Why is it that this administration can’t handle a controversy or scandal without creating more problems for itself?
A week ago we saw the resignation of White House communications director Mike Dubke. Dubke told CNN that the people he’s leaving behind at the White House Office of Communications are, “the hardest working men and women in the American government,” which sounds like he’s sticking up for his former staff, as if to say, ‘this isn’t their fault.’ He may be right. In the wake of this story breaking I heard an MSNBC correspondent say something to the effect that the White House’s problem isn’t the communications strategy, or the need for a “shake up,” it’s actually the President himself.
And it occurred to me that the President’s problem is also himself. In a certain sense that’s obvious. But it isn’t to Trump. He seems genuinely not to understand why people react to him the way they do. He seems to truly believe he’s being unfairly persecuted.
The revelations about Jared Kushner’s backchannels that broke just over a week ago caused a lot of debate that was often limited to the question of whether or not this was legal, whether it was right or wrong. We heard the same thing from H.R. McMaster, from Donald Rumsfeld, and from John Kelly: that it’s normal to use backchannels, that other presidents have done it, and that it’s just fine.
Backchannels have be used responsibly and they have be used irresponsibly. Nixon used one to undermine U.S. peace negotiations at the end of the Vietnam War, prolonging the war and increasing the number of casualties. Was that fine? How do we decide when we approve of a backchannel or not? What makes Trump’s so problematic? The short version is: Trump does. Other Presidents who have used backchannels haven’t tended to be so suspiciously entangled with the countries they were communicating with. And in many cases backchannels are used to communicate with nations that we can’t be seen talking to. But we have open communications with Russia. What was Trump trying to say to Russia that he couldn’t let anyone else know? Was he being conniving or just paranoid? Or a little of both?
While past Presidents seem generally to have used backchannels selectively, the notable exception is Richard Nixon. Nixon’s use of back channels, and Trump’s too perhaps, was a part of his style: shady, paranoid, and vengeful. This week we heard that Trump was telling foreign leaders to call him directly on his cell. Some talking heads actually praised it as an expression of Trump’s willingness to work with other leaders more directly. In the context of Trump’s style of governing though, the use of private phone lines seems less like a friendly willingness to work together and more like a tendency toward control and paranoia. The same thing goes for the backchannel to Russia and the firing of James Comey.
On Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell on Thursday night, June 1, Lawrence spoke with Dan Rather, who said Trump, fresh from his Rose Garden Climate Announcement, looks to him like a President under pressure – mad at those he sees as being in his way and scared of the investigations closing in on him. Rather said, “What you have here is a President who’s lashing out in anger. We haven’t had a president who’s this psychologically troubled in this way, since at least Richard Nixon.”
Indeed, disturbing. It seems like no amount of facts on climate change can convince the president when he has “alternative” ones. Russian Predident Valdimir Putin recently told Megyn Kelly that there is no evidence that Russia hacked our elections. Hopefully, when those facts do come out, Trump won’t be able to ignore them. And when they do, I certainly don’t envy the White House Communications staff.