Donald Trump may not realize it, but he has adopted the strategy that was recommended to Pavel Ivanovich Chichikov, the shady protagonist of Nikolai Gogol’s “Dead Souls,” whose lawyer (in the translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky) advises him that “as soon as you see that the case is reaching a denouement and can conveniently be resolved, make sure—not really to justify and defend yourself—no, but simply to confuse things by introducing new and even unrelated issues.” The aim is “to confuse, to confuse, nothing more . . . to introduce into the case some other, unrelated circumstances that will entangle other people in it, to make it complicated.”
That’s an excellent way to stay one or two steps ahead, although the approach is fallible—after all, you may run out of places to step. Trump keeps up the confusion. He did so recently by withdrawing from the Paris climate accord; he did so again by tweeting a shift in policy vis-à-vis Qatar, which further roiled the Middle East and undermined his own Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson. In the aftermath of a deadly attack on Londoners, Trump started a Twitter rant against Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, accusing him of saying something that he never said: “At least 7 dead and 48 wounded in terror attack and Mayor of London says there is ‘no reason to be alarmed!’ ” There is no way to prove that Khan’s religion—he is a Muslim—motivated that crude outburst, but it’s fair to ask if it would have happened if Boris Johnson were still the mayor. My colleague John Cassidy asked, “How low can he stoop?” The answer appears to be “Just wait and see.”
For Trump, though, nothing has been so effective as fabrication and barefaced lying. After all, Lie No. 1 may always be supplanted by Lie No. 2, and so on; without a boundary of truth, the number of possible lies, in theory, is limitless, and lying about lies may not even be detectable. Trump, by instinct or design, understands that. It empowers him to tweet nonsense, as he did during his first official trip abroad: “Just arrived in Italy for the G7. Trip has been very successful. We made and saved the USA many billions of dollars and millions of jobs.” The only true statement there was the fact of his arrival in Italy.
Last week, James Comey, the F.B.I. director who was fired by Trump, told the Senate Intelligence Committee that what the Administration had said to defame him, and the Bureau, “were lies, plain and simple.” He also recalled how Trump, in a private conversation, had “hoped” that he would shut down the investigation of Michael Flynn, the former national-security adviser—an issue that Trump, in the spirit of pure confusion, addressed in a recent news conference: “I didn’t say that,” he said. “I will tell you I didn’t say that. And there’d be nothing wrong if I did say that, according to everything I read today.” Comey’s testimony has been examined clause by clause, with particular emphasis on certain phrases, such as when, as Comey wrote in his prepared statement for the committee, the President apparently said, “I have been very loyal to you, very loyal; we had that thing you know.” Comey, who admitted being mildly nonplussed whenever he spoke to Trump—and never wanted to be alone with him—said, “I did not reply or ask him what he meant by ‘that thing.’ ”
“Why didn’t you ask him?” Senator John McCain asked during the committee hearing. “It didn’t seem to me to be important for the conversation we were having, to understand it,” Comey said. “I took it to be some—an effort to—to communicate to me this, that there is a relationship between us where I’ve been good to you, you should be good to me.” Trump, predictably, suggested that Comey was a liar and called him, with all the reckless power invested in his tweet machine, “very ‘cowardly!’ ”
Trump still has lots of supporters—people who still tell themselves that he’s “draining the swamp”—though fewer than he used to. Some of them are my neighbors, in upstate New York, but our conversations these days include long silences, an unspoken avoidance of argument. The President’s critics, meanwhile, are running out of ways to describe the harm that he’s doing to his country, and to his office. The best description of the Trump Effect has been attributed to one of his chief advisers, Kellyanne Conway, who may have had a revealing moment of truth-telling during the campaign. In a recent recollection from Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski, of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” Conway expressed something like loathing for candidate Trump. Brzezinski recalled that Conway “came on our show . . . and would shill for Trump in extensive fashion, and then she would get off the air, the camera would be turned off, the microphone would be taken off, and she would say, ‘Blech, I need to take a shower,’ because she disliked her candidate so much.” Scarborough added that, of her campaign chores, Conway said, “ ‘This is just my summer vacation, my summer in Europe.’ And, basically, ‘I’m just gonna get through this’ ”—or, as Cole Porter wrote, “It was just one of those crazy flings.” In response, Conway said of Trump that “I know him, I respect him, I believe in him, and I am confident in his capacity to be a transformative and successful President.” But she didn’t deny her comments.
The future of this aberration of a Presidency may finally be measured by the time it takes to act on the belief that “as difficult as we can be with each other, we remain that shining city on the hill,” as Comey, echoing Ronald Reagan, put it. Comey was talking about citizens of all parties who hold the same deep, pained convictions about America that he does—and, as Senator Richard Burr, the chairman of the Intelligence Committee, said about Comey, “who loves this country enough to tell it like it is.” Burr, too, sounded like someone hoping for a time when respect, duty, and love of country reassert themselves—after which we’ll all want quickly, quickly, to take a shower.