The United States has had some turbulent and scandal-plagued Presidencies during its two-hundred-and-forty-one-year history—those of Richard Nixon, Warren Harding, and Ulysses S. Grant come to mind—yet there has never been one like Donald Trump’s. On Monday morning, I sat down to write a post about the swearing-in of John Kelly as the new White House chief of staff, and the beginning of Act II of Trump’s Presidency. By the time I had finished writing, not one but two news cycles had turned. In the afternoon, news broke that Anthony Scaramucci, the New York financier who was named Trump’s director of communications just a week and a half ago, had been fired. And on Monday night, the Washington Post revealed that President Trump had dictated a misleading statement that was given to the press about his son Donald Trump, Jr.,’s infamous meeting, last June, with a Russian lawyer.
In this Administration, the scoops and shockers and bloopers come so fast that it is hard to keep up, let alone figure out what is ephemeral and what really matters. But at the risk of the next news cycle making me look silly, here are three points to remember about how we got here and where we are going.
First, conflict and chaos are chronic conditions for this White House. Kelly, a former four-star Marine general, may be an effective manager, but he is taking on a virtually impossible task. Within hours of being sworn in, Kelly got rid of Scaramucci, demonstrating that he intends to run a more disciplined West Wing—and that, for now, Trump has acceded to this wish. But for how long? Throughout his career, Trump has deliberately stirred conflict among his underlings, chafed at efforts to rein him in, and reserved the right to act in arbitrary and contradictory ways. The last military man who tried to impose some order on the chaos, H. R. McMaster, the national-security adviser, has been rewarded with a series of leaks about how Trump finds him annoying and is thinking of getting rid of him.
Second, the Russia story will not go away. For weeks now, it has been clear that Trump would prefer to decommission Robert Mueller, the special counsel, and shut down his investigation. At one point it seemed possible that Trump might try to force out Jeff Sessions, the Attorney General, and then, during the August congressional recess, appoint a successor who would agree to fire Mueller. But Sessions has made clear that he isn’t resigning. And some Republicans in Congress—most notably Chuck Grassley, the head of the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee—have made clear that they won’t go along with such a blatantly self-dealing maneuver.
Third, and most important, Trump remains a serious threat to American democracy. As I wrote a few weeks after the election: “The big unknown isn’t what Trump will do: his pattern of behavior is clear. It is whether the American political system will be able to deal with the unprecedented challenge his election presents, and rein him in.” So far, the system—or parts of it—has risen to the Trump challenge. The courts, the permanent bureaucracy (Steve Bannon’s “deep state”), the media, and the American citizenry have responded in commendable fashion, resisting the encroachments of an arbitrary and unhinged President. But the threat of democratic erosion persists, as made clear by Trump’s recent campaign against Sessions, his summary announcement on Twitter that transgender people will no longer be able to serve in the U.S. armed forces, and the speech that he delivered last week in which he encouraged cops to rough up gang members they have arrested.
Engaging in demagoguery, targeting minorities, acting outside the normal policy process, and seeking to exert personal control over law-enforcement agencies: it should barely need saying that these are the tactics of a would-be authoritarian. But after six months of Trump as President, a kind of familiarity has set in, and the warnings perhaps do need restating. As the net of the Russia scandal tightens around Trump, there is every reason to believe that his behavior will get even more erratic and dangerous.
In the coming weeks and months, there is no knowing what he’ll do. He may decide to call the Republicans’ bluff, fire Sessions, and nominate a new Attorney General. Even if he doesn’t go that far, he will certainly engage in all sorts of diversionary tactics and step up his attacks on the people he perceives as his enemies, especially members of the press and people inside the government that he suspects of leaking to them. (The embattled Sessions is reportedly about to announce a new Justice Department effort to investigate and stamp out leaks.)
If Kelly and the rest of Trump’s staff can’t restrain him—and it seems highly unlikely that they will be able to—the onus will eventually fall on Republicans in Congress, who, until now, have largely acted as the President’s cheerleaders and enablers, but who ultimately hold the power to get rid of him. On the face of things, there isn’t any reason to suppose that Republicans will grow backbones anytime soon. Trump is still following their conservative agenda, supporting their efforts to repeal Obamacare and cut taxes for the wealthy. Even if this weren’t the case, the thought of confronting Trump’s angry supporters in primary elections is enough to keep most G.O.P. congressmen and senators in line.
But at least some members of the President’s party have started to lay down what could be interpreted as red lines. Grassley indicated that if Trump did get rid of Sessions, he wouldn’t schedule a nomination hearing for a new Attorney General until at least the start of next year. Senator Lindsey Graham, of South Carolina, went further than Grassley, saying, “Any effort to go after Mueller could be the beginning of the end of the Trump presidency unless Mueller did something wrong.” Graham also said that he will introduce a bill to prevent Trump from getting rid of the special counsel without a judicial review.
As the New York Post’s Michael Goodwin, a Trump supporter, commented over the weekend, the “president is trapped with no protection or escape from Mueller.” The spectre of a trapped Trump should be alarming to anyone who cares about preserving America’s reputation as a country of laws and democratic norms that apply to everyone, the person in the Oval Office included. As Act II of the Trump Presidency begins, we should be prepared for it to be even more disturbing and dramatic than Act I.