President Donald Trump takes the stage at a rally at the Kentucky Exposition Center in Louisville, Ky., Monday, March 20, 2017.
The events of this week are revealing with a new level of clarity that President Donald Trump and the White House have ventured far beyond unconventional levels of dishonesty. Instead, they are revealing on their part something more remarkable and challenging to our system: a kind of deep rot of bad faith — a profound contempt for democratic process and the possibility of agreement on shared reality — that is wildly beyond anything in recent memory and strains the limits of our political vocabulary.
The precipitating moment is the clash between the White House and the FBI over the ongoing investigation of possible Russia-Trump campaign collusion, and in this context, The New York Times has some remarkable new reporting on Trump’s mental state and the reaction to it of the people around him. They are absorbing the fallout, now that Trump’s tweets — in which he claimed that former President Barack Obama wiretapped him and that the Trump-Russia story was "fake news" — were effectively demolished by the testimony of FBI director James Comey:
"People close to the president say Mr. Trump’s Twitter torrent had less to do with fact, strategy or tactic than a sense of persecution bordering on faith: He simply believes that he was bugged in some way, by someone, and that evidence will soon appear to back him up. …
"The president, people close to him have said over the last several weeks, has become increasingly frustrated at his inability to control the narrative of his action-packed presidency, after being able to dominate the political discourse or divert criticism by launching one of his signature Twitter attacks."
Let’s pause to consider how remarkable it is that those paragraphs appeared in a major newspaper. Trump continues to vaguely believe that what he tweeted will somehow be validated later, at least in some form. But at the same time, Trump himself is growing aware that his nonstop lies — or delusions, or self-deception, or whatever you want to call all of it — are failing him. And he’s frustrated by it. This is coming to us according to people close to Trump.
The way in which Trump made those charges about Obama; the way the White House subsequently handled the mess, by demanding that Congress investigate them after an internal search that turned up nothing to back them up; the way in which Trump continues to blithely dismiss the need to get to the bottom of Russian meddling in our election — all of those things are a function of something that is seeping into pretty much everything the White House is doing these days.
This bad faith — this deep contempt for process, fact-based debate, and policy reality — borders on all-corrosive. It includes a frontal assault on the news media for accurately reporting on Trump’s inaugural crowd size, in defiance of Trump/White House lies about it. It includes Trump’s explicit exhortations to his supporters to disbelieve the news media and choose their own facts and reality instead. It includes the laughably slapdash process that produced the first travel ban, and the decision to delay the second one to bask in good press from Trump’s speech to Congress, even though it was supposed to be an urgent national security matter (never mind that the substantive case for it was undercut by Homeland Security’s own analysts).
It includes Trump embracing a health plan that would leave 24 million people uninsured after promising "insurance for everybody." It includes the continued presidential trips to Mar-a-Lago, which use the power of the White House to promote memberships at the Trump-owned resort, sinking money into his pockets. As ethics experts Norm Eisen and Richard Painter detail, the broader pattern here is unprecedented — it isn’t just that the known transgressions reveal deep disdain for ethical norms; it’s also that the full scale of the violations remains unknown, due to Trump’s own lack of transparency.
It should be stated that the White House may rack up wins that make these early contretemps look less consequential in retrospect. Republicans may push through a repeal-and-replace bill; the travel ban may survive the courts; Neil Gorsuch may get confirmed to the Supreme Court; Trump and Republicans may get a budget through, including deep tax cuts for the rich; and so forth. Those could easily end up resetting the narrative.
But the FBI investigation will continue overshadowing the Trump presidency. And in the present moment, the Comey takedown — a brutal institutional debunking of one of Trump’s and the White House’s highest-visibility moments of pure contempt for norms and process — has exposed the deep rot of bad faith in a new way. And this could have consequences. It could help inspire an escalation in institutional pushback — from the courts, the media, government leakers, and civil society — that exercises a further constraining effect.
If the sources who spoke to the Times are to be believed, Trump is already reportedly frustrated that his showmanship and improvisational approach to reality are failing him. One shudders to imagine how he will react to more serious setbacks.
Greg Sargent writes The Plum Line blog, a reported opinion blog with a liberal slant — what you might call “opinionated reporting” from the left.
Take a look at Donald Trump’s life from long before his 2016 presidential bid to his first several months in the Oval Office.