Politics & Policy

The President Can Be Put on Tilt

James Comey testifies before the Senate Intelligence Committee, June 8, 2017. (Reuters photo: Aaron P. Bernstein)
He entirely lacks the virtue of self-possession.

We didn’t learn much more from the great Jim Comey show than we learned from his opening statement. Only that Comey thought Attorney General Jeff Sessions should recuse himself for reasons that Comey cannot disclose. Other than that, the only thing that really came across was that the FBI’s former director is a cool customer, and possesses an ego large enough to glancingly refer to his own pink slip with an allusion to Thomas Becket.

Still, the very fact of the hearing was an unforced disaster for the president. And it reveals a flaw of character that will be a problem for the president going forward. Namely this: Donald Trump’s psychological state is easy to read and easy to manipulate. The president can be trolled into making grievous mistakes. He is far too obsessed with the news cycle to act soberly. That is a serious political risk for Republicans. It is a significant tail risk for our nation.

The evidence for Russian meddling in the U.S. election underwhelms me. Intelligence reports that feature the nefarious tweeting of the RT news network too close to the top do not impress. Half of what has appeared in the press — Nigel Farage is a person of interest! — looks like nothing more than intelligence agencies’ cynically using ideological affinity as a basis for presuming the existence of conspiracy. This allows left-leaning commentators to run around excitedly with a headline for a few hours and obviously annoys Trump. But substantively, there is so little there. Comey admitted that a New York Times report about Trump associates’ communicating with Russian intelligence figures was “not true.”

Two months ago, the society of blue-check-marked people on Twitter half-jokingly convinced themselves that tweets and SNL skits that leaned heavily on the suggestion that populist Trump adviser Steve Bannon was the real power behind the throne would bother Donald Trump enough that he would demote or fire Bannon. And Bannon did subsequently get booted from the National Security Council among reports that Trump was bothered by the press about Bannon. You could still imagine the trolling and the demotion were merely a coincidence. I did, until Trump fired Comey.

It is perfectly understandable that President Trump was frustrated that Comey did not make a clear public statement that Trump was not under investigation, especially when so much of the Russia story has been driven by hysteria and innuendo. But if the Russia investigation created a cloud over the administration, Trump let the cloud settle over his brain.

He let the hysteria of the press and the Twitter brigades get to him, and he thought he could solve the problem by firing Comey and ordering his administration to lie about it.

In a way, Trump runs the most transparent administration in modern history. His White House leaks like crazy, because his aids are trying to get his attention by speaking to him through the New York Times and the Washington Post. Trump himself cannot conceal a secret. He shares intelligence with White House guests. He blabs on Twitter.

We haven’t learned anything about collusion with the Russians. What we’ve learned is that Trump entirely lacks the virtue of self-possession. He is almost the temperamental opposite of his predecessor. Democrats used to complain that Obama could not rouse himself to face the political emergencies that befell their party under his rule. By contrast, Trump cannot calm himself down and let the cloud pass over his head with the next gust in the news cycle.

He let the hysteria of the press and the Twitter brigades get to him, and he thought he could solve the problem by firing Comey and ordering his administration to lie about it.

This is not just a matter of Trump’s being unfamiliar with the norms that govern the executive branch and the intricacies of political calculation. This is the problem that everyone, even those sympathetic to Trump’s politics, identified before he took the job. He simply cannot govern his own emotions. And a man who cannot do that is unfit to govern anything else.

And a president like that is vulnerable. Jim Comey demonstrated that by calmly playing his cards in the weeks before and after he was fired. And the Saudis seem to have played Trump like a fiddle. Their cartoonish flattery of Trump seems to have led him to tweet angrily against the latest enemy of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, even though Qatar has been hosting the American military for 15 years.

The FBI is officially investigating whether the Trump campaign plotted with a foreign power in secret. But after L’affaire Comey, my fear now is that almost anyone can conspire with or against the president, out in the open. Just get a few embarrassing stories in the media. Or write a few obsequiously flattering items and get invited into his court. You can guess almost exactly how he is going to react. And until he learns to moderate his reactions, the media and his enemies will have fun pushing his buttons.

READ MORE:

Comey Testimony Confirms Trump Is Still His Own Worst Enemy

After Comey Testifies, One Scandal Gets Smaller, Another Gets Bigger

Comey Hits and Misses

— Michael Brendan Dougherty is a senior writer at National Review.

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