Weekly, daily, indeed sometimes hourly, we have trouble believing what we see coming out of the Trump White House. It can be difficult to turn our gaze from the stupefying parade of announcements and events and tweets and leaks—and leaks, and leaks—that show us a White House at once wholly undisciplined while trying to impose an ideological discipline upon the nation’s capital that finds no modern precedent in either party.
One can select a day almost at random and quickly work up a list of four or five developments that defy belief. Let’s take Friday, February 24, which began with the president speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) meeting in the Washington suburbs, where he repeated and intensified his earlier charge that the news media are “the enemy of the people” (even as he avowed, naturally, that “nobody” loves the First Amendment more than he). A little later that day, The New York Times, CNN, the Los Angeles Times, Politico, The Huffington Post, and Buzzfeed were blocked by White House aides from attending a briefing with Press Secretary Sean Spicer. The three major networks were invited, as were right-wing outlets like Breitbart News.
Those two events would have been quite enough, but then, late in the day, a pair of potentially explosive news stories broke, one from the Associated Press describing a draft report by analysts at the Department of Homeland Security arguing that nationals from the seven nations included in Trump’s January 27 travel ban did not in fact constitute a threat to national security, and another from The Washington Post about potentially improper efforts by the White House to counter Russia-related stories. This second story was particularly powerful, in that it showed the White House trying to enlist members of Congress and the intelligence community—which Trump has so regularly impugned—to deny reports tying the White House to the Kremlin. Both were part of the ceaseless flow of news leaked by insiders trying to advance or block particular schemes brewing in this or that faction of the administration.
Somewhere in there—March 1, to be precise—there was one day of normality, the day after the president’s address to a joint session of Congress, when he refrained from ad-libbing about the “failing” New York Times or what have you and managed, for a solid hour, to resemble a typical president. Then, the next night, The Washington Post broke the story that Attorney General Jeff Sessions had perhaps perjured himself at his confirmation hearing under questioning from Minnesota Senator Al Franken—who has emerged, by the way, as a serious and important opposition leader—and the carnival was back in town.
It is spectacle such as we have never seen, but attention must be trained not solely on the White House. Just a few short weeks into this administration, and already it seems clear that the most important question historians might be asking twenty, fifty,…
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