EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is Jonah Goldberg’s weekly “news”letter, the G-File. Subscribe here to get the G-File delivered to your inbox on Fridays.
Dear Reader (and especially any dogs in Japan with some time to kill),
Look around, folks. This is as good as it gets.
Wait, don’t pull the toaster into the bathtub quite yet. I don’t mean in your personal life or for the country. I’m just saying these are the Trump administration’s salad days (I mean that figuratively; not a lot of salad is served in the Trump White House).
Shortly after Trump was elected, I told people that I wasn’t all that worried about Trump’s first months in office because I thought he would be nervous about trying to do a job he never expected to win, and thus somewhat willing to be constrained and contained by his cabinet and other party leaders. “What happens,” I remember saying to Jay Nordlinger, among others, “when this guy truly feels comfortable in the job and thinks he knows it better than the generals and his other advisers?”
Pick a Lane
Now, before I go on, let me go on about something else for a moment.
If you’re of a certain Trumpist bent, you’re already rolling your eyes. “Trump wasn’t contained! Nothing can contain Trump! Trump smash!”
This points to one of my great gripes about the way much of the Right talks about Trump these days. Many people want it both ways. When he’s Hulk Trump — e.g., when he’s firing his secretary of State on Twitter, attacking sh**hole countries, or admitting to lying to the leader of an ally — they say Trump was elected to be a “disrupter.” But when the mainstream media reports that the White House is in disarray or even chaotic, the same people will often say, “That’s fake news.” Suddenly the Hulk Trump they’re celebrating one minute becomes Bruce Banner Trump, brilliantly outthinking everyone the next minute.
(As Stormy Daniels never said to a director), you can’t have it both ways. You can argue that all of the chaos is part of Trump’s strategy. But you can’t cherry-pick the chaos you like and claim the media is making up the rest.
Yesterday, I was on Fox Business, and a young lady from the Free Beacon tried to make the argument that the White House-disarray storyline was little more than a mainstream media canard. I don’t want to be too harsh on her, in part because she seems quite nice but also because I hear this all over the place. Beginning with the president:
The new Fake News narrative is that there is CHAOS in the White House. Wrong! People will always come & go, and I want strong dialogue before making a final decision. I still have some people that I want to change (always seeking perfection). There is no Chaos, only great Energy!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 6, 2018
I have no problem whatsoever conceding that the press exaggerates anti-Trump narratives and is out to get him, because that is obviously true. But I’ve talked to people in the White House. I’ve talked to congressmen and senators off the record. And I’ve talked to far more people who’ve talked to such people. They all say that things behind the scenes in Trump World are nuttier than Mr. Peanut’s stool sample.
Some of the anonymous quotes you hear about the atmosphere in the White House are probably exaggerated, likewise many of the stories I hear. I honestly think that a lot of Republicans say this stuff off the record or on background for selfish reasons. They want it known that they weren’t part of the problem. They’re planning for the future and want to maintain some viability or something.
But you could exclude all the anonymous quotes and thinly sourced stories, and a reasonable person would still have to conclude that this White House is operating as if the dispensing nurse at the asylum accidentally grabbed the amphetamines instead of the Xanax. As the vet said when I brought my cat in for an appointment and pulled a tuxedo-wearing, rainbow-colored iguana with a monocle out of the carrier, “This is not normal.”
Just this week, the president’s body man was ejected from the White House on a freezing cold day, and he wasn’t even allowed to get his coat (presumably, he knows stuff — because he was instantly hired by the Trump reelection campaign). Trump fired his secretary of State over Twitter. Roll back the clock another week or two, and you have the sudden resignation of Hope Hicks and the revelation that Rob Porter couldn’t get a security clearance because of credible allegations that he was an abusive husband. I can’t remember the last time Trump humiliated his attorney general, but it feels like we’re due. There was also some stuff about executing drug dealers and calling Chuck Todd a son of a b****. Oh, and there was that stuff about how trade wars are good.
As I write this, scads of White House staffers are leaking to one outlet after another about whether or not the White House chief of staff, the secretary of Veterans Affairs, and the national-security adviser are on the chopping block. There are rumors that Scott Pruitt, Trump’s EPA administrator, may replace Jeff Sessions — so that he can fire Rod Rosenstein and appoint someone to fire Robert Mueller. (Though, in fairness, those rumors may have come from Pruitt himself.)
But who cares? This is the climate the president wants and enjoys. From CBS:
President Trump consumed Thursday morning’s TV headlines with amusement. Reports of tumult in the administration were at a feverish pitch — even on his beloved Fox News — as the president reflected on the latest staff departures during an Oval Office conversation with Vice President Mike Pence and Chief of Staff John Kelly.
With a laugh, Mr. Trump said: “Who’s next?”
Now, you may think all of this is great (even though you would probably be the first to say this is no way to run a railroad if your own boss treated your co-workers with half the disdain Trump has shown the people who work for him). And I’m open to arguments that it’s great strategy. But don’t in the same breath shout, “Fake news!” when someone you don’t like says that things are chaotic, because not only is it true that things are chaotic, Trump likes the chaos. It keeps him from having to make coherent arguments, it prevents him from being held accountable for the last crazy thing he said or did, and, most of all, it keeps him in the news, which is his true North Star.
As someone who talks to the Trump White House regularly told me, Trump loves controversy but hates confrontation. That’s why he wants to force Sessions to quit. That’s why he left Reince Priebus on the tarmac like he was the Last American Virgin to discover on his phone that he was fired. That’s why he fired James Comey while the FBI director was giving a speech in California, and it’s why he wanted to fire Rex Tillerson while the secretary of State was in Africa. And, that’s why, when Democrats are in the room, Trump tells them he’d go for comprehensive immigration reform and preens about how he’d like to “take the guns first, go through due process second.”
As Good as It Gets
All this is why I think these are going to be remembered as the Good Old Days of the Trump presidency. If Maggie Haberman and others are correct, we’ve reached the moment Jay and I talked about way back when. According to Haberman:
Recently, people close to Mr. Trump say that he has begun to feel more confident that he understands the job of president. He is relying more on his own instincts, putting a premium on his personal chemistry with people and their willingness to acknowledge that his positions are ultimately administration policy, rather than on their résumé or qualifications for the job.
Now, there are reasonable people pushing back on this somewhat. I don’t think Mike Pompeo is a Trump yes-man, and I think he’ll make a better secretary of State than Tillerson. My friend and chicken-wing consultant Steve Hayes argues that Pompeo is in fact “the real Trump whisperer.” He reports:
“I’ve seen a dozen times when Pompeo has talked the president out of one of his crazy ideas,” says a senior administration official involved in the national security debates.
Let that sink in. It’s not quite as reassuring as it sounds. If Haberman is right, then even if Pompeo had success in the past constraining Trump, he might not be able to going forward, given how Trump is more inclined to let his freak flag fly.
Republican or Trumpist?
One of the great divides on the right these days is over the question of whether the policy wins of the Trump administration occurred because of Trump or despite him. As I discussed with Matt Mackowiac on his podcast, it’s not a black-and-white question. There are some victories that I think would have only been possible with Trump. With the possible exception of Ted Cruz, I don’t think any other Republican would have moved the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, opened ANWR to drilling, or pulled out of the Paris climate accords and TPP (though I think the TPP move was a mistake).
Most of Trump’s policy successes, however, have been accomplished thanks to party and movement regulars in the administration and in Congress. Judicial appointments have been outsourced to the Federalist Society and Mitch McConnell, thank God. Tax reform was Paul Ryan’s baby. To be sure, Trump gets the usual credit we afford to any president when good things happen on his watch. But I am generally baffled when people say, “He’s gotten so much accomplished.” From where I sit, so much has been accomplished despite him. Meanwhile, he also gets “credit” for nearly all of the scandals, gaffes, controversies, and set-backs on the right in the last year. He also gets “credit” for the fire sale of conservative credibility on countless conservative positions and arguments, which have apparently proved to be too much of a burden in the age of Trump.
Wherever you come down on this question, the fact remains that the GOP won’t get much more done between now and the midterms. Or to be more fair, it won’t get much done that will markedly improve the GOP brand. The significance of Pennsylvania’s 18th-district special election has been exaggerated on both sides, but some facts seem truly significant. The GOP’s tax-cut message did not have the salience Republicans hoped. Democratic enthusiasm is real. GOP hacks can call PA-18 a “Democratic” district all they like. But it doesn’t change the fact that Trump carried the district by nearly 20 points or that Mitt Romney and Pat Toomey carried it by nearly as much as well. Trump is increasingly toxic in normally Republican-friendly suburbs. His rallies may energize the GOP base — but they energize Democrats more. Many of his preferred policies and most of his antics divide Republicans, while they unite Democrats. This does not bode well for Republicans’ holding onto the House.
So let’s assume for the sake of argument that the Democrats take back Congress. Let’s also assume Mueller doesn’t find evidence of “collusion” that directly implicates Trump but that he does find enough to land Jared, Don Jr., and Michael Cohen in the dock. Paul Manafort is already looking at spending more than two centuries in jail. What happens when Democrats get subpoena power? What happens when they start drafting articles of impeachment? What happens if Mueller reveals that Trump isn’t really as rich as he claims and that his business is mostly a Potemkin village of money-laundering condo sales? What happens if Stormy Daniels — or the retinue of super-classy ladies reportedly looking to follow her lead — releases embarrassing pictures of the president?
How do you think unconstrained Hulk Trump reacts? Heck, how do you think the beleaguered skeleton crew at the White House behaves? Everyone is gonna lawyer up like Tony Montana in the money-counting room. Normal administrations are crippled by zealous investigatory committees; is it so crazy to think that Donald Trump might not show restraint? Might he be tempted to give the Democrats the store to hold off investigations, impeachment, whatever? Everyone defends the Jerry Falwell Jr. caucus on the grounds that they have a “transactional” relationship with Trump. Well, what if other transactional opportunities take precedence?
How do you think unconstrained Hulk Trump reacts?
And this scenario leaves out the fact that in the next couple of years, a tsunami of tell-all books and more-in-sorrow-than-anger reputation-rehabilitating memoirs will probably come out.
I don’t know the answer to these questions, and I am not saying that I think all of these things will inevitably happen. If God laughs at the man who plans, in the age of Trump, He buys a pallet of popcorn and giggles at the man who makes predictions.
Well, one prediction I made two years ago, over and over again, was that “character is destiny.” And I’ve never been more confident that that destiny is coming, and it won’t be pretty.
Various & Sundry
The latest Remnant podcast is up. I opted to do a rank-punditry episode, to see if people really want me to do more of them (so let me know!), but also because we’re recording a special-edition Remnant today with Steve Hayward and Charles Murray dedicated to offering advice to young people. Should be out by Monday. Next week, I’ll have Ross Douthat on to talk about his new book on Pope Francis and other fun topics.
I’ll be on Meet the Press on Sunday and, on Monday, NPR’s Morning Edition and Fox’s America’s Newsroom.
Today’s “news”letter was admittedly malodorous in the rankness of its punditry. If you’re looking for more eggheady fare, please check out my essay in Commentary on the anti-Semitic roots of Marxism. It’s not a book excerpt, we’re saving that for NR in a few weeks, but it relies on one of the (many) chapters that I had to cut from the book for space reasons.
Meanwhile, thanks so much to the folks who’ve pre-ordered The Suicide of the West. I can’t tell you how grateful I am. Well, I can tell you: If normal gratitude were a regular-sized Twinkie, then my gratitude would be the size of a small moon (that’s no moon!). If you’re interested in attending a book talk or hosting one, check out my website or contact Jack.Butler@aei.com.
Canine Update: Things are relatively good in dog world. Though, yesterday, Pippa had a bad dream. She was lying in my lap saying, “I can fit 20 tennis balls in my mouth! I once killed a mountain lion!” etc., and I figured I would just let sleeping dogs lie. No, I kid, she was having a dream, and I assume it ended with a tennis ball going down a sewer drain. She let out a “Yipe!” and suddenly sat up and wouldn’t look at me at first.
Meanwhile, this morning, I opted to go for a neighborhood walk, which means that Zoë has to stay on her leash because she can’t be trusted not to disappear into backyards on bunny hunts. Also, she is a jealous guardian of her domain, and too many people let their small dogs out to pee in the mornings (bad misunderstandings can happen). So, Zoë gets the leash, and Pippa gets a kicked tennis ball. Anyway, this morning, I caught, on very dark video, the division of labor quite well. Otherwise, while I’m sick of this weather, it’s bringing out the mischief in them quite a bit.
And now, the weird stuff.