Charlotte Grimshaw reports on the latest weird and turbulent week in Donald Trump’s presidency: “The most powerful country in the world is at the mercy of someone so unfit for office that he shouldn’t be running a gas station.”
It was the end of summer on the east coast of America, and it was only getting hotter. By the Charles River in Boston it was nearly 40 degrees, the light was so bright it hurt, the river glittered and the sky was a high, washed-out blue. White dust blew up in little tornados on the river path.
Here in the east, where the American colonial story began, Bostonians formed a revolt against British taxation. The Boston Tea Party, an anti-tax, anti-big government movement, would later reinvigorate itself, drag the Republican Party to the right, increase the partisan gulf in American politics, and finally give rise to the phenomenon of Donald Trump. It all began here; potentially (given the nature of Trump and the bigness of his nuclear button) it could end very badly indeed.
I walked by the Charles River, all the way to Harvard University. This was the centre of American elitism where, I’d been assured, the reaction to Trump was one of horror. In a café, a woman frowned over a book on organic chemistry. Two men were discussing a legal precedent. I had my own reading, purchased at the Coop bookshop in Harvard Square (already 30% off): Omarosa Manigault-Newman’s torrid account of her time in the Trump White House.
Unhinged, by Omarosa: it’s more coherent and readable than you’d expect. It’s a story in which the abiding preoccupation is not politics but the American Dream of “making it”, from humble beginnings to the centre of power. After growing up poor and successfully auditioning for The Apprentice, Omarosa went on, improbably, to win a senior position in the Trump Administration. The flaw in the dream, she came to realise, was that she’d made it into a madhouse.
Reading Unhinged in Harvard, there was an unexpected element: comedy. Omarosa describes Vice President Mike Pence, the “Stepford Veep”, spending an hour-and-a-half gazing adoringly at the back of Trump’s head. She recounts Trump’s reason for the firing of an aide: he disapproved of the way she’d installed his tanning bed in the West Wing; also she hated him deeply and wasn’t able to hide it.
Unhinged details creepy flirting between Trump and his daughter Ivanka that makes those around them squirm and wish they’d “knock it off.” Trump pauses a high-level meeting so they can admire Ivanka’s ass in a new tight skirt. In the Oval Office, Trump would talk to his old friend Omarosa in increasingly incoherent rants. During their Apprentice years, she recalls, he was sharp as a tack; now he’s cognitively impaired, unable to read long words, or to concentrate. She estimates his reading age at 12 years old.
Summer was ending harshly for President Trump. After the criminal conviction of his former campaign manager Paul Manafort, after the guilty pleas of his lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen – pleas that expressly implicated Trump as an unindicted co-conspirator – after the betrayal of Omarosa’s Unhinged, from which he’d briskly bounced back by calling her a “low-life” and a “dog”, he’d had to endure the incensing death of John McCain, the war hero and thorn in his side, who’d thwarted him, criticised him, and worse, explicitly banned Trump from his funeral, shutting him out of the hottest event in town, where ex-Presidents from both sides of the aisle would mingle, show their most statesmanlike and human qualities (there was the endearing clip of President George W Bush passing a mint to Michelle Obama) and, above all, use the occasion to deliver eulogies blasting the wreckage Trump had wrought on America: the triumph of ignorance, the vicious partisanship, the dog whistle racism, the scorn for the rule of law.
John McCain hated the abuse of power, George W. Bush said in his speech, his rebuke highlighting the current administration’s elevating effect: Trump makes even the thuggish W look like a paragon of dignity, charm and enlightenment.
Trump sulked in his golf clothes; he golfed grimly while the elites of Washington mingled, expressing their utter disdain for him – and also their disturbing paralysis. The Democrats don’t have the numbers to deal with Trump, not until the mid-term elections, after which, if they win back the House, they could conceivably impeach him. But in the meantime, they appear more scandalised and flummoxed than effective. How to deal with this guy, this liar and crook, this fraud?
Republican politicians, hopelessly compromised, only look shiftier and more morally bankrupt as the disaster unfolds, unable to get off the Trump train, too scared of his supporters to speak out against him or to stand up, even for the rule of law.
It was supposed to be autumn but it only got steamier, and then suddenly something broke. All over Boston it burst out, playing on TV, in bars, in hotel lobbies, on car radios: Bob Woodward’s book Fear: Trump in the White House exploded into the news, advance copies having been slipped to CNN.
For Trump it all intensified, the heat ramped up. Now he wasn’t sulking, he was absolutely off his rocker. You kept hearing it: The President is volcanic over this. The book wasn’t due for release until the appropriately dramatic date of 9/11, but already it was the biggest news in America.
Extracts from the book were bandied about, repeated, dissected, pored over. They were scathing, damning. You were a little concerned about the direction of the Presidency? Oh my God, Fear revealed, you should be running for the exits. You should be buying a survival bunker in New Zealand. The most powerful country in the world is at the mercy of an infantile, pathological narcissist, a grifter and liar, someone so unfit for office that he shouldn’t be running a gas station. And that’s not even considering the fact, confirmed by all US and UK intelligence agencies, that the Kremlin (in whatever spirit of Machiavellian wickedness and calculation) illegally helped to put him in power.
We knew this already, but it was bracing and alarming to have it so starkly confirmed, by Pulitzer Prize-winning, Watergate-era journalist Bob Woodward, no less. (You couldn’t help thinking of the four or so most dim-witted journalists in New Zealand, who couldn’t see this coming, and who have actually even praised Trump.)
Woodward’s methods are impeccable; he insists on multiple sources, and even better, of course, he has tapes. It seems that practically everyone in the administration talked to him, probably because they sensed danger coming, and wanted to scramble onto the right side of history. Yes, I got into bed with Satan, but my heart wasn’t in it. I knew something wasn’t right…
The President was volcanic, and understandably so. The Woodward book quotes senior officials unleashing on him, describing him as a liar, unhinged, unprofessional, abusive and erratic. His chief of staff, General John Kelly reportedly told staff, “He’s an idiot. It’s pointless to try to convince him of anything. He’s gone off the rails. We’re in Crazytown. I don’t even know why any of us are here. This is the worst job I’ve ever had.”
Trump has the comprehension of a fifth or sixth grader, General Mattis reports. Gary Cohn describes stealing a draft letter off Trump’s desk so he won’t sign it. They’re all acting against his incompetence, his impulsivity, and his vast ignorance. The situation is unprecedented. Who knows where it will end.
Trump began demanding denials from his officials. One by one they lined up to say they hadn’t told Woodward these terrible things. No one believed them, except perhaps the President himself. He sifted through the written denials, puce-faced, furious, isolated.
On CNN, at least one commentator started mentioning King Lear.
He was volcanic, but there was more to come. With Unhinged under my arm, I boarded a train for New York. As the green fields of Connecticut flashed by, Omarosa ended her book with a weird rallying cry: “To God be the glory.”
After a few hours we trundled into Penn Station, and everyone’s phones started going off: Crazytown had just got crazier. A senior official in the White House had written an anonymous op-ed in The New York Times, confirming the Woodward portrayal of a White House in meltdown.
The cabinet had at one stage considered invoking the 25th Amendment to remove Trump from office, Anonymous said. Senior officials were united in their efforts to save the country from the President. He was unfit, but the American people should not be concerned, because there were “adults in the room,” who would implement the good bits of his agenda while saving us from the man himself.
Anonymous’ heroic words got a mixed reception. What good bits? The left wondered. A Republican strategist put it like this on CNN: “This President is rage-watching Fox News with his chin covered in KFC gravy. It’s not good enough to keep the trains running on time while keeping this lunatic in power.”
In the White House, a new witch-hunt was on. Who was Anonymous? By now presumably hysterical, Trump again demanded denials. The supposedly libertarian Senator Rand Paul called for White House staffers to be subjected to lie detector tests. Trump may have wished he could waterboard them. He insisted Anonymous be investigated as a criminal and a threat to national security. The denials stacked up. Soon only General Kelly hadn’t denied; moreover, he seemed to be missing. Perhaps, I speculated, Trump had locked him in the tanning bed and turned it on.
The week rolled on in Crazytown USA. Trump directed an ominous tweet at Anonymous. It said simply, “TREASON?” The next day, Trump campaign advisor George Papadopoulos was sent to jail for lying to the FBI.
In Illinois, President Obama came out with a blistering denouncement of Trump. “We’re supposed to stand up to discrimination… How hard can that be,” he said, “saying that Nazis are bad?”
ABC has announced upcoming appearances on its talk show, The View. Omarosa will be bringing in something special to share: a new, never-before-heard White House tape. Midweek, porn star Stormy Daniels will be joining The View. She has, apparently, “a big announcement to make about Trump.”
The Special Prosecutor’s Russia investigation continues, with more appearances before the grand jury. The probe is reported to be closing in next on Trump’s long-time collaborator, Roger Stone. If the Republicans lose the House in the November elections, and if the Mueller report warrants it, the walls may start closing in.
In New York, the heat broke suddenly. Streets became wind tunnels. The skies grew stormy, and rain began to fall. Out in the Atlantic, tropical cyclone Florence had turned nasty, and gradually become a hurricane. She is whirling out there, a force of destruction, heading for the American east coast. Landfall is projected, Thursday.
During a speech to his base in Montana, Trump used the word impeachment for the first time. He shouted about it, and – also for the first time – the crowd behind him looked just slightly uncomfortable, as if his timing was off.
At the same rally, he tried to pronounce the word, “Anonymous”. Slurring, trailing off, he gave it two good tries. He wasn’t able to manage it.
Fear: Trump in the White House by Bob Woodward (Simon & Schuster, $50) is available at Unity Books in Auckland and Wellington.