Even a reality show needs good plot twists, and Donald Trump has delivered them like the master he is. First the misdirection: a week of publicly humiliating his attorney-general, Jeff Sessions, to the point where Sessions would surely quit or be fired. Then the sudden swerve — it was the press shop, not the justice department, that was decapitated. Sean Spicer was out as press secretary. Anthony Scaramucci, a mini Trump whose language was as blue as the lenses of his fancy sunglasses, was in as White House communications director. Reince Priebus, chief of staff, was next to go, sacked after clashing with ‘the Mooch’. And then the climactic twist: in virtually his first act in office, Priebus’s replacement, Marine Gen. John Kelly, fired Scaramucci.
For any other White House, this would be a crisis. For Trump, it’s a reprieve from the misery of the investigation into his suspected ties to Russia. The President fired FBI director James Comey back in May because Comey wouldn’t stop investigating Michael Flynn — who briefly served as National Security Adviser —and wouldn’t tell the public that Trump himself wasn’t under suspicion. Comey’s firing led the deputy attorney-general, Rod Rosenstein, to appoint a former FBI director, Robert Mueller, as a special counsel to lead the Russia inquiry. Since then, Trump has looked for someone else he can fire.
He’d like to fire Mueller, but it would look better if the attorney-general did that. Alas Sessions, who had meetings of his own with Russian officials last year, recused himself from the case. So to get rid of Mueller, maybe Sessions would have to go first. And that’s where the main storyline stood when this new Scaramucci character was introduced and swiftly killed off.
The entertainment value of American politics shouldn’t be underestimated. Trump is President today because he understands this. Ever since John F. Kennedy, the American President has had celebrity appeal, and the right star — a Kennedy, Reagan, or Bill Clinton — can outshine the dullards of ordinary politics. Reagan and Clinton used the theatrical qualities of presidential power to great political effect. Trump is attempting to do so as well, but the political realities just won’t cooperate. The first reality is that the Russia investigation is not going to go away, and Trump’s frantic attempts to scuttle it have only made his problems worse. The second reality is that Trump’s policy agenda doesn’t match the political coalition he leads in the Republican party.
The Russia inquiry threatens to destroy the Trump administration, despite the fact that investigators have so far uncovered no evidence of any crime committed by the President or his associates. His critics assume he must be guilty of something because he acts like he is.
Trump seems, above all, to be worried about the investigation looking into his finances. Quite possibly there are embarrassing, but not necessarily illegal, ties between Trump family business entities and foreign governments, including Russia. Exposure could be harmful not only to Trump’s political position but, perhaps more importantly, to the family business empire. That, at least, is one avenue for speculation that does not involve sensational election-rigging with Moscow.
Trump and his associates can be not guilty, but less than fully clean, and still wind up in serious legal and political trouble. Prosecutors who try hard enough can always come up with something, and Mueller has every incentive to get results. Special counsels hardly ever go home empty-handed.
The President appears to be consumed by his irritation at the investigation, perhaps most of all by the fact that, for all his power, he hasn’t been able to stop it. His pique has led Trump to make self-destructive decisions. One of these has been to torment Jeff Sessions, who was the first and, for a long time, the only Republican senator to endorse Trump in last year’s presidential contest. Sessions is a hero to the anti-immigration Republican right, and he is well liked by his old colleagues in the Senate. By bullying Sessions, Trump needlessly antagonised valuable allies within his own party and movement.
Trump now seems to be in the midst of a messy divorce from the Republican party — one sign of that is the President’s split with Reince Priebus and Sean Spicer. Both men had been national Republican party officials before joining the administration. They represented Trump’s line into the old party apparatus.
Senators in the President’s party are becoming increasingly outspoken against him. Trump’s relationship with the Republican-controlled Congress continues to deteriorate. Rather than pressing the Congress to follow the uniquely Trumpian priorities the President had campaigned on last year, such as trade protectionism and building a wall between the US and Mexico, Trump deferred to the priorities of the Republican leaders in Congress, who set about fulfilling their promise to repeal and replace Barack Obama’s health care law. They failed — a remarkable fact considering that the party controls both houses of Congress. That failure reflects on Trump as well, who now appears unable to lead his own party’s legislative majority. The President, who has never been shy about criticising his own party, looks to try to resurrect his own popularity by attacking a do-nothing Congress. A Republican civil war could be on the cards.
With his coalition crumbling, Trump turned to Scaramucci, another flamboyant New York businessman. Scaramucci had no experience in media relations. In his first week as White House communications director he called up a reporter and unleashed an on-the-record torrent of abuse about fellow White House staff, including Priebus and the administration’s top right-wing strategist, Steve Bannon. The Mooch described Bannon as aspiring auto-fellator. Even Bannon, the ideological architect of Trumpism, seems to be in constant danger of being sidelined by an administration that often appears to be run like a family business by Trump, his daughter, her husband, and their New York friends.
Scaramucci went too far: Ivanka and Melania were reportedly disgusted by his behaviour. The new chief of staff was clearly not the sort to put up with such antics. Whether Gen. Kelly can impose discipline on the White House as a whole, though, including on the President himself, is an open question. And where that discipline would lead, as Trump drifts away from ideological allies like Bannon and Sessions as well as the Republican party, is an even greater puzzle.
Daniel McCarthy is editor at large of The American Conservative.