The anonymous New York Times Op-Ed which alleges that senior staff have discreetly worked to mitigate president Trump’s emotional incontinence has produced wild speculation within the US media. Aside from the obligatory denunciations – Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders tweeted a phone number for the Times’s opinion desk, asking her followers to demand that the “gutless coward” be revealed – theories about the author’s identity have produced high-profile denials that are vintage tabloid fodder. Forensic linguists have noted that the Op-Ed deliberately mixes its vocabulary to misdirect would-be sleuths. A military phrase hints at Gen. Mattis while the low frequency word “lodestar” indicates Vice-President Pence. False trails like these have amplified an already sensational opinion into something close to an all-out crisis. One former White House official who knows current staffers said their mood was “like the horror movies when everyone realizes the call is coming from inside the house.”
A close reading of the Op-Ed suggests less dramatic but no less worrying problems. It is hardly news that many White House staffers have a low opinion of the president, yet the author stresses s/he, like many others, wants “the administration to succeed and think[s] that many of its policies have already made America safer and more prosperous.” That description glosses over the devil’s bargain that the Republican Party has made with Trump. Although many of them are appalled by his ignorance, impulsiveness and incompetence, they continue to argue that he can advance a Conservative agenda if properly managed by “adults in the room.” This is a forlorn hope. Yet, despite mounting evidence from the Mueller investigation – which suggests that Trump is currently, in the Nixonian phrase, an “unindicted co-conspirator” in serious campaign finance law-breaking – and a seemingly endless run of personal scandals, Trump’s popularity within the GOP remains at record levels.
Trump has successfully initiated a wholesale revision of what the US government oversees and prioritizes. He has reinvigorated a type of Republican that seemed to have vanished after the Bush administration. This empowerment explains much of his enduring popularity and it suggests that impeachment proceedings against him will likely fail, no matter what the Mueller enquiry yields. Trump’s ability to survive these embarrassments has emboldened the most conservative wing of the GOP and made it more determined than ever to pursue its agenda before shifting public opinion – and likely losses in the midterm elections – puts further gains in doubt. The second day of Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing for the Supreme Court provided further insight into the party’s opportunism at this delicate juncture. The hearing was already embattled – due to a deliberately late disclosure of reams of information about the judge’s record and a host of other ethical questions – but Kavanaugh has proved surprisingly resilient to questioning. Senator Kamala Harris of California asked him directly whether he had “discussed Mueller or his investigation with anyone at Kasowitz Benson and Torres, the law firm founded by Marc Kasowitz, President Trump’s personal lawyer?” Kavanaugh’s lawyerly squirming and his refusal to answer straightforwardly, despite displaying a comprehensive grasp of similar minutiae throughout eight previous hours of testimony, showed how determined he was to avoid Harris’s trap. In this his behaviour is an exemplary instance of how the GOP views the moment that Trump has created. They are willing to look past almost every indiscretion and misjudgement providing they can use this presidency to further their own ends.
Kavanaugh’s confirmation is a truly pivotal moment in Trump’s tenure. If confirmed, the tie-breaking vote on the Supreme Court will become, in Michelle Goldberg’s telling phrase, “a right-wing apparatchik chosen in part for his deference to executive power.” If the confirmation fails, Trump’s traction with the party’s evangelicals will diminish accordingly. The Republican dominated Senate committee therefore faces the unenviable task of reconciling its duty to serve the country with the prospect that a confirmation of the present nominee will strengthen the autocratic tendencies of a leader who is mistrusted by many of his closest aides and advisors.