I refuse to read the Michael Wolff book ‘Fire and Fury’, because it de-legitimizes the serious concerns about the intellectual and moral fitness of our current President that I share with a good number of people whose judgment I value more than my own. People like David Brooks, the NYT columnist and senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, and Ian Bremmer, President of the Eurasia Group. I wish the book had been written by a serious, professional journalist like Bob Woodward or Carl Bernstein after being given authorized access to the White House. Because I am dying to get a credible read on what kind of Presidency we are really dealing with.
As David Brooks has pointed out in his excellent column ‘The decline of anti-Trumpism’ in the New York Times of January 8, it almost appears as if we have two White Houses, two Presidencies, one rational and effective and the other one irrational, erratic and dysfunctional (Brooks terms the first one the ‘Invisible White House’ and the other, more apparent, one the ‘Potemkin White House’). The rational and effective White House is represented by some of the key personnel in the administration and the staff of the White House. The irrational, erratic and dysfunctional White House is represented by Donald Trump himself and some of his spokespersons. Which White House controls the destiny of our country?
Since we have no credible inside view, what do we have on the record to give us a glimpse into the daily reality of what the White House is really like? I have taken the time to pull up the transcripts of Trump interviews, given between November 23, 2016 and January 11, 2018, to journalists from the New York Times, Associated Press, The Economist and the Wall Street Journal. They make tough reading. They cover essentially the first year of the Trump Presidency and if you are looking for a learning curve, it is not apparent. Whatever the intellectual capacity of #45 may be, the transcripts show that if you ask him to answer questions without a prepared, scripted, response, you get an avalanche of words that are never grouped in fluent, coherent sentences and only sporadically address the question asked. The responses in the January 11, 2018 interview with Rebecca Ballhaus, Michael Bender, Peter Nicolas and Louise Radnofsky of the Wall Street Journal are as inarticulate and scattered as the first one with the executive and editorial team of the New York Times on November 23 of 2016.
Equally revealing from the transcripts is the lack of intellectual curiosity evidenced in the words of the President. Nothing gets questioned, other than the FBI’s hesitation to delve into the Hillary emails and other shenanigans of the Clinton clique. All the answers the interviewers get are self-congratulatory statements about how he can and will straighten out the mess created by his predecessors. A lack of command of the facts, including an intimate understanding of the US Constitution and the separation of powers, is pouring out of these transcripts.
I find it amazing that, to my knowledge, none of the interviewers have cared to publicly ring the alarm bells as they came away from these interviews with a President who is clearly incapable of articulating a sensible thought process off the cuff. If, in a face to face interview, the President can’t offer a coherent commentary on his own actions, plans and expectations, how will he be capable to articulate his demands and intentions in encounters with other world leaders? This question is particularly compelling, given Trump's penchant for one on one sessions that allow him to report afterwards how an amazingly good relationship he has been able to develop with his counterparts (whether it is Merkel, May, Macron, Abe or Xi Jinping) without witnesses able to refute the story.
Newsweek has latched onto this and reported that the company ‘Factbase’ has analyzed the verbal vocabulary of every US President since Herbert Hoover and found that our current President communicates at the lowest grade level of all his 14 predecessors. Measured on the scientifically constructed Flesch-Kincaid scale, Trump gets a 4.6 grade, which equates to a 4th grade vocabulary. The Factbase analysis is limited to unscripted words uttered at press conferences and other public appearances (not prepared remarks or press releases). It should not surprise us. We hear the President speaking ad lib just about every day and come to the same conclusion. I thought ‘W’ was bad, but at a 7.4 grade he ranks far above the current occupant of the White House.
The problem with most politicians is that they have a tendency to say different, even contradictory, things to different audiences and are masters in hedging their positions, knowing full well that whatever they say can and will be held against them at some point by at least part of their constituency. Our current President, even though more a showman than a politician, is no exception. But most other elected officials have learned to explain their positions in understandable sentences.
Does any of this disqualify Trump for the highest office in the USA? Not by itself, but combined with the fact that, in these interviews, #45 constantly contradicts himself, repeats himself ad nauseam and flaunts the facts, it should at a minimum raise questions in the minds of the people who voted for him in 2016.
Unfortunately, Michael Wolff’s book undermines the foundation for the legitimate opposition to the Trump Presidency, much like the idle talk about impeachment of the President does. The hard truth is that the American voters have put an intellectual and moral minion in the White House. No one can in truth maintain that Trump misled voters in his campaign in who he is, what he stands for, or how he plans on making America great again. The handwriting, rather ugly graffiti, was all over the wall. We need to accept that only two forces can remove this stain from America’s honor by removing him from office: 1) Robert Mueller, if he finds irrefutable evidence of high crimes and misdemeanor committed by #45; or 2) the voters, but not until 2020. We also need to accept that there is this other, invisible, White House that is quietly and methodically going about its business of reversing the Obama agenda.
Ultimately, I am of the opinion that we need to judge the office holder and not the ‘Invisible White House’ and I will find that the current President of the United States is unfit for the office he was elected to for a number of reasons:
· His refusal to eliminate every trace of self-dealing and conflict of interest between his business interests (his brand), his family interests and the sanctity of the public office he is entrusted with (the American brand).
· His disrespect for the constitutionally imposed limits on the authority of his office.
· His zero-sum approach to geo-political issues: if it is good for the other party, it can’t be good for America.
· His rhetoric on global trade, climate change, the Western alliance, immigration, the refugee challenge, NAFTA and the nuclear deal with Iran.
· His disregard for the intolerable increase in inequality and the national debt.
· His narcissism and populism.
But I realize that, other than the first two points of critique, all these arguments are political in nature and need to be contested and resolved at the voting booth. In the meantime, let’s hope that no irreparable harm is done to the country, it’s institutions, it’s standing in the world, not to speak of world peace.