Bob Woodward’s depiction of a team of vipers surrounding an all-but-deranged president is at once frightening ― and wholly unsurprising. On the evidence to date, the past described in Woodward’s new book, “Fear,” is prologue for that ominous day when no one remains to constrain Trump’s excesses.
The case for this is ample. The history of Trump’s appointments suggests that he will winnow out his remaining competent advisers ― as he did with Gary Cohn and H.R. McMaster ― leaving only the craven and compliant.
Since Day One, Trump’s rudderless ship of state has featured an astonishing cast of felons, loons, hacks, grifters, incompetents, sycophants and backstabbers. But Woodward also identified a cadre of subversives, as described by a senior official’s anonymous editorial in The New York Times, “working diligently from within to frustrate... his worst inclinations.”
Collectively, they comprise a merciless X-ray of Trump’s inner landscape ― the “crazytown” described by Woodward, a Hobbesian White House where the saner inhabitants consider him a threat to national security.
This tenuous balance is in jeopardy ― threatened by the lethal confluence of Trump’s public humiliation with his penchant for choosing bad advisers. No accident there: With appalling consistency, his key appointments have reflected the disabling incapacities which render Trump himself unfit for office.
The merely unqualified reflect Trump’s own lack of qualifications ― rendering him unable to make suitable choices for key positions. Rex Tillerson was so unequipped to be secretary of state that, amid trashing his own department, he uttered a distinctly undiplomatic truth: that Trump is a ”moron.” Energy Secretary Rick Perry belatedly discovered that his portfolio included nuclear weapons. The dimwitted plutocrat Betsy DeVos ― the first secretary of education hostile to public education ― protects fraudulent for-profit colleges that rip off struggling veterans.
That some incompetents double as grifters reflects Trump’s comprehensive lack of ethics and moral discernment. The noxious Omarosa was a Vesuvius of narcissism who inevitably cashed Trump in. Devoid of the serious credentials essential to his job , Secretary of Treasury Steve Mnuchin joined his ostentatious wife as poster kids for bogus government travel ― emulated by former Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price, former Secretary of Veterans Affairs David Shulkin, and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.
Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson ― who in a nanosecond of self-reflection confessed that he was unequipped for a Cabinet position ― tried to squander government money on excessive office decor, presumably to console himself for being there at all. The venal ex-director of the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, was distracted from ruining the environment by equally pressing concerns: incurring extravagant travel expenses; taking favors from lobbyists; abusing his position to solicit business opportunities for his wife; assembling a troop of bodyguards worthy of Benito Mussolini; and swathing his workplace in CIA-level security precautions which served to shield him from public scrutiny.
Ivanka and Jared are triple threats ― incompetent, ethically-challenged nepotists empowered by their role model as senior White House advisers. Erstwhile handbag designer Ivanka combined covering for Trump’s obdurate indecency with acquiring highly suspect trademark concessions from China. Jared, a “businessman” who was born on third base and began sprinting for second, has seemed to leverage his preposterous role as international affairs adviser to seek foreign financing to salvage his disastrous overpayment for a Manhattan office tower.
Other incompetents pre-qualified themselves as cable TV talking heads whose blatherings piqued Trump’s addiction to unmoored lunacy. National Security Adviser John Bolton combined advocacy for bombing North Korea and Iran with suggesting that ― our intelligence agencies notwithstanding ― Russian hacking was attributable to an Obama administration bent on embarrassing Trump by framing Vladimir Putin. Chief economic adviser Larry Kudlow is a garrulous supply-side nitwit whose economic predictions over three decades were so relentlessly wrong that real economists lost count.
Still others were proven hacks who combined Trump’s need for obeisance with the requisite contempt for truth: the servile ex-chief of staff Reince Priebus; Sean Spicer, Trump’s linguistically deficient first spokesman; Spicer’s saturnine successor Sarah Sanders, who makes even her predecessor’s press briefings look like oases of transparency.
A particularly self-satisfied incompetent, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, also resembles Trump in that he’s an aspiring felon ― in this case, suspected of blatant insider trading. Then comes an admitted felon who lied to cover Trump’s dealings with Russia: erstwhile National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, whose hallucinatory passion for conspiracy theories fed Trump’s own.
Finally, a trio of moral ciphers channels Trump’s racist attacks on minorities and immigrants, evoking the stunted humanity and soulless fidelity of Stalinist-era bureaucrats. Attorney General Jeff Sessions promotes voter suppression laws by echoing Trump’s mendacious charges of voter fraud. Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen cloaks the extralegal sadism of Trump’s child separation policies in blatant lies and evasions. And the zealot Stephen Miller, Trump’s senior adviser, revels in crafting the cruel refugee and immigration policies with which the administration inflames unchecked xenophobia.
Beyond argument, this is the most unsavory assortment of fools, fanatics, knaves, incompetents, invertebrates, cowards and crooks ever assembled by an American president. Their accession was inevitable: Donald Trump is a magnet for human detritus mirroring the illimitable aspects of his crippling pathology that became glaringly obvious long before we elected him.
Examined without blinders, Trump’s behaviors should have made our collective skin crawl. Those surrounding him aren’t real to Trump ― they are disposable props in the malign psychodrama of a man without knowledge; judgment; decency; empathy; ethics; respect for law; regard for institutions; interest in governance; tolerance for dissent; or loyalty to country or office.
His sole definition of public service is obeisance to “Trump.” That he feels no loyalty for others has inevitably boomeranged in the damning portrait his own appointees have provided to Woodward and tThe New York Times. Now he stands exposed by insiders as a terminally self-obsessed, sadistic and paranoid demagogue who, as described by the anonymous senior official, is “impetuous, adversarial, petty and ineffective”; who “engages in repetitive rants”; whose “impulsiveness results in half–baked, ill-informed and occasionally reckless decisions”; whose “impulses are generally... anti-democratic”; and whose conduct is so disturbing that Cabinet members considered removing him from office under the Constitution’s 25th Amendment.
“We have sunk low with him,” the senior official wrote in the Times piece. Yet the editorialist remains in hiding, inflaming Trump’s paranoia as his emotional stability deteriorates before our eyes ― stripping bare the autocrat within.
Frenzied, he seeks to deploy the Justice Department as a tool of his own distorted needs. As though the DOJ were his personal KGB, he demands that Sessions ferret out the offending official in the name of national security ― casting the editorial as treason. For Trump, the checks on presidential power essential to democracy constitute a personal affront.
What person of honor still serves such a man? None but soldiers like James Mattis, grimly standing by his troops until he ― or Trump ― can stand it no longer. That day, it is rumored, now looms: in Trump’s Orwellian administration, a higher loyalty to country constitutes disloyalty to the only man who matters.
America’s descent into madness accelerates.
Richard North Patterson is the New York Times best-selling author of 22 novels, a former chairman of Common Cause and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.