modern Right-wing injunction against socialist-style state planning. But it is much more subtle than that.

What Smith is saying is that in politics any preconceived plan – especially one that assumes that the millions of individuals composing a society will just automatically go along with it – is potentially dangerous. This is because the ‘spirit of system’ infects politicians with a messianic moral certainty that their reforms are so necessary and justified that almost any price is worth paying to achieve them.

Yet it is a short step from this to discounting the very real harm that a plan can unleash if it starts to go wrong – and especially if the ‘pieces upon the chessboard’ act in ways that resist, or subvert, or confound, the politician’s scheme. This is because the ‘spirit of system’ encourages the sort of attitude captured in such cheap sayings as ‘You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs’. In other words, that inconvenient opponents and bystanders can be sacrificed to an overriding moral vision.

Smith was warning against all abstract plans alike. Certainly, his outlook urges skepticism about such strategies as taking over the industrial base of a state, presuming to know what goods citizens will want and need over the next five years, and thereby trying to eliminate the market as a mechanism for resource allocation. But it likewise views with deep suspicion a plan to rapidly privatise previously state-owned industries, exposing millions of citizens to the ravages of unemployment and the attendant destruction of their communities. In other words, while she certainly didn’t realise it, Thatcher’s violent restructuring of the British economy during the 1980s was as much a product of the ‘spirit of system’ as any piece of top-down Soviet industrial strategy.

The message that Smith conveys cuts across party and ideological lines, and applies to both Left and Right. It is about a pathological attitude that politicians of all stripes are prone to. If not kept in check, this can be the source not just of disruption and inefficiency but of cruelty and suffering, when those who find themselves on the wrong side of the plan’s consequences are forced by the powerful to suffer them regardless. Smith in turn urges us to recognise that real-world politics will always be too complex for any prepackaged ideology to cope with. What we need in our politicians is careful judgment and moral maturity, something that no ideology, nor any position on the political spectrum, holds a monopoly on.

In the fraught times that we now occupy, it is hard to believe that the careful and responsible political judges that Smith envisaged have much chance of emerging. (Does anybody in Western politics currently measure up?) Much more likely will be new men and women of system, with alternative abstract plans, seducing desperate electorates before attempting to impose their own forceful reforms, regardless of what the pieces on the chessboard happen to think or want.

Whether these reforms come from the Left or the Right might not, in the end, matter much. As Western economies continue to struggle, and politics becomes increasingly polarised, the results could yet be catastrophic. But if so, we should certainly not consign Smith to any parade of blame. On the contrary, he tried to warn us of the dangers that we face. It is time that we listened, a little more carefully, to what the real Adam Smith had to say.

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Poll: Most Americans want Robert Mueller to complete his Russia probe



One year into the Trump administration, just 19 percent of Americans say they have “a great amount” of confidence in the presidency and 8 percent have high confidence in Congress, according to the latest poll by the PBS NewsHour, NPR and Marist. The percentage of Americans with great confidence in the military was much higher — at 53 percent.

The poll also showed that 58 percent of Americans say they trust their favorite news outlet more than President Donald Trump. This was especially true among Democrats and people who identified as politically independent. Nearly one-third of Americans — 29 percent — said they trust Mr. Trump more than the media, a figure that has remained largely unchanged since October and remains particularly true among Republicans.


The issue of how much the public trusts the president will likely spill into 2018, as special counsel Robert Mueller continues his investigation into Russia’s role in the 2016 presidential election and possible ties to Trump’s campaign.

Mueller’s probe, along with multiple congressional Russia investigations, have in recent months widened to include people who are or were close to Trump, including former White House strategist Steve Bannon, who testified Tuesday behind closed doors before the House Intelligence Committee.
Bannon was fired from his post at the White House last August. Last week, he stepped down from the Breitbart News Network, where he had served as executive chairman, after a public break with the president over a new book that details Trump’s first year in the White House.

Mueller’s team has also requested a May 14 trial date for Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort and Manafort’s business partner Rick Gates.

High-profile events like Bannon’s testimony and Manafort’s upcoming trial will ensure that Mueller’s probe remains in the spotlight for months to come.

Still, 42 percent of Americans said they have never heard of Mueller, who was appointed by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein in May to lead the federal government’s investigation into possible links between Russia and the Trump campaign. Those who have heard of Mueller are perfectly split when asked what they think of him, with 29 percent of U.S. adults having a favorable impression of Mueller and another 29 percent saying they do not.

“Not a lot people know a lot about him,” said Lee Miringoff, who directs the Marist Institute for Public Opinion. “He would not have a reservoir of public opinion to fall back on.”

Half of the country said Mueller’s investigation is fair, 23 percent of U.S. adults said they weren’t sure, and more than a quarter of respondents — 28 percent — called the investigation unfair. Responses skew along political lines, with Democrats far more likely to say Mueller and his team are conducting an ethical investigation of the president than Republicans. Nearly half of people who identify as politically independent say the same.

Whether they know of Mueller or not, two-thirds of U.S. adults want him to be allowed to finish the investigation. A majority of Democrats, Republicans and politically independent respondents want him to see the investigation through.

The survey polled 1,350 U.S. adults between Jan. 8 and 10 on mobile and landline phones with a margin of error of 2.7 percent among the general population and 3 percent among 1,092 registered U.S. voters.

Tuesday

“Completely Racist”: Edwidge Danticat on Trump’s “Shithole Countries” Remark Targeting Africa, Haiti




Transcript:
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

International condemnation of Donald Trump is growing, after reports the president used an expletive during a meeting about immigrants from Africa, Haiti and El Salvador. While meeting with lawmakers, Trump reportedly said, “Why do we want all these people from Africa here? They’re s—hole countries … We should have more people from Norway.” Trump also reportedly said, “Why do we need more Haitians? Take them out.”

Earlier this morning, Trump wrote on twitter, quote, “The language used by me at the DACA meeting was tough, but this was not the language used. What was really tough was the outlandish proposal made–a big setback for DACA!”
 
Trump’s remarks come weeks after The New York Times reported Trump had also disparaged Haitians and Nigerians during a closed-door meeting in June, saying Nigerians would never, quote, “go back to their huts” if they came to the U.S. As for Haitians, Trump said, quote, they “all have AIDS.”

Trump’s latest remarks come just after his administration announced it’s ending temporary protected status for up to 250,000 Salvadorans who have been living in U.S. since at least 2001. Last year, the Trump administration announced it also is ending temporary protected status for tens of thousands of Haitians, Nicaraguans and Sudanese immigrants living in the U.S.

Trump’s s—hole remarks Thursday have been condemned across the globe. That’s s—hole. We’re not using the actual expletive that he used, four letters before the word “hole.” United Nations high commissioner for human rights [spokesperson] Rupert Colville decried Trump’s remarks.

RUPERT COLVILLE: These are shocking and shameful comments from the president of the United States. I’m sorry, but there’s no other word one can use but “racist.” You cannot dismiss entire countries and continents as [bleep], whose entire populations, who are not white, are therefore not welcome. … The positive comment on Norway makes the underlying sentiment very clear. And like the earlier comments made vilifying Mexicans and Muslims, the policy proposals targeting entire groups on grounds of nationality or religion, and the reluctance to clearly condemn the anti-Semitic and racist actions of the white supremacists in Charlottesville, all of these go against the universal values the world has been striving so hard to establish since World War II and the Holocaust.

AMY GOODMAN: In South Africa, Jessie Duarte of the African National Congress also criticized Trump.

JESSIE DUARTE: Ours is not a [bleep] country. Neither is Haiti or any other country in distress. Obviously, we are in no position to stop any president from saying anything they wish to say. But all we can say is that developing countries do have difficulties. Those difficulties are not small matters. And it’s not as if the United States doesn’t have difficulties. There are millions of unemployed people in the U.S., millions of people who don’t have healthcare services or access to education. And we would not deign to make comments as derogatory as that about any country that has any kind of social, economic or other difficulties.

AMY GOODMAN: And in Haiti, longtime activist René Civil said Trump should be reminded of Haiti’s history.
 
RENÉ CIVIL: [translated] In the name of the Haitian people, we are part of a patriotic emergency that is fighting for real change in Haiti. We demand that Donald Trump apologize before the entire continent, as well as before Haiti, the country whose blood has been used by ancestors who have served with their minds and bodies to liberate the United States itself from slavery. … Haiti is not a [bleep]. It’s a great country. It’s the mother of liberty.

AMY GOODMAN: Trump’s remarks prompted his hometown paper, the New York Daily News, to publish on its cover an illustration featuring Trump’s likeness superimposed over a cartoonish “poop” emoji, with the headline “S— FOR BRAINS: Trump spews vicious slur against immigrants.”
We go now to Florida, where we’re joined by the acclaimed Haitian-American novelist Edwidge Danticat. She is a novelist, speaking to us from Orlando, Florida, author of a number of books, including The Farming of Bones, which won an American Book Award. She was born in Haiti, came to the United States when she was 12. We are speaking today to Edwidge, and on this day after Trump’s s—hole comments, on the eighth anniversary of the devastating Haitian earthquake that killed as many as 300,000 people.

Edwidge Danticat, welcome to Democracy Now! Your response to President Trump?

EDWIDGE DANTICAT: Well, thank you, Amy. My response to President Trump is total condemnation. It was a very racist remark, which shed light on earlier decisions that he had—that have been made by the administration—for example, about temporary protected status being eliminated for Haitians and Salvadorans, and his remark, as reported by The New York Times, about all Haitians having AIDS. It seems like, once again, Haiti is being used as a foil, and he is baiting his bait and feeding them—Haiti as red meat.

And it’s extremely sad that it happened also in the shadow of this day. Today was going to be an extraordinarily sad day for many of us, anyway, who lost our family members, who lost our friends, in the devastating earthquake. So this is even more salt on our wounds. Not surprising, because of the nature of this presidency and the way this president conducts himself, but it is a terrible slight. It’s completely racist, especially the way that he paralleled Haiti and Africa, which is a continent, not a country—someone should tell him—and describing them in this manner and contrasting them to Norway.

AMY GOODMAN: Seems to be redefining the term “White House,” where he lives, in Washington, and what he wants to see in this country. Edwidge Danticat, we have been playing the responses of people around the world, from South Africa, one of those, as Donald Trump calls them, s—hole, but he uses the full expletive, though, inexplicably, this morning he’s kind of denying this in a tweet, though yesterday, when the White House was asked about this, they did not deny that he said this. I mean, there were so many congressmembers in the room. What does it mean for Haitian-American families, both the policy, what you’re facing, the loss of—what so many communities are facing, Haitian communities and Salvadoran, the loss of TPS, but also for your kids, when people hear these terms?

EDWIDGE DANTICAT: Well, that’s exactly where I was going to go. Now there are so many Haitian children who will be going to school today, and inevitably it will come up. And then they will have to—their parents, who are going to have to explain to the children why they don’t—you know, what the president has said and what kind of country they actually come from, and a country that—like Haiti, that has had difficulties, but that also the U.S. has played a hand in creating certain types of situations that has led, you know, to the level of poverty that we have, which doesn’t mean that we are not human beings, that we don’t have dreams, that we’re not trying very hard to keep our country going. So, it’s very disparaging.

AMY GOODMAN: Edwidge Danticat, what would you say if you were meeting with President Trump today at the White House?

EDWIDGE DANTICAT: I don’t think I would be meeting with President Trump, but I would use this opportunity that you have given me to tell him to just stop it. Stop it. I mean, he’s spewing white supremacist views that have real consequences in the lives of ordinary people. We already see it online, people who are jumping in and saying, “Of course what he’s saying is true.” And then there are people who will act on it, when they meet people like us. They will—who will exercise certain prejudices that affect the lives of the people he is talking about. But that also can lead to actual violence against our bodies, against our children. So I think he needs to realize that what he’s saying, from the biggest bully pulpit in the whole world, is affecting individual people. I don’t know that he cares, because I think he’s just spewing these things, and I think, in part, this was also—you know, this is what he believes.

But what he’s saying, from this very high position of power, affects the future of nations, affects the lives of individuals, affects how people—how policy is created. And now you have all these white supremacists and racists who feel so empowered, because, basically, the president of the United States has put them on—you know, has put a target on the backs of these people who he has described in this way, for them to be ridiculed, for them to be geared to have prejudices exercised against them and, in some cases, to have violence and, you know, assaults possible on their bodies, because these words are very—these words give permission to certain kinds of people. And we become then hypervisible in our vulnerability, because we have been singled out, not once—once in the policy with the TPS, once with the AIDS, and now with this, and as a group of people, as Haitians, and as people, he was saying, from Africa. And he’s singling out people for and making us targets for all kinds of possible attacks. And—

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, Edwidge, on this anniversary, this eighth anniversary of the earthquake in Haiti, that killed up to 300,000 Haitians?

EDWIDGE DANTICAT: Yes. Well, today—this is what we would have been doing today, would be remembering and thinking about our dead and commemorating these losses. But sadly, this has been muddled by this vicious attack by the president against our people at this time. So, it is important. We are still going to remember. We are still going to mourn. But to use a saying that many people of different backgrounds have been saying since the election of the president, “Today, we mourn. Tomorrow, we fight.”

AMY GOODMAN: Edwidge Danticat, we want to thank you for being with us, Haitian-American novelist, speaking to us from Florida, author of a number of books, including The Farming of Bones, which won an American Book Award.

Friday

Will Donald Trump Destroy the Presidency?

He disdains the rule of law. He’s trampling norms of presidential behavior. And he’s bringing vital institutions down with him.





Donald Trump is testing the institution of the presidency unlike any of his 43 predecessors. We have never had a president so ill-informed about the nature of his office, so openly mendacious, so self-destructive, or so brazen in his abusive attacks on the courts, the press, Congress (including members of his own party), and even senior officials within his own administration. Trump is a Frankenstein’s monster of past presidents’ worst attributes: Andrew Jackson’s rage; Millard Fillmore’s bigotry; James Buchanan’s incompetence and spite; Theodore Roosevelt’s self-aggrandizement; Richard Nixon’s paranoia, insecurity, and indifference to law; and Bill Clinton’s lack of self-control and reflexive dishonesty.

“Enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm,” James Madison wrote in one of the Federalist Papers during the debates over the ratification of the Constitution. He was right, but he never could have imagined Donald Trump.

At this point in the singular Trump presidency, we can begin to assess its impact on American democracy. The news thus far is not all bad. The Constitution’s checks and balances have largely stopped Trump from breaking the law. And while he has hurt his own administration, his successors likely won’t repeat his self-destructive antics. The prognosis for the rest of our democratic culture is grimmer, however. Trump’s bizarre behavior has coarsened politics and induced harmful norm-breaking by the institutions he has attacked. These changes will be harder to undo.

Trump, in short, is wielding a Soprano touch on American institutions. “I’m fucking King Midas in reverse here,” Tony Soprano once told his therapist. “Everything I touch turns to shit.”

The Framers of the Constitution wanted to create a powerful, independent executive branch, but they didn’t want to stoke fears that the new United States would replicate the monarchy from which it had just separated. Confident that George Washington would be the first chief executive and would use his power responsibly, they established an unstructured office with ambiguous authorities. Article II vests the president with “executive Power,” but it doesn’t define the term, and it gives the president only a few rather modest enumerated powers.

These vague constitutional contours allowed the presidency to grow, in response to changes in society and the world, into a gargantuan institution that the Framers never could have foreseen. The president’s control over the bully pulpit, federal law enforcement, and the national-security establishment has made the office the dominant force in American government and a danger to constitutional liberties. The flexible structure of the office has meant that it is defined largely by the person who occupies it—his character, competence, and leadership skills. Great presidents, such as Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin D. Roosevelt, exercised power wisely (though controversially) to lead the nation through crisis. But Richard Nixon debased the office and betrayed the Constitution and our laws, while others, like Ulysses S. Grant and Warren G. Harding, allowed the executive branch to become engulfed in corruption and scandal.

This was the background to the near-hysterical worries when Trump became president. During the campaign, he pledged to act in illegal ways; expressed illiberal attitudes toward freedom of speech, religion, and the press; attacked immigrants and minorities; tolerated, and even incited, thuggery at his rallies. The man who on January 20, 2017, took a constitutional oath to “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States” seemed disdainful of the rule of law and almost certain to abuse his power. “He is unlikely to be contained by norms and customs, or even by laws and the Constitution,” wrote Peter Wehner, a circumspect Republican commentator, in The New York Times the day after Trump’s inauguration. Wehner captured, in an understated way, prevalent fears about Trump’s presidency.

Thus far, however, Trump has been almost entirely blocked from violating laws or the Constitution. The courts, the press, the bureaucracy, civil society, and even Congress have together robustly enforced the rule of law.
Trump’s initial executive order on immigration—a temporary ban on entry for people from seven Muslim-majority countries that were not obvious sources of terrorist activity inside the United States—was widely seen as his first step toward authoritarianism. Issued seven days into his presidency, the ban was sloppily written, barely vetted inside the executive branch, legally overbroad, and incompetently rolled out. The administration gave the people subject to the ban’s edicts no notice, which led to bedlam at airports. Many observers believed the immigration order indulged the “symbolic politics of bashing Islam over any actual security interest,” as Benjamin Wittes of the Brookings Institution put it at the time.

A crucial moment occurred during the week after Trump issued the order. Civil-society groups such as the ACLU quickly filed habeas corpus petitions asking federal courts to enjoin the order in various ways, which they did. For several days, it was unclear whether border agents were complying with the injunctions, and rumors that Trump or his Department of Homeland Security had ordered them not to filled the news. When a federal district-court judge in Seattle named James Robart halted the entire immigration order nationwide in the middle of the afternoon on Friday, February 3, Twitter and the cable shows were aquiver for several hours with the possibility that Trump would defy the court.

“What would happen if the administration were to simply ignore this court order and continue to deny people entry?,” MSNBC national correspondent Joy Reid asked her guests on All In. Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson, who had brought the case against Trump, treated the question as a live possibility. “I don’t want to be overly dramatic, Joy,” he said, “but you would have a constitutional crisis.”

The hardest question in American constitutional law was suddenly raised: Why does a president, who controls what Alexander Hamilton described as “the sword of the community,” abide by a judicial decision he abhors?

Trump wouldn’t have been the first president to flout a court order. Six weeks into the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln defied a ruling by Chief Justice Roger B. Taney that the president lacked the authority to suspend the writ of habeas corpus, and Franklin Roosevelt threatened to ignore the Supreme Court in a World War II case involving Nazi saboteurs. But during the next few decades, judicial authority solidified. Though many worried that Nixon would disobey the Supreme Court in 1974 when it ordered him to turn over his incriminating tapes to a special prosecutor, Nixon famously acquiesced. Would Trump?

We can imagine that he didn’t want to. We can imagine him ranting deliriously after Robart issued his decision. But at 10:05 p.m., the White House put out a statement declaring that the Justice Department would seek to stay the “outrageous order,” which meant that the executive branch would pursue review in higher courts. And 10 hours later, at 8:12 a.m., the incensed chief executive tweeted the first of many attacks against Robart. “The opinion of this so-called judge, which essentially takes law-enforcement away from our country, is ridiculous and will be overturned!,” Trump wrote. He would appeal, rather than defy, Robart’s injunction.

We don’t know why Trump acquiesced. Perhaps his staff convinced him that ignoring the ruling would spark resignations in the White House and the Justice Department, as well as congressional reprisal, which would jeopardize his two-week-old presidency. Whatever the reason, the most powerful man in the world complied with the edict of a little-known federal trial judge on an issue at the top of his agenda. The Constitution held.


The still-unfolding Russia investigation is a second context in which checks and balances have worked well thus far. The possibility that the president’s inner circle might have colluded with our fiercest adversary to sway the 2016 election, or might have other inappropriate ties to Russian interests, is the most serious instance of potential presidential malfeasance since Watergate. In trying to influence the investigation, Trump has acted much like Nixon did. He has pressured his senior intelligence and law-enforcement officials to help clear his name and fired the original lead investigator, FBI Director James Comey. Unlike Nixon, Trump has also publicly attacked just about everyone involved in investigating him. And yet every institution has stood firm.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions made his boss furious by following the Justice Department’s rules and recusing himself from the matter because of his involvement in the Trump campaign. Many feared that the FBI’s investigation would flounder when Trump fired Comey. But the opposite happened. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, another Trump appointee, angered the president but also followed the rules in appointing a special counsel, the esteemed former FBI director Robert Mueller, to investigate the matter. Mueller has assembled a formidable squad of prosecutors and investigators and impaneled a grand jury.

Trump has sharply criticized Sessions’s and Mueller’s roles in the Russia investigation, raising concerns that he might fire one or both. (As of press time, he had not done so.) But such a step would not take the heat off him any more than canning Comey did. Firing Mueller in particular would be almost exactly like Nixon’s infamous order to dismiss the Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox, known as the “Saturday Night Massacre,” and it would invite the same heightened suspicion and blowback as befell Nixon. Justice Department leaders would face pressure to appoint a new and undeniably independent special counsel, who would have every incentive to replicate Mueller’s aggressive investigation.

The Republican-controlled Congress would also likely act. Many believe Congress hasn’t done enough to stand up to Trump. But in the context of facing a Republican president in his honeymoon first year, it has been remarkably tough. This summer, by large bipartisan majorities, it passed a law imposing sanctions on Russia that Trump abhorred and that curbed his power. Congress has also shown backbone in investigating the Trump campaign’s connection to Russian election meddling.

The Senate Intelligence Committee has been conducting a “notoriously bipartisan” investigation, as The Washington Post put it. Representative Devin Nunes of California, the chair of the House Intelligence Committee, appeared to be in Trump’s pocket and trying to delegitimize the committee’s investigation. But the press uncovered his shenanigans, Nunes stepped aside, and the House has since been pursuing the matter more seriously. Republican senators also rose to Sessions’s defense when Trump openly attacked him, and they have signaled strong support for Mueller. These efforts reflect unusual Republican distrust of a Republican president, and would surely ramp up if Trump fired Sessions or Mueller.


A symbiotic relationship between the bureaucracy and the press has also exposed abuses and illegalities. National-Security Adviser Michael Flynn’s lies about his Russian contacts were leaked and reported, and forced his resignation. When The New York Times published a leaked draft of an executive order that would have restored CIA authority for black sites and enhanced interrogation, the outcry in Congress and elsewhere killed the order. Trump and his family have not yet been brought to heel on their business conflicts of interest. Checks have been weakest here, but that is mainly because the Constitution and laws are ambiguous on such conflicts, and are not designed for judicial enforcement. Nonetheless, several imaginative lawsuits have been filed against Trump and his associates, and the press has done a good job of bringing conflicts to light.

In these and other ways, actors inside and outside the executive branch have so far stymied Trump’s tendencies toward lawlessness. One might even say that in the first year of his presidency, Trump has invigorated constitutional checks and balances, and the nation’s appreciation for them.

Trump has been less constrained by norms, the nonlegal principles of appropriate behavior that presidents and other officials tacitly accept and that typically structure their actions. Norms, not laws, create the expectation that a president will take regular intelligence briefings, pay public respect to our allies, and not fire the FBI director for declining to pledge his loyalty. There is no canonical list of presidential norms. They are rarely noticed until they are violated.

Donald Trump is a norm-busting president without parallel in American history. He has told scores of easily disprovable public lies; he has shifted back and forth and back again on his policies, often contradicting Cabinet officials along the way; he has attacked the courts, the press, his predecessor, his former electoral opponent, members of his party, the intelligence community, and even his own attorney general; he has failed to release his tax returns or to fill senior political positions in many agencies; he has shown indifference to ethics concerns; he has regularly interjected a self-regarding political element into apolitical events; he has monetized the presidency by linking it to his personal business interests; and he has engaged in cruel public behavior. The list goes on and on.

Presidential norm-breaking is neither new nor always bad. Thomas Jefferson refused to continue the practice begun by George Washington and John Adams of delivering the State of the Union address in person before Congress, because he believed it resembled the British monarch speaking before Parliament. For the next 112 years, presidents conveyed the State of the Union in writing—until Woodrow Wilson astonished Congress by addressing it in person, a practice that once again settled into a norm. Wilson’s novel step was part of a broader change from the 19th century, when giving policy speeches before the public was rare and controversial for a president, to the 20th century, when mass oratory became a routine tool of presidential leadership. Although the Constitution allowed presidents to serve for more than two consecutive terms, no one did so until Franklin Roosevelt won a third term, in 1940. Roosevelt tried but failed to break another norm when he sought to increase the number of Supreme Court justices in order to secure more favorable interpretations of his New Deal programs.

These and countless other examples show that presidential norm violations have often been central to presidential leadership. Even if presidents don’t always get the calculation right (Roosevelt’s court-packing plan was and remains almost universally derided), they usually break norms to try to improve the operations of government.

Trump’s norm violations are different. Many of them appear to result from his lack of emotional intelligence—a “president’s ability to manage his emotions and turn them to constructive purposes, rather than being dominated by them and allowing them to diminish his leadership,” as the Princeton political scientist Fred I. Greenstein has put it. Trump’s behavior seems to flow from hypersensitivity untempered by shame, a mercurial and contrarian personality, and a notable lack of self-control.
A corollary to Trump’s shamelessness is that he often doesn’t seek to hide or even spin his norm-breaking. Put another way, he is far less hypocritical than past presidents—and that is a bad thing.

Hypocrisy is an underappreciated political virtue. It can palliate self-interested and politically divisive government action through mollifying rhetoric and a call to shared values. Trump is bad at it because he can’t “recognize the difference between what one professes in public and what one does in private, much less the utility of exploiting that difference,” Henry Farrell and Martha Finnemore have noted in Foreign Affairs. He is incapable of keeping his crass thoughts to himself, or of cloaking his speech in other-regarding principle.

Commentary about Trump’s behavior has tended to assume that presidential norms, once broken, are hard if not impossible to restore. This can be true, but in Trump’s case isn’t. Presidents don’t embrace their predecessors’ norm entrepreneurship unless it brings political advantage, and Trump’s hasn’t. His successors are no more likely to replicate his self-destructive antics than they would be if he yelled at the first lady during a public dinner or gave a televised address from the White House Rose Garden in his bathrobe.

Another reason presidential norms will prove resilient is that Trump’s aberrant actions have been sweepingly condemned. He has been rebuked for his attacks on investigatory independence not just by his political opponents but by more-sympathetic voices in the Republican Party and on the Wall Street Journal editorial page, and even, implicitly, by his own Justice Department appointees, who have continued the Russia investigation despite his pushback. Trump’s response to the violent demonstrations in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August produced a uniform outcry that will reinforce norms for future presidents about denouncing racism and racial violence. The majority of the other presidential norms that Trump has defied will similarly be strengthened by the reactions to his behavior, and will snap back in the next presidency.

But that doesn’t mean virtuous norms will hold elsewhere.

During the presidential campaign, Trump gave his challengers derogatory nicknames. Hillary Clinton was “Crooked Hillary.” Jeb Bush was “Low-Energy Jeb.” Ted Cruz was “Lyin’ Ted.” And Marco Rubio was “Little Marco.” Trump’s taunts exceeded the bounds of campaign decorum but generated attention and helped distinguish him from the stale, conventional elite wisdom reflected by other candidates in both parties. (Norm-breaking helped him more during the campaign than it has in the presidency.)

Two days before Super Tuesday, on February 28, 2016, Rubio decided to fight back. “Have you seen his hands?,” Rubio asked the audience at a rally at Roanoke College. “You know what they say about men with small hands.” The college students loved the juvenile humor, and Rubio briefly got the increased cable coverage he sought. But he had sacrificed his integrity, and his campaign collapsed. Immediately after the remark, “Rubio’s aides were besieged with dazed and irate missives from donors, allies, and friends” because his “reputation as conservatism’s upbeat, optimistic standard-bearer—so meticulously crafted over so many years—was dissolving before their eyes,” Tim Alberta reported in National Review. Rubio later admitted that the gambit had been a mistake, and apologized. “I didn’t like what it reflected on me,” he said. “It embarrassed my family. It’s not who I am.”

What happened to Marco Rubio on the campaign trail is now happening to a variety of American institutions. These institutions have risen up to check a president they fear. But in some instances, they have defied their own norms, and harmed themselves and the nation in the process. Unfortunately, many of these norm violations will be hard to reverse.

Since the day of Trump’s election, members of the federal bureaucracy have taken unusual steps to stop him. Soon after November 8, online guides for how to “resist from below” or to “dissent from within” the administration popped up. During the transition, and continuing after the inauguration, federal employees who were repulsed by the new president and his agenda discussed strategies to hide or alter documents, leak damaging information, and slow down the process of changing government policy. “You’re going to see the bureaucrats using time to their advantage,” an anonymous Justice Department official told The Washington Post in January. “People here will resist and push back against orders they find unconscionable.”

These tactics had been used before; clashes between the governing class and a new administration are not uncommon. But the scale of the effort, and especially how it was coordinated, was new. “Federal workers are in regular consultation with recently departed Obama-era political appointees about what they can do to push back against the new president’s initiatives,” The Washington Post reported. Federal employees used encrypted communications to avoid detection by the president’s team, and a number of anonymous Twitter accounts attributed to government officials—@Rogue_DoD, @alt_labor, and the like—cropped up to organize resistance and release damaging information about the administration.

Leaks are not new, but we have never seen anything like the daily barrage of leaks that have poured out of Trump’s executive branch. Not all of them have come from bureaucrats; Trump appointees have engaged in leaking too. But many of the leaks appear to have come from career civil servants who seek to discredit or undermine the president. And many involve types of information that have never been leaked before. In August, The Washington Post published complete transcripts of conversations Trump had had with the prime minister of Australia and the president of Mexico. These leaks were “unprecedented, shocking, and dangerous,” as David Frum wrote for The Atlantic’s website. “No leader will again speak candidly on the phone to Washington, D.C.—at least for the duration of this presidency, and perhaps for longer.”

The most-harmful leaks have been of information collected in the course of surveillance of Russian officials. The first, in February 2017, concerned a December 2016 court-approved National Security Agency wiretap of a phone conversation between the Russian ambassador to the United States, Sergey Kislyak, and the incoming national-security adviser, Michael Flynn, that included a discussion of U.S. sanctions against Russia. (This was the leak that exposed Flynn’s lies and led to his resignation.) Other leaks by current and former intelligence officials have involved intercepts of Russian government officials discussing “derogatory” information about Trump and his campaign staff; of other Russian officials bragging that they could use their relationship with Flynn to influence Trump; of Kislyak claiming to have discussed campaign-related issues with then-Senator Sessions; and of Kislyak reporting to Moscow that Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, wanted to establish a secure communication channel.

The leaks of Russia intercepts may seem commonplace, but they violated taboos that had been respected even in the wild west of unlawful government disclosures. The first was a taboo against publishing the contents of foreign intelligence intercepts, especially ones involving a foe like Russia. It is hard to recall another set of leaks that exposed so much specific information about intelligence intercepts of a major adversary. This form of leaking risks compromising a communication channel and thus telling an adversary how to avoid detection in the future. The Russia leaks may well have burned large investments in electronic surveillance and constricted future U.S. surveillance opportunities.

The Russia leaks also breached a taboo against revealing information about U.S. citizens “incidentally collected” during surveillance of a foreign agent. The government acquires this type of data without suspicion that the citizen has engaged in wrongdoing, and thus without constitutional privacy protections. For this reason, it is typically treated with special care inside the government.

The gush of this information to the public was an astounding breach of privacy. 
It also violated yet another taboo—against using intelligence information for political ends. In the bad old days when J. Edgar Hoover ran the FBI, the bureau regularly leaked (or threatened to leak) secretly collected intelligence information about U.S. citizens, including government officials, in order to influence democratic politics. The intelligence reforms of the mid-1970s and beyond eliminated this pernicious practice for four decades and were believed to have created a culture that would prevent its recurrence. The anti-Trump leaks mark a dangerous throwback.

These norm violations are an immune response to Trump’s attacks on the intelligence community. But the toll from the leaks has been significant and may outlast the Trump presidency. Although a future president likely won’t find advantage in following Trump’s example, intelligence officials who have discovered the political power of leaking secretly collected information about Americans may well continue the practice. A world without norms to prevent the disclosure of sensitive information about U.S. citizens is not just a world in which Michael Flynn is revealed as a liar and removed from office. It is also a world in which intelligence bureaucrats repeat the trick for very different political ends that they deem worthy but that might not be.

Trump has not attacked the U.S. military while president, but he has taken a wrecking ball to customs of civilian–military relations. More than other presidents, he has staffed senior positions with current and former military brass. He has attempted to leverage popular admiration for the military into backing for his policies, such as by signing his initial executive order on immigration in the Pentagon’s Hall of Heroes and by giving political speeches before military audiences. He has even urged soldiers to contact members of Congress in support of his policies, contrary to regulations and customs forbidding them from lobbying. These practices threaten to politicize the military and leave “tattered shreds of the military’s ethics and values in their wake,” Phillip Carter of the Center for a New American Security wrote for Slate. Even if future presidents don’t repeat Trump’s practices, he will have done great harm if attitudes change within the military toward the chain of command and the appropriateness of service members’ engagement in politics.

Trump is also politicizing the judiciary. He has accused the judges reviewing his January immigration order, and a replacement order he signed in March, of trampling presidential prerogatives and endangering national security. But the judges reviewing Trump’s orders engaged in norm-breaking behavior of their own.

Courts have always been political, in the sense that laws and precedents don’t always yield obvious answers and, especially in high-stakes cases, judges’ personal views can matter. But it is important to judicial legitimacy that judges appear neutral and detached, that they appear to follow precedent, and that they appear to pay presidents appropriate deference and respect. This is especially true in cases touching on immigration and national security, where the executive branch’s authority is at its height.
In the Trump immigration cases, the judges sometimes abandoned these norms. They were in a tough spot because they were reviewing extraordinary executive-branch actions in a highly charged context.

But they reacted with hasty and, in some ways, sloppy judicial opinions. They issued broad injunctions unsupported by the underlying legal analysis. They seemed to extend constitutional protections to noncitizens who lacked any connection to the United States. And they failed to give the government’s national-security determinations proper deference.

The judges had many avenues to rule against Trump on many issues, especially with regard to the first order. They had plenty of reasons to be angry or defensive because of his tweeted attacks. But they neglected principles of restraint, prudence, and precedent to rule against him across the board based on what seemed to many a tacit determination that the just-elected president lacked legitimacy on immigration issues.

If judges were to continue such behavior for four or eight years, judicial norms and trust in the judiciary might take a serious hit. But there are reasons to think this won’t happen. Federal judges sit in a hierarchical system with the Supreme Court at the top. The highest court in the land doesn’t just overrule lower-court legal decisions; it can also model proper judicial behavior. This is what the Supreme Court did in its opinion in late June announcing that it would review the lower-court decisions about Trump’s second immigration order. The nine justices rarely agree on any issue of importance. But they unanimously ruled that, at a minimum, the lower-court injunctions were too broad and had failed to take his national-security prerogatives seriously enough.

The Court did not indicate how it will ultimately rule. But its sober, respectful, low-temperature opinion sent a strong signal about the importance of judicial detachment. For this reason, the judiciary has a fighting chance to return to normal patterns.

The same cannot be said of the norms that govern the news media. Journalistic practices, of course, were already evolving as a result of social media, the decentralization of news production, and changing financial models. But Trump has had a distinct effect.

The vast majority of elite journalists have a progressive outlook, which influences what gets covered, and how, in ways that many Americans, especially outside of big cities, find deeply biased. The press was among the least trusted of American institutions long before Trump assaulted it as the “enemy of the people” and the “lowest form of life.” Members of the media viewed these attacks, correctly, as an effort by Trump to discredit, marginalize, and even dehumanize them. And they were shocked when the strategy worked. “The country was really angry at the elite, and that included us, and I don’t think we quite had our finger on it,” Dean Baquet, the executive editor of The New York Times, said with exquisite understatement during a roundtable discussion with his reporters in June.

After the election, news organizations devoted more resources than ever to White House coverage, and they have produced exceptional in-depth reporting that has been integral to the constitutional checks on the presidency. Reporting on a flagrantly norm-breaking president produces a novel conundrum, however. A Harvard study found that Trump’s mainstream coverage during the first 100 days of his presidency “set a new standard for negativity”: four negative stories for each positive one and no single major topic on which he received more positive than negative coverage. Many Trump critics insist that his behavior justifies this level of adverse scrutiny. But even if that is true, the overall effect can make the press seem heavily biased and out to get Trump. “Every time he lies you have to point out it’s a lie, and there’s a part of this country that hears that as an attack,” the New York Times media columnist, Jim Rutenberg, said at the June roundtable. “That is a serious problem.” Trump’s extremes require the mainstream press to choose between appearing oppositional or, if it tones things down, “normalizing” his presidency. Either way, Trump in some sense wins.

The appearance problem that Rutenberg described is real. But it is also true that many reporters covering Trump have overreacted and exaggerated and interjected opinion into their stories more than usual. In doing so, they have veered from the norm of “independence” and instead are “binge-drinking the anti-Trump Kool-Aid,” as the venerable Bob Woodward argued in May. Such excesses lend credence to Trump’s attacks on “the fake-news media.”

So, too, do other changes in the norms of covering the president. Many journalists let their hair down on Twitter with opinionated anti-Trump barbs that reveal predispositions and shape the way readers view their reporting. And news outlets have at times seemed to cast themselves as part of the resistance to Trump, and seen their revenues soar. (It cannot be an accident that The Washington Post’s “Democracy dies in darkness” motto, though used in-house for years, was rolled out publicly in February.) Just as Trump drew energy and numbers on the campaign trail from the excessive coverage of his norm-busting behavior, the news media seem to draw energy and numbers from their own norm-busting behavior.

But while Trumpism has been good for the media business, it has not been good for overall media credibility. An Emerson College poll in February indicated that more voters found Trump to be truthful than the news media, and a Suffolk University/USA Today poll in June concluded that the historically unpopular president still had a slightly higher favorability rating than the media. Trump is not just discrediting the mainstream news, but quickening changes in right-wing media as well. Fox News Channel always leaned right, but in the past year several of its programs have become open propaganda arms for Trump. And sharply partisan outlets like Breitbart News and The Daily Caller have grown in influence among conservatives.

“Does it ever go back?” chief White House correspondent Peter Baker asked his Times colleagues. “Have we changed something in a fundamental way in terms of the relationship between the person in the White House, people in power, and the media?” The answers to those questions are no and yes, respectively. The media have every incentive to continue on their current trajectories. And because Trump’s extreme media-bashing is perceived to have served him relatively well, other Republicans will likely perpetuate his strategy. Many on the right increasingly agree with a point Ron Unz, the influential former publisher of The American Conservative, made in a memo last year. “The media is the crucial force empowering the opposition and should be regarded as a primary target of any political strategy,” Unz wrote. “Discrediting the media anywhere weakens it everywhere.”

Citizens’ trust in American institutions has been in decline for a while. That’s one reason Donald Trump was elected. His assault on those institutions, and the defiant reactions to his assault, will further diminish that trust and make it yet harder to resolve social and political disputes. The breakdown in institutions mirrors the breakdown in social cohesion among citizens that was also a major cause of Trumpism, and that Trumpism has churned further. This is perhaps the worst news of all for our democracy. As Cass Sunstein lamented in his book #Republic, “Members of a democratic public will not do well if they are unable to appreciate the views of their fellow citizens, if they believe ‘fake news,’ or if they see one another as enemies or adversaries in some kind of war.”

To that depressing conclusion I will add another. The relatively hopeful parts of the analysis offered here—that the Constitution has prevented presidential law-breaking, and that most of Trump’s norm violations will not persist—rest on a pair of assumptions that have so far prevailed but that might not hold in the future. The first is that Trump’s presidency, which has accomplished little, will continue to fail and that he will not be reelected. But it is conceivable that he will turn things around—for example, by pulling off tax and infrastructure reform and putting Kim Jong Un in a box—and win the 2020 election, perhaps in a three-way race. If Trump succeeds and makes it to a second term, his norm-breaking will be seen to serve the presidency more than it does today. If that happens, the office will be forever changed, and not for the better.

The second assumption is that the country is fundamentally stable. In Trump’s first seven months in office, the stock market boomed and the United States faced no full-blown national-security crisis. But what if the economy collapses, or the country faces a major domestic terrorist attack or even nuclear war? What if Mueller finds evidence that Trump colluded with the Russians—and Trump fires not just Mueller but also scores of others in the Justice Department, and pardons himself and everyone else involved? These are not crazy possibilities. The Constitution has held thus far and might continue to do so under more-extreme circumstances. But it also might not.

Thursday

Donald Trump Didn’t Want to Be President

One year ago: the plan to lose, and the administration’s shocked first days.
Illustrations by
Election Night: It “looked as if he had seen a ghost.”
  New York Media

On the afternoon of November 8, 2016, Kellyanne Conway settled into her glass office at Trump Tower. Right up until the last weeks of the race, the campaign headquarters had remained a listless place. All that seemed to distinguish it from a corporate back office were a few posters with right-wing slogans.

Conway, the campaign’s manager, was in a remarkably buoyant mood, considering she was about to experience a resounding, if not cataclysmic, defeat. Donald Trump would lose the election — of this she was sure — but he would quite possibly hold the defeat to under six points. That was a substantial victory. As for the looming defeat itself, she shrugged it off: It was Reince Priebus’s fault, not hers.

She had spent a good part of the day calling friends and allies in the political world and blaming Priebus, the chairman of the Republican National Committee. Now she briefed some of the television producers and anchors whom she had been carefully courting since joining the Trump campaign — and with whom she had been actively interviewing in the last few weeks, hoping to land a permanent on-air job after the election.

Even though the numbers in a few key states had appeared to be changing to Trump’s advantage, neither Conway nor Trump himself nor his son-in-law, Jared Kushner — the effective head of the campaign — ­wavered in their certainty: Their unexpected adventure would soon be over. Not only would Trump not be president, almost everyone in the campaign agreed, he should probably not be. Conveniently, the former conviction meant nobody had to deal with the latter issue.

As the campaign came to an end, Trump himself was sanguine. His ultimate goal, after all, had never been to win. “I can be the most famous man in the world,” he had told his aide Sam Nunberg at the outset of the race. His longtime friend Roger Ailes, the former head of Fox News, liked to say that if you want a career in television, first run for president. Now Trump, encouraged by Ailes, was floating rumors about a Trump network. It was a great future. He would come out of this campaign, Trump assured Ailes, with a far more powerful brand and untold opportunities.

“This is bigger than I ever dreamed of,” he told Ailes a week before the election. “I don’t think about losing, because it isn’t losing. We’ve totally won.”

From the start, the leitmotif for Trump about his own campaign was how crappy it was, and how everybody involved in it was a loser. In August, when he was trailing Hillary Clinton by more than 12 points, he couldn’t conjure even a far-fetched scenario for achieving an electoral victory. He was baffled when the right-wing billionaire Robert Mercer, a Ted Cruz backer whom Trump barely knew, offered him an infusion of $5 million. When Mercer and his daughter Rebekah presented their plan to take over the campaign and install their lieutenants, Steve Bannon and Conway, Trump didn’t resist. He only expressed vast incomprehension about why anyone would want to do that. “This thing,” he told the Mercers, “is so fucked up.”

Bannon, who became chief executive of Trump’s team in mid-August, called it “the broke-dick campaign.” Almost immediately, he saw that it was hampered by an even deeper structural flaw: The candidate who billed himself as a billionaire — ten times over — refused to invest his own money in it. Bannon told Kushner that, after the first debate in September, they would need another $50 million to cover them until Election Day.

“No way we’ll get 50 million unless we can guarantee him victory,” said a clear-eyed Kushner.
“Twenty-five million?” prodded Bannon.

“If we can say victory is more than likely.”

In the end, the best Trump would do is to loan the campaign $10 million, provided he got it back as soon as they could raise other money. Steve Mnuchin, the campaign’s finance chairman, came to collect the loan with the wire instructions ready to go so Trump couldn’t conveniently forget to send the money.

Most presidential candidates spend their entire careers, if not their lives from adolescence, preparing for the role. They rise up the ladder of elected offices, perfect a public face, and prepare themselves to win and to govern. The Trump calculation, quite a conscious one, was different. The candidate and his top lieutenants believed they could get all the benefits of almost becoming president without having to change their behavior or their worldview one whit. Almost everybody on the Trump team, in fact, came with the kind of messy conflicts bound to bite a president once he was in office. 

Michael Flynn, the retired general who served as Trump’s opening act at campaign rallies, had been told by his friends that it had not been a good idea to take $45,000 from the Russians for a speech. “Well, it would only be a problem if we won,” ­Flynn assured them.

Not only did Trump disregard the potential conflicts of his own business deals and real-estate holdings, he audaciously refused to release his tax returns. Why should he? Once he lost, Trump would be both insanely famous and a martyr to Crooked Hillary. His daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared would be international celebrities. Steve Bannon would become the de facto head of the tea-party movement. Kellyanne Conway would be a cable-news star. Melania Trump, who had been assured by her husband that he wouldn’t become president, could return to inconspicuously lunching. Losing would work out for everybody. Losing was winning.

Shortly after 8 p.m. on Election Night, when the unexpected trend — Trump might actually win — seemed confirmed, Don Jr. told a friend that his father, or DJT, as he calls him, looked as if he had seen a ghost. Melania was in tears — and not of joy.

There was, in the space of little more than an hour, in Steve Bannon’s not unamused observation, a befuddled Trump morphing into a disbelieving Trump and then into a horrified Trump. But still to come was the final transformation: Suddenly, Donald Trump became a man who believed that he deserved to be, and was wholly capable of being, the president of the United States.

From the moment of victory, the Trump administration became a looking-glass presidency: Every inverse assumption about how to assemble and run a White House was enacted and compounded, many times over. The decisions that Trump and his top advisers made in those first few months — from the slapdash transition to the disarray in the West Wing — set the stage for the chaos and dysfunction that have persisted throughout his first year in office. This was a real-life version of Mel Brooks’s The Producers, where the mistaken outcome trusted by everyone in Trump’s inner circle — that they would lose the election — wound up exposing them for who they really were.

On the Saturday after the election, Trump received a small group of well-­wishers in his triplex apartment in Trump Tower. Even his close friends were still shocked and bewildered, and there was a dazed quality to the gathering. But Trump himself was mostly looking at the clock. Rupert Murdoch, who had promised to pay a call on the president-elect, was running late. When some of the guests made a move to leave, an increasingly agitated Trump assured them that Rupert was on his way. 

“He’s one of the greats, the last of the greats,” Trump said. “You have to stay to see him.” Not grasping that he was now the most powerful man in the world, Trump was still trying mightily to curry favor with a media mogul who had long disdained him as a charlatan and fool.

Few people who knew Trump had illusions about him. That was his appeal: He was what he was. Twinkle in his eye, larceny in his soul. Everybody in his rich-guy social circle knew about his wide-ranging ignorance. Early in the campaign, Sam Nunberg was sent to explain the Constitution to the candidate. “I got as far as the Fourth Amendment,” Nunberg recalled, “before his finger is pulling down on his lip and his eyes are rolling back in his head.”

The day after the election, the bare-bones transition team that had been set up during the campaign hurriedly shifted from Washington to Trump Tower. The building — now the headquarters of a populist revolution —­ suddenly seemed like an alien spaceship on Fifth Avenue. But its otherworldly air helped obscure the fact that few in Trump’s inner circle, with their overnight responsibility for assembling a government, had any relevant experience.

Ailes, a veteran of the Nixon, Reagan, and Bush 41 administrations, tried to impress on Trump the need to create a White House structure that could serve and protect him. “You need a son of a bitch as your chief of staff,” he told Trump. “And you need a son of a bitch who knows Washington. You’ll want to be your own son of a bitch, but you don’t know Washington.” Ailes had a suggestion: John Boehner, who had stepped down as Speaker of the House only a year earlier.

“Who’s that?” asked Trump.

As much as the president himself, the chief of staff determines how the Executive branch — which employs 4 million people — will run. The job has been construed as deputy president, or even prime minister. But Trump had no interest in appointing a strong chief of staff with a deep knowledge of Washington. Among his early choices for the job was Kushner — a man with no political experience beyond his role as a calm and flattering body man to Trump during the campaign.

It was Ann Coulter who finally took the president-elect aside. “Nobody is apparently telling you this,” she told him. “But you can’t. You just can’t hire your children.”

Bowing to pressure, Trump floated the idea of giving the job to Steve Bannon, only to have the notion soundly ridiculed. Murdoch told Trump that Bannon would be a dangerous choice. Joe Scarborough, the former congressman and co-host of MSNBC’s Morning Joe, told the president-elect that “Washington will go up in flames” if Bannon became chief of staff.

So Trump turned to Reince Priebus, the RNC chairman, who had became the subject of intense lobbying by House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. If congressional leaders were going to have to deal with an alien like Donald Trump, then best they do it with the help of one of their own kind.

Jim Baker, chief of staff for both Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush and almost everybody’s model for managing the West Wing, advised Priebus not to take the job. Priebus had his own reservations: He had come out of his first long meeting with Trump thinking it had been a disconcertingly weird experience. Trump talked nonstop and constantly repeated himself.

“Here’s the deal,” a close Trump associate told Priebus. “In an hour meeting with him, you’re going to hear 54 minutes of stories, and they’re going to be the same stories over and over again. So you have to have one point to make, and you pepper it in whenever you can.”


But the Priebus appointment, announced in mid-November, put Bannon on a co-equal level to the new chief of staff. Even with the top job, Priebus would be a weak figure, in the traditional mold of most Trump lieutenants over the years. There would be one chief of staff in name — the unimportant one — and ­others like Bannon and Kushner, more important in practice, ensuring both chaos and Trump’s independence.

Priebus demonstrated no ability to keep Trump from talking to anyone who wanted his ear. The president-elect enjoyed being courted. On December 14, a high-level delegation from Silicon Valley came to Trump Tower to meet him. Later that afternoon, according to a source privy to details of the conversation, Trump called Rupert Murdoch, who asked him how the meeting had gone.

“Oh, great, just great,” said Trump. “These guys really need my help. Obama was not very favorable to them, too much regulation. This is really an opportunity for me to help them.”.

“Donald,” said Murdoch, “for eight years these guys had Obama in their pocket. They practically ran the administration. They don’t need your help.”

“Take this H-1B visa issue. They really need these H-1B visas.”

Murdoch suggested that taking a liberal approach to H-1B visas, which open America’s doors to select immigrants, might be hard to square with his promises to build a wall and close the borders. But Trump seemed unconcerned, assuring Murdoch, “We’ll figure it out.”

“What a fucking idiot,” said Murdoch, shrugging, as he got off the phone.

Steve Bannon, suddenly among the world’s most powerful men, was running late. It was the evening of January 3, 2017 — a little more than two weeks before Trump’s inauguration — and Bannon had promised to come to a small dinner arranged by mutual friends in a Greenwich Village townhouse to see Roger Ailes.

Snow was threatening, and for a while the dinner appeared doubtful. But the 76-year-old Ailes, who was as dumbfounded by his old friend Donald Trump’s victory as everyone else, understood that he was passing the right-wing torch to Bannon. Ailes’s Fox News, with its $1.5 billion in annual profits, had dominated Republican politics for two decades. Now Bannon’s Breit­bart News, with its mere $1.5 million in annual profits, was claiming that role. For 30 years, Ailes — until recently the single most powerful person in conservative ­politics — had humored and tolerated Trump, but in the end Bannon and Breitbart had elected him.

At 9:30, having extricated himself from Trump Tower, Bannon finally arrived at the dinner, three hours late. Wearing a disheveled blazer, his signature pairing of two shirts, and military fatigues, the unshaven, overweight 63-year-old immediately dived into an urgent download of information about the world he was about to take over.

“We’re going to flood the zone so we have every Cabinet member for the next seven days through their confirmation hearings,” he said of the business-and-military, 1950s-type Cabinet choices. “Tillerson is two days, Sessions is two days, Mattis is two days …”

Bannon veered from James “Mad Dog” ­Mattis — the retired four-star general whom Trump had nominated as secretary of Defense — to the looming appointment of Michael Flynn as national-security adviser. “He’s fine. He’s not Jim Mattis and he’s not John Kelly … but he’s fine. He just needs the right staff around him.” Still, Bannon averred: “When you take out all the Never Trump guys who signed all those letters and all the neocons who got us in all these wars … it’s not a deep bench.” Bannon said he’d tried to push John Bolton, the famously hawkish diplomat, for the job as national-security adviser. Bolton was an Ailes favorite, too.

“He’s a bomb thrower,” said Ailes. “And a strange little fucker. But you need him. Who else is good on Israel? Flynn is a little nutty on Iran. Tillerson just knows oil.”

“Bolton’s mustache is a problem,” snorted Bannon. “Trump doesn’t think he looks the part. You know Bolton is an acquired taste.”

“Well, he got in trouble because he got in a fight in a hotel one night and chased some woman.”
“If I told Trump that,” Bannon said slyly, “he might have the job.”

Bannon was curiously able to embrace Trump while at the same time suggesting he did not take him entirely seriously. Great numbers of people, he believed, were suddenly receptive to a new message — the world needs borders — and Trump had become the platform for that message.

“Does he get it?” asked Ailes suddenly, looking intently at Bannon. Did Trump get where history had put him?

Bannon took a sip of water. “He gets it,” he said, after hesitating for perhaps a beat too long. “Or he gets what he gets.”

Pivoting from Trump himself, Bannon plunged on with the Trump agenda. “Day one we’re moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem. Netanyahu’s all-in. Sheldon” — Adelson, the casino billionaire and far-right Israel defender — “is all-in. We know where we’re heading on this … Let Jordan take the West Bank, let Egypt take Gaza. Let them deal with it. Or sink trying.”

“Where’s Donald on this?” asked Ailes, the clear implication being that Bannon was far out ahead of his benefactor.

“He’s totally onboard.”

“I wouldn’t give Donald too much to think about,” said an amused Ailes.

Bannon snorted. “Too much, too little — doesn’t necessarily change things.”

“What has he gotten himself into with the Russians?” pressed Ailes.

“Mostly,” said Bannon, “he went to Russia and he thought he was going to meet Putin. But Putin couldn’t give a shit about him. So he’s kept trying.”

Again, as though setting the issue of Trump aside — merely a large and peculiar presence to both be thankful for and to have to abide — Bannon, in the role he had conceived for himself, the auteur of the Trump presidency, charged forward. The real enemy, he said, was China. China was the first front in a new Cold War.

“China’s everything. Nothing else matters. We don’t get China right, we don’t get anything right. This whole thing is very simple. China is where Nazi Germany was in 1929 to 1930. The Chinese, like the Germans, are the most rational people in the world, until they’re not. And they’re gonna flip like Germany in the ’30s. You’re going to have a hypernationalist state, and once that happens, you can’t put the genie back in the bottle.”

“Donald might not be Nixon in China,” said Ailes, deadpan.

Bannon smiled. “Bannon in China,” he said, with both remarkable grandiosity and wry self-deprecation.

“How’s the kid?” asked Ailes, referring to Kushner.

“He’s my partner,” said Bannon, his tone suggesting that if he felt otherwise, he was nevertheless determined to stay on message.

“He’s had a lot of lunches with Rupert,” said a dubious Ailes.

“In fact,” said Bannon, “I could use your help here.” He then spent several minutes trying to recruit Ailes to help kneecap Murdoch. Since his ouster from Fox over allegations of sexual harassment, Ailes had become only more bitter toward Murdoch. Now Murdoch was frequently jawboning the president-elect and encouraging him toward Establishment moderation. Bannon wanted Ailes to suggest to Trump, a man whose many neuroses included a horror of senility, that Murdoch might be losing it.


“I’ll call him,” said Ailes. “But Trump would jump through hoops for Rupert. Like for Putin. Sucks up and shits down. I just worry about who’s jerking whose chain.”

Trump did not enjoy his own inauguration. He was angry that A-level stars had snubbed the event, disgruntled with the accommodations at Blair House, and visibly fighting with his wife, who seemed on the verge of tears. Throughout the day, he wore what some around him had taken to calling his golf face: angry and pissed off, shoulders hunched, arms swinging, brow furled, lips pursed.

The first senior staffer to enter the White House that day was Bannon. On the inauguration march, he had grabbed 32-year-old Katie Walsh, the newly appointed deputy chief of staff, and together they had peeled off to inspect the now-vacant West Wing. The carpet had been shampooed, but little else had changed. It was a warren of tiny offices in need of paint, the décor something like an admissions office at a public university. Bannon claimed the non­descript office across from the much grander chief of staff’s suite and immediately requisitioned the whiteboards on which he intended to chart the first 100 days of the Trump administration. He also began moving furniture out. The point was to leave no room for anyone to sit. Limit discussion. Limit debate. This was war.

Those who had worked on the campaign noticed the sudden change. Within the first week, Bannon seemed to have put away the camaraderie of Trump Tower and become far more remote, if not unreachable. “What’s up with Steve?” Kushner began to ask. “I don’t understand. We were so close.” Now that Trump had been elected, Bannon was already focused on his next goal: capturing the soul of the Trump White House.

He began by going after his enemies. Few fueled his rancor toward the standard-issue Republican world as much as Rupert ­Murdoch — not least because Murdoch had Trump’s ear. It was one of the key elements of Bannon’s understanding of Trump: The last person the president spoke to ended up with enormous influence. Trump would brag that Murdoch was always calling him; Murdoch, for his part, would complain that he couldn’t get Trump off the phone.

“He doesn’t know anything about American politics, and has no feel for the American people,” Bannon told Trump, always eager to point out that Murdoch wasn’t an American. Yet in one regard, Murdoch’s message was useful to Bannon. Having known every president since Harry ­Truman — as Murdoch took frequent opportunities to point out — the media mogul warned Trump that a president has only six months, max, to set his agenda and make an impact. After that, it was just putting out fires and battling the opposition.

This was the message whose urgency Bannon had been trying to impress on an often distracted Trump, who was already trying to limit his hours in the office and keep to his normal golf habits. Bannon’s strategic view of government was shock and awe. In his head, he carried a set of decisive actions that would not just mark the new administration’s opening days but make it clear that nothing ever again would be the same. He had quietly assembled a list of more than 200 executive orders to issue in the first 100 days. The very first EO, in his view, had to be a crackdown on immigration. After all, it was one of Trump’s core campaign promises. Plus, Bannon knew, it was an issue that made liberals batshit mad.

Bannon could push through his agenda for a simple reason: because nobody in the administration really had a job. Priebus, as chief of staff, had to organize meetings, hire staff, and oversee the individual offices in the Executive-branch departments. But Bannon, Kushner, and Ivanka Trump had no specific responsibilities — they did what they wanted. And for Bannon, the will to get big things done was how big things got done. “Chaos was Steve’s strategy,” said Walsh.

On Friday, January 27 — only his eighth day in office — Trump signed an executive order issuing a sweeping exclusion of many Muslims from the United States. In his mania to seize the day, with almost no one in the federal government having seen it or even been aware of it, Bannon had succeeded in pushing through an executive order that overhauled U.S. immigration policy while bypassing the very agencies and personnel responsible for enforcing it.

The result was an emotional outpouring of horror and indignation from liberal media, terror in immigrant communities, tumultuous protests at major airports, confusion throughout the government, and, in the White House, an inundation of opprobrium from friends and family. What have you done? You have to undo this! You’re finished before you even start! But Bannon was satisfied. He could not have hoped to draw a more vivid line between Trump’s America and that of liberals. Almost the entire White House staff demanded to know: Why did we do this on a Friday, when it would hit the airports hardest and bring out the most protesters?

“Errr … that’s why,” said Bannon. “So the snowflakes would show up at the airports and riot.” That was the way to crush the liberals: Make them crazy and drag them to the left.

On the Sunday after the immigration order was issued, Joe Scarborough and his Morning Joe co-host, Mika Brzezinski, arrived for lunch at the White House. Trump proudly showed them into the Oval Office. “So how do you think the first week has gone?” he asked the couple, in a buoyant mood, seeking flattery. When Scarborough ventured his opinion that the immigration order might have been handled better, Trump turned defensive and derisive, plunging into a long monologue about how well things had gone. “I could have invited Hannity!” he told Scarborough.

After Jared and Ivanka joined them for lunch, Trump continued to cast for positive impressions of his first week. Scarborough praised the president for having invited leaders of the steel unions to the White House. At which point Jared interjected that reaching out to unions, a Democratic constituency, was Bannon’s doing, that this was “the Bannon way.”

“Bannon?” said the president, jumping on his son-in-law. “That wasn’t Bannon’s idea. That was my idea. It’s the Trump way, not the Bannon way.”

Kushner, going concave, retreated from the discussion.

Trump, changing the topic, said to Scarborough and Brzezinski, “So what about you guys? What’s going on?” He was referencing their not-so-secret secret relationship. The couple said it was still complicated, but good.

“You guys should just get married,” prodded Trump.

“I can marry you! I’m an internet Unitarian minister,” Kushner, otherwise an Orthodox Jew, said suddenly.

“What?” said the president. “What are you talking about? Why would they want you to marry them when I could marry them? When they could be married by the president! At Mar-a-Lago!”

The First Children couple were having to navigate Trump’s volatile nature just like everyone else in the White House. And they were willing to do it for the same reason as everyone else — in the hope that Trump’s unexpected victory would catapult them into a heretofore unimagined big time. 

Balancing risk against reward, both Jared and Ivanka decided to accept roles in the West Wing over the advice of almost everyone they knew. It was a joint decision by the couple, and, in some sense, a joint job. Between themselves, the two had made an earnest deal: If sometime in the future the opportunity arose, she’d be the one to run for president. The first woman president, Ivanka entertained, would not be Hillary Clinton; it would be Ivanka Trump.

Bannon, who had coined the term “Jarvanka” that was now in ever greater use in the White House, was horrified when the couple’s deal was reported to him. “They didn’t say that?” he said. “Stop. Oh, come on. They didn’t actually say that? Please don’t tell me that. Oh my God.”

The truth was, Ivanka and Jared were as much the chief of staff as Priebus or Bannon, all of them reporting directly to the president. The couple had opted for formal jobs in the West Wing, in part because they knew that influencing Trump required you to be all-in. From phone call to phone call — and his day, beyond organized meetings, was almost entirely phone calls — you could lose him. He could not really converse, not in the sense of sharing information, or of a balanced back-and-forth conversation. He neither particularly listened to what was said to him nor particularly considered what he said in response. He demanded you pay him attention, then decided you were weak for groveling. In a sense, he was like an instinctive, pampered, and hugely successful actor. Everybody was either a lackey who did his bidding or a high-ranking film functionary trying to coax out his performance — without making him angry or petulant.

Ivanka maintained a relationship with her father that was in no way conventional. She was a helper not just in his business dealings, but in his marital realignments. If it wasn’t pure opportunism, it was certainly transactional. For Ivanka, it was all business — building the Trump brand, the presidential campaign, and now the White House. She treated her father with a degree of detachment, even irony, going so far as to make fun of his comb-over to others. She often described the mechanics behind it to friends: an absolutely clean pate — a contained island after scalp-reduction ­surgery — surrounded by a furry circle of hair around the sides and front, from which all ends are drawn up to meet in the center and then swept back and secured by a stiffening spray. The color, she would point out to comical effect, was from a product called Just for Men — the longer it was left on, the darker it got. Impatience resulted in Trump’s orange-blond hair color.

Kushner, for his part, had little to no success at trying to restrain his father-in-law. Ever since the transition, Jared had been negotiating to arrange a meeting at the White House with Enrique Peña Nieto, the Mexican president whom Trump had threatened and insulted throughout the campaign. On the Wednesday after the inauguration, a high-level Mexican delegation — the first visit by any foreign leaders to the Trump White House — met with Kushner and Reince Priebus. That afternoon, Kushner triumphantly told his father-in-law that Peña Nieto had signed on to a White House meeting and planning for the visit could go forward.

The next day, on Twitter, Trump blasted Mexico for stealing American jobs. “If Mexico is unwilling to pay for the badly needed wall,” the president declared, “then it would be better to cancel the upcoming meeting.” At which point Peña Nieto did just that, leaving Kushner’s negotiation and statecraft as so much scrap on the floor.

Nothing contributed to the chaos and dysfunction of the White House as much as Trump’s own behavior. The big deal of being president was just not apparent to him. Most victorious candidates, arriving in the White House from ordinary political life, could not help but be reminded of their transformed circumstances by their sudden elevation to a mansion with palacelike servants and security, a plane at constant readiness, and downstairs a retinue of courtiers and advisers. But this wasn’t that different from Trump’s former life in Trump Tower, which was actually more commodious and to his taste than the White House.

Trump, in fact, found the White House to be vexing and even a little scary. He retreated to his own bedroom — the first time since the Kennedy White House that a presidential couple had maintained separate rooms. In the first days, he ordered two television screens in addition to the one already there, and a lock on the door, precipitating a brief standoff with the Secret Service, who insisted they have access to the room. He ­reprimanded the housekeeping staff for picking up his shirt from the floor: “If my shirt is on the floor, it’s because I want it on the floor.” Then he imposed a set of new rules: Nobody touch anything, especially not his toothbrush. (He had a longtime fear of being poisoned, one reason why he liked to eat at McDonald’s — nobody knew he was coming and the food was safely premade.) Also, he would let housekeeping know when he wanted his sheets done, and he would strip his own bed.

If he was not having his 6:30 dinner with Steve Bannon, then, more to his liking, he was in bed by that time with a cheeseburger, watching his three screens and making phone calls — the phone was his true contact point with the world — to a small group of friends, who charted his rising and falling levels of agitation through the evening and then compared notes with one another.

As details of Trump’s personal life leaked out, he became obsessed with identifying the leaker. The source of all the gossip, however, may well have been Trump himself. In his calls throughout the day and at night from his bed, he often spoke to people who had no reason to keep his confidences. He was a river of grievances, which recipients of his calls promptly spread to the ever-attentive media.

On February 6, in one of his seething, self-pitying, and unsolicited phone calls to a casual acquaintance, Trump detailed his bent-out-of-shape feelings about the relentless contempt of the media and the disloyalty of his staff. The initial subject of his ire was the New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman, whom he called “a nut job.” Gail Collins, who had written a Times column unfavorably comparing Trump to Vice-President Mike Pence, was “a moron.” Then, continuing under the rubric of media he hated, he veered to CNN and the deep disloyalty of its chief, Jeff Zucker.

Zucker, who as the head of entertainment at NBC had commissioned The Apprentice, had been “made by Trump,” Trump said of himself in the third person. He had “personally” gotten Zucker his job at CNN. “Yes, yes, I did,” said the president, launching into a favorite story about how he had once talked Zucker up at a dinner with a high-ranking executive from CNN’s parent company. “I probably shouldn’t have, because Zucker is not that smart,” Trump lamented, “but I like to show I can do that sort of thing.” Then Zucker had returned the favor by airing the “unbelievably disgusting” story about the Russian “dossier” and the “golden shower” — the practice CNN had accused him of being party to in a Moscow hotel suite with assorted prostitutes.

Having dispensed with Zucker, the president of the United States went on to speculate on what was involved with a golden shower. And how this was all just part of a media campaign that would never succeed in driving him from the White House. Because they were sore losers and hated him for winning, they spread total lies, 100 percent made-up things, totally untrue, for instance, the cover that week of Time magazine — which, Trump reminded his listener, he had been on more than anyone in ­history — that showed Steve Bannon, a good guy, saying he was the real president. “How much influence do you think Steve Bannon has over me?” Trump demanded. He repeated the question, then repeated the answer: “Zero! Zero!” And that went for his son-in-law, too, who had a lot to learn.

The media was not only hurting him, he said — he was not looking for any agreement or even any response — but hurting his negotiating capabilities, which hurt the nation. And that went for Saturday Night Live, which might think it was very funny but was actually hurting everybody in the country. And while he understood that SNL was there to be mean to him, they were being very, very mean. It was “fake comedy.” He had reviewed the treatment of all other presidents in the media, and there was nothing like this ever, even of Nixon, who was treated very unfairly. “Kellyanne, who is very fair, has this all documented. You can look at it.”

The point is, he said, that that very day, he had saved $700 million a year in jobs that were going to Mexico, but the media was talking about him wandering around the White House in his bathrobe, which “I don’t have because I’ve never worn a bathrobe. And would never wear one, because I’m not that kind of guy.” And what the media was doing was undermining this very dignified house, and “dignity is so important.” But Murdoch, “who had never called me, never once,” was now calling all the time. So that should tell people something.

The call went on for 26 minutes.

Without a strong chief of staff at the White House, there was no real up-and-down structure in the administration — merely a figure at the top and everyone else scrambling for his attention. It wasn’t task-based so much as response-oriented — whatever captured the boss’s attention focused everybody’s attention. Priebus and Bannon and Kushner were all fighting to be the power behind the Trump throne. And in these crosshairs was Katie Walsh, the deputy chief of staff.

Walsh, who came to the White House from the RNC, represented a certain Republican ideal: clean, brisk, orderly, efficient. A righteous bureaucrat with a permanently grim expression, she was a fine example of the many political professionals in whom competence and organizational skills transcend ideology. To Walsh, it became clear almost immediately that “the three gentlemen running things,” as she came to characterize them, had each found his own way to appeal to the president. Bannon offered a rousing fuck-you show of force; Priebus offered flattery from the congressional leadership; Kushner offered the approval of blue-chip businessmen. Each appeal was exactly what Trump wanted from the presidency, and he didn’t understand why he couldn’t have them all. He wanted to break things, he wanted Congress to give him bills to sign, and he wanted the love and respect of New York machers and socialites.

As soon as the campaign team had stepped into the White House, Walsh saw, it had gone from managing Trump to the expectation of being managed by him. Yet the president, while proposing the most radical departure from governing and policy norms in several generations, had few specific ideas about how to turn his themes and vitriol into policy. And making suggestions to him was deeply complicated. Here, arguably, was the central issue of the Trump presidency, informing every aspect of Trumpian policy and leadership: He didn’t process information in any conventional sense. He didn’t read. He didn’t really even skim. Some believed that for all practical purposes he was no more than semi-­literate. He trusted his own expertise ­— no matter how paltry or irrelevant — more than anyone else’s. He was often confident, but he was just as often paralyzed, less a savant than a figure of sputtering and dangerous insecurities, whose instinctive response was to lash out and behave as if his gut, however confused, was in fact in some clear and forceful way telling him what to do. It was, said Walsh, “like trying to figure out what a child wants.”

By the end of the second week following the immigration EO, the three advisers were in open conflict with one another. For Walsh, it was a daily process of managing an impossible task: Almost as soon as she received direction from one of the three men, it would be countermanded by one or another of them.

“I take a conversation at face value and move forward with it,” she said. “I put what was decided on the schedule and bring in comms and build a press plan around it … And then Jared says, ‘Why did you do that?’ And I say, ‘Because we had a meeting three days ago with you and Reince and Steve where you agreed to do this.’ And he says, ‘But that didn’t mean I wanted it on the schedule …’ It almost doesn’t matter what anyone says: Jared will agree, and then it will get sabotaged, and then Jared goes to the president and says, see, that was Reince’s idea or Steve’s idea.”

If Bannon, Priebus, and Kushner were now fighting a daily war with one another, it was exacerbated by the running disinformation campaign about them that was being prosecuted by the president himself. When he got on the phone after dinner, he’d speculate on the flaws and weaknesses of each member of his staff. Bannon was disloyal (not to mention he always looks like shit). Priebus was weak (not to mention he was short — a midget). Kushner was a suck-up. Sean Spicer was stupid (and looks terrible too). Conway was a crybaby. Jared and Ivanka should never have come to Washington.

During that first month, Walsh’s disbelief and even fear about what was happening in the White House moved her to think about quitting. Every day after that became a countdown toward the moment she knew she wouldn’t be able to take it anymore. To Walsh, the proud political pro, the chaos, the rivalries, and the president’s own lack of focus were simply incomprehensible. In early March, not long before she left, she confronted Kushner with a simple request. “Just give me the three things the president wants to focus on,” she demanded. “What are the three priorities of this White House?”

It was the most basic question imaginable — one that any qualified presidential candidate would have answered long before he took up residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Six weeks into Trump’s presidency, Kushner was wholly without an answer.

“Yes,” he said to Walsh. “We should probably have that conversation.”