The Morning Jolt

White House

The Beginning of the End for Trump’s Presidency

President Donald Trump departs on travel to West Point, New York from the South Lawn at the White House in Washington, D.C., December 12, 2020. (Cheriss May/Reuters)

On the menu today: We’re in the last month of the Trump presidency. The unnamed White House sources sound really worried in their leaks, but apparently, they’re not worried enough to go on the record yet. If the president wants to spend his final weeks in office engaging in self-destructive acts, that’s his choice, I suppose.

Anonymous Quotes Lose Their Power

I’m not sure how much good it does for White House staffers to say, on background to reporters, that they are deeply concerned by the president’s mental state. If you really think the president of the United States is nuts or about to do something terrible, you probably ought to put your name on the accusation. Are these people who fear he’s gone nuts still hoping to have a good recommendation from Trump after his term ends?

What is anyone else in or out of government supposed to do, in response to quotes from unnamed White House officials suggesting the president is losing his marbles? “We’ve got to impeach this guy, a month before he leaves office, based upon what anonymous sources are saying?”

Judging from the White House press corps, Trump is getting particularly difficult to work for, and the staff is dealing with it by going on background and complaining to reporters.

Jonathan Swan, over at Axios:

Trump thinks everyone around him is weak, stupid or disloyal — and increasingly seeks comfort only in people who egg him on to overturn the election results. We cannot stress enough how unnerved Trump officials are by the conversations unfolding inside the White House.

Top officials are trying to stay away from the West Wing right now.

Trump is lashing out, and everyone is in the blast zone: At this point, if you’re not in the “use the Department of Homeland Security or the military to impound voting machines” camp, the president considers you weak and beneath contempt.

. . . A source who spoke to Trump said the president was complaining about Pence and brought up a Lincoln Project ad that claims that Pence is “backing away” from Trump. This ad has clearly got inside Trump’s head, the source said.

. . . Trump has even been asking advisers whether they can get state legislatures to rescind their electoral votes. When he’s told no, he lashes out even more, said a source who discussed the matter with the president.

Kevin Liptak and Jeffrey Diamond, over at CNN:

President Donald Trump has turned to a fringe group of advisers peddling increasingly dubious tactics to overturn the results of the election, creating a dire situation that multiple senior officials and people close to the President say has led to new levels of uncertainty at how Trump will resist the coming end to his tenure.

“No one is sure where this is heading,” one official said on Monday. “He’s still the President for another month.”

Conspiracist lawyer Sidney Powell, disgraced former national security adviser Michael Flynn, onetime chief strategist Steve Bannon, hawkish trade adviser Peter Navarro and the eccentric founder of the retail website Overstock have all recently found themselves in the Oval Office or on the telephone advising Trump on new last-ditch efforts to reverse his loss.

Over at the Washington Post, four reporters — Toluse Olorunnipa, Josh Dawsey, Rosalind S. Helderman, and Emma Brown — paint a grim and dire picture:

Aides said Trump has been searching frantically for pathways to reverse his loss — sidelining officials who try to level with him about it and embracing those claiming to have a solution.

“He is grasping at straws,” one senior administration official said. “If you come in and tell him he lost, and that it’s over, he doesn’t want to hear from you. He is looking for people to tell him what he wants to hear.”

Powell and others told the president Friday that they had evidence that voting machines had been tampered with, though White House officials said the evidence was nonsense. But Powell’s presence in the West Wing — and her multiple returns for additional meetings, including on Monday — are an indication that the outsiders are gaining sway.

Powell had been publicly dismissed from Trump’s legal team last month, with several Trump advisers saying the president thought a conspiracy-filled news conference she held Nov. 19 had been too outlandish. Trump has since gravitated back to her because other advisers are not giving him any paths to victory — and she claims to have paths, aides said. During the meeting Friday, Trump considered naming Powell as a special counsel to investigate voter fraud, officials said.

It certainly is possible that President Trump is behaving like this. In fact, it’s likely. It matches the sorts of comments he’s making on his Twitter feed.

But a certain chunk of the public tunes out or increases their skepticism whenever they hear “anonymous source,” and they have good reason to do so. Trump fans certainly are disinclined to believe any storyline of their beloved president impotently raging, and critics of the president are tired of hearing from White House staffers who are so morally conflicted about what they’re doing in their jobs. If you think your boss is asking you to do something illegal or morally wrong, leave and find another job. Pull a John Bolton and tell the world, in detail, with your name attached to it.

Trump’s critics have been burned by anonymous sources before. The author of the anonymous New York Times op-ed, Miles Taylor, was not much of a “senior official in the Trump administration” and was a fairly obscure figure. Three CNN staffers resigned over a false story that cited an anonymous source saying the Senate Intelligence Committee was looking into the chief executive of a $10-billion Russian investment fund who met with financier Anthony Scaramucci before the inauguration. Brian Ross was suspended after he reported, relying upon an anonymous source, that Trump had directed Michael Flynn to make contact with Russian officials when he was still a candidate for the presidency. Sometimes reporters get fooled by sources that lie. The Times just “retracted the core of its hit 2018 podcast series Caliphate after an internal review found the paper failed to heed red flags indicating that the man it relied upon for its narrative about the allure of terrorism could not be trusted to tell the truth.”

As noted yesterday, perhaps these are just meaningless White House bull sessions, where a depressed president meets with anyone willing to float any fantasy scenario of him staying in office, and nothing will come of it. There’s no crime in a president sitting around, moping, raging, and fantasizing about seizing voting machines or declaring martial law — just bad character. But a president isn’t supposed to float trial balloons about declaring martial law and having the military organize a re-vote in the aftermath of an election loss. Talking about a drastic action is a necessary step to taking a drastic action.

(I’m reminded of President Obama joking that if the Jonas Brothers flirted with his daughters, he would take them out with a drone strike. The punchline lands a little differently when the guy making the joke actually has the authority to launch drone strikes, and if you have the legal authority to kill people, maybe you shouldn’t joke about abusing your legal authority to kill people.)

But for all of the worry at the moment . . . just what is Trump going to do? He has no legal authority over any part of the election process, and the military has no role in the process. Trump directing the military to institute martial law and seize voting machines would be unlawful orders. As I noted in the aftermath of an exercise in runaway paranoia described as an election simulation, which envisioned National Guard troops destroying thousands of ballots in Democratic-leaning ZIP codes, the military isn’t going to play along:

Soldiers are legally obligated to follow lawful orders, but not unlawful ones. Under the U.S. Code of Military Justice, a soldier’s decision to follow an unlawful order can result in criminal penalties. An order to destroy cast ballots would be obviously and transparently illegal. In fact, the question of whether the ballot is legally cast is moot; the soldier has no legal authority to destroy the ballot. While U.S. National Guard members have participated in election-support activities — usually in civilian clothing — they have never had a role in determining the validity of ballots. It is really difficult to imagine any National Guard members believing that they are authorized to destroy ballots — particularly when ordered to do so by one of the candidates on the ballot!

The president cannot declare martial law via a tweet. The Pentagon has explicitly said all presidential orders must go through traditional chain-of-command channels.

And if Trump really did order the military to seize voting machines, invalidate the recently completed presidential-election results, and organize a re-vote of the presidential race in a handful of key states . . . would his cabinet invoke the 25th Amendment first, or would Congress impeach him before they could finish?

Swan reports that Trump is raging against Vice President Pence, Chief of Staff Meadows, White House counsel Cipollone, Secretary of State Pompeo and Senate majority leader McConnell.

The president cannot fire the vice president — Pence is as freely elected as the president is and does not serve at the pleasure of the president — nor the Senate majority leader. Trump can fire Meadows, Cipollone, and Pompeo . . . and then find himself with even fewer allies and capable staffers. If Trump wants to spend his last four weeks in office raging alongside a White House chief of staff Sidney Powell and White House counsel Lin Wood, he’s free to make those mistakes.

ADDENDUM: We can argue about whether congressional recognition of the proper order of reincarnation of the Dalai Lama belongs in the recently passed mega-bill, but it does address a genuine foreign-policy concern regarding China.