On Wednesday night, for just a moment, Donald Trump acted like the sane president he will never be.
“As I have stated many times, a thorough investigation will confirm what we already know — there was no collusion between my campaign and any foreign entity,” he said in a statement released by the White House. “I look forward to this matter concluding quickly.”
The statement came shortly after the announcement that Robert Mueller, the former FBI director, would investigate ties between the Trump campaign and Russia. It was a muted, reasoned reaction, clearly crafted to submerge the Trumpian id. On Thursday, the real Trump returned, whining about witch hunts and the ways an adversarial mainstream media was supposedly dividing the country. At a press conference, he exposed himself once more: “There’s no collusion between, certainly, myself and my campaign — but I can only speak for myself — and the Russians — zero.”
To what extent Trump or any campaign aides violated the law remains to be seen. As liberals cry impeachment and attack Trump as a puppet of the nefarious, world-historical genius Vladimir Putin has become in Democratic mythology, they should remember criminal activity isn’t so easy to prove. Trump fired his FBI director, James Comey, after it became apparent he was aggressively investigating his ties to Russia. Comey, in turn, claimed in a leaked memo that Trump asked him to “let go” an investigation into a disgraced Trump national security adviser, Michael Flynn.
This could mean Trump obstructed justice, though it’s a complex constitutional issue subject to interpretation. At least one prominent legal scholar, Alan Dershowitz, argued the obstruction of justice case against Trump is “not strong.” Impeachment proceedings, still unlikely to be initiated by a Republican-controlled Congress, hinge much more on politics than the rule of law. If Democrats take control of the House after the midterm elections next year, Trump is in far more trouble.
The degree of paranoia, self-sabotage and incompetence endemic to this Trump White House is staggering. By stacking his inner circle with blindly loyal neophytes and assuming he knows far more than he does, Trump guarantees daily chaos. Consider the decision to suddenly fire Comey: how could this make strategic sense, given that any FBI director knows how to leak dirty secrets to the press? Was Trump aware doing so would only raise suspicions that he’s taking part in a massive, Watergate-level cover-up?
We don’t know yet what Trump is really hiding or if he’s hiding anything at all. Mueller, the special counsel, will provide those answers in the months or years to come. What we do know is that Trump’s decision to fire Comey was driven in part by his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, a senior adviser with a portfolio that seems to include everything pertaining to Planet Earth. Kushner, a 36-year-old real estate developer, had no prior experience in government. He was born into privilege and power, and married well. (Disclosure: I once worked at the newspaper he published, the New York Observer.)
For all the media’s obsession with palace intrigue, with reporters giddily crafting sweeping portraits of Trump’s generals and court jesters, the fundamental truth had little to do with whether Steve Bannon was Darth Vader incarnate or Kellyanne Conway was an Orwellian propagandist or Kushner and his wife Ivanka could really tug volcanic Donald to the center. The truth lay instead in what united them all: their profound inexperience and terrifying ignorance. They are, without question, the most overmatched clan of White House insiders in more than a half century, and their boss is even more incapable.
Every president in modern times, from the vapid to the paranoid to the brilliant, had the sense to recruit advisers and right-hands with a working knowledge of Washington and government writ large. They understood one person could only know so much. In Trump, America has a president who only knows how to grab headlines at all costs — even if it means self-immolation. As commander-in-chief, with the power to wage war and annihilate nations, we can only hope he ends up burning himself.