Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
“You don’t tug on Superman’s cape,
You don’t spit into the wind,
You don’t pull the mask off the old Lone Ranger
And you don’t mess around with Jim.”
— Jim Croce, “You Don’t Mess Around with Jim,” 1972
“The show is ‘Trump’ and it is sold-out performances [sic] everywhere. I’ve had fun doing it and will continue to have fun, and I think most people enjoy it.”
— Donald J. Trump, Playboy magazine, March 1990
Donald John Trump is the luckiest man in the world. Maybe the luckiest man ever.
That’s what came to my mind on September 21, 2018 when I was working at the home of one of my home-care clients and he had on CNN. They were broadcasting a report that the New York Times had just published a story alleging that during the fraught eight days between Trump’s firing of FBI director James Comey and assistant attorney general Rod Rosenstein’s appointment of Robert Mueller as a special counsel to investigate allegations that Trump’s 2016 Presidential campaign had conspired with Russia to influence the election on Trump’s behalf, Rosenstein had openly discussed having senior Department of Justice officials secretly record their meetings with Trump.
What’s more, he’d allegedly discussed with members of Trump’s Cabinet the possibility of invoking the 25th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution — particularly section four, which reads, “Whenever the Vice President and a majority of either the principal officers of the executive departments or of such other body as Congress may by law provide, transmit to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives their written declaration that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, the Vice President shall immediately assume the powers and duties of the office as Acting President.” The amendment also provides that if the President wants to challenge the determination of the Vice President and a Cabinet majority that he’s unfit to serve, he can appeal to Congress and stay in office unless a two-thirds majority of each house votes to remove him.
The 25th Amendment was added to the Constitution in 1965, just after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, and section four seems to have been included as part of a what-if exercise — what if Kennedy had survived the assassination but ended up in a persistent vegetative state, unable even to function as a normal human being, let alone govern the nation as President? It also may have been inspired by Woodrow Wilson, who suffered a stroke in 1919, a year and a half before his second term ended, and who for the rest of his Presidency was incommunicado. He stayed in a White House room and, whenever a document needed a Presidential signature, his wife would take it into his sickroom and return with the document signed. By him, or by her forging his signature? No one knew for sure, and historians are still arguing about it today.
But what apparently prompted Rod Rosenstein’s concern and his possible interest in secretly recording the President was his sense that the way he felt Trump had manipulated him into providing the basis for Comey’s firing suggested that there might be something “off” about Trump’s mental state. Apparently Rosenstein thought he had simply been asked to write a memo assessing Comey’s handling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private server for her e-mails while she was Secretary of State during President Barack Obama’s first term. Instead, he found that his memo — which criticized Comey for having reopened the investigation with great fanfare 11 days before the November 2016 election, and then closed it again two days later — had been cited by Trump as his reason for firing Comey. According to New York Times reporters Adam Goldman and Michael Schmidt (https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/21/us/politics/rod-rosenstein-wear-wire-25th-amendment.html), this is what happened next:
The president’s reliance on his memo caught Mr. Rosenstein by surprise, and he became angry at Mr. Trump, according to people who spoke to Mr. Rosenstein at the time. He grew concerned that his reputation had suffered harm.
A determined Mr. Rosenstein began telling associates that he would ultimately be “vindicated” for his role in the matter. One week after the firing, Mr. Rosenstein met with Mr. McCabe and at least four other senior Justice Department officials, in part to explain his role in the situation.
During their discussion, Mr. Rosenstein expressed frustration at how Mr. Trump had conducted the search for a new F.B.I. director, saying the president was failing to take the candidate interviews seriously. A handful of politicians and law enforcement officials, including Mr. McCabe, were under consideration.
To Mr. Rosenstein, the hiring process was emblematic of broader dysfunction stemming from the White House. He said both the process and the administration itself were in disarray, according to two people familiar with the discussion.
Mr. Rosenstein then raised the idea of wearing a recording device, or “wire,” as he put it, to secretly tape the president when he visited the White House. One participant asked whether Mr. Rosenstein was serious, and he replied animatedly that he was.
The Times reporters said that at least two meetings took place on May 16, 2017 at which Rosenstein discussed his problems with what he viewed as Trump’s “erratic” behavior, and in one of them he discussed sounding out the members of Trump’s Cabinet to see if they would be interested in pursuing the 25th Amendment remedy. The article stressed that nothing actually happened as a result of Rosenstein’s musings. Instead of secretly recording the President or lobbying for the 25th Amendment, Rosenstein chose to appoint a special counsel, former FBI director Robert Mueller, to investigate allegations that the government of Russia had sought to influence the 2016 U.S. Presidential election to help Trump and hurt Clinton, and that Trump campaign officials had conspired with the Russians to do this.
Since then, Trump has routinely denounced the Mueller investigation as a “witch hunt” and a plot by an alleged “deep state” of government bureaucrats who hate him and are looking for any excuse to remove him from the Presidency. He fired not only Comey but assistant FBI director Andrew McCabe, whose memos regarding Rosenstein’s conduct in the eight days between Comey’s firing and Mueller’s appointment were reportedly one of the sources for the Times article. (Some sources, including former Obama administration ethics official Norm Eisen, have suggested McCabe leaked the Rosenstein story to the Times out of still-lingering bitterness over Rosenstein’s role in Comey’s firing.) Recently Trump boasted to a rally audience in Missouri that he had had enemies in the Justice Department and the FBI, but “They’re all gone, they’re all gone. But there’s a lingering stench, and we’re going to get rid of that, too.”
Whatever their motives for breaking a story about 16-month-old events in September 2018, the Goldman-Schmidt article in the September 21, 2018 New York Times claiming Rod Rosenstein wanted to secretly record meetings with Trump and lobby the Cabinet to invoke the 25th Amendment against him is one of the best pieces of news Donald Trump could have hoped for — especially from a paper he routinely denounces as “fake news” and “the failing New York Times.” Trump has been waiting for an excuse to fire both Rosenstein and his boss, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, whom Trump has never forgiven for recusing himself from supervising the Russia investigation because as a key player in Trump’s campaign he was involved in meetings with Russians himself. Now he has it.
Invoke the 25th Amendment? These Toadies?
It’s clear that Trump has long viewed the 25th Amendment as a potential threat to him and his presidency. On June 12, 2017, less than a month after Rosenstein allegedly discussed lobbying Cabinet members to remove Trump under its provisions, Trump held a bizarre Cabinet meeting in which he allowed TV cameras to film the proceedings and record every sitting Cabinet member uttering fulsome words of praise for Trump and his policies (http://www.cnn.com/2017/06/12/politics/donald-trump-cabinet-meeting/index.html):
Vice-President Mike Pence: “It’s the greatest privilege of my life to serve as Vice-President to a President who is keeping his word to the American people.”
Attorney General Jeff Sessions: “I am proud to be here and celebrate the exactly right message to the American people, and the response is timeless around the country.” (Trump responded, “Great success.”)
Labor Secretary Alex Acosta: “I am deeply honored to be here, and I want to thank you for keeping your commitment to American workers.”
Energy Secretary Rick Perry: “This last week, I had the great privilege of being able to represent America in China at the Green Energy Ministerial. Good timing. They needed to hear why America was stepping away from the Paris accord, and they did.”
U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley: “It’s a good day at the United Nations. We now have a strong voice. People know what the United States is for. They know what we’re against, and they see us leading across the board. And so I think the international community knows we’re back.”
Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney: “Thank you, Mr. President, for the kind words about the budget. You know we’re going to be able to take care of the people who really need it, and at the same time, with your direction, we were able to also focus on the forgotten men and women who are paying those taxes. I appreciate your support and direction in pulling that budget together.
Environmental Protection Agency Chair Scott Pruitt (since fired): “Good morning, Mr. President. It’s good to be back in the United States. I arrived back this morning at one o’clock from Italy, at the G-7 summit, focused on the environment, and our message there was that the United States was going to be focused on growth and protecting the environment. It was received well.”
Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats: “Good morning, Mr. President. The intelligence community has never faced such a diversity of threats to our country. And we are going to provide — continue to provide you with the very best intelligence we can, so you can formulate policy to deal with these issues.”
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos: “Mr. President, it’s a privilege to serve, to serve the students of this country, and to work to ensure that every child has an equal opportunity to get a great education.”
U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price (since fired): “What an incredible honor it is to lead the Department of Health and Human Services at this pivotal time under your leadership. I can’t thank you enough for the privilege you’ve given me and the leadership you’ve shown.”
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke: “Mr. President, as your SEAL on your staff, and it’s an honor to be your steward of our public lands and the generator of energy dominance.”
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (since fired): “It’s an honor to serve the country and a great privilege you’ve given me.”
Defense Secretary James Mattis: “Mr. President, it’s an honor to represent the great men and women of the Department of Defense, and we are grateful for the sacrifices our people are making to strengthen our military so that our diplomats always negotiate from strength.”
Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross: “Thank you for the opportunity to help fix the trade deficit and other things. I’m thrilled to have the chance to help you live up to your campaign promises.”
Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao (wife of U.S. Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell): “Mr. President, last week was a great week. It was Infrastructure Week. Thank you for coming over to the Department of Transportation. Hundreds and hundreds of people were just so thrilled to hang out, watching the whole ceremony.”
Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly (now White House chief of staff): “Mr. President, I’m proud to be here to represent the four million men and women who serve the country in DHS and have worked with all of our partners to the south (to achieve a) 70 percent drop in illegal immigration. While we still welcome legal immigrants to the tune of a million a year, we are no longer a friendly environment to illegal border-crossers.”
Unidentified official: “Mr. President, first of all I apologize for being late for work. For about four months I’ve gotten stuck here in that swamp you’ve been trying to drain.”
Small Business Administration (SBA) Chair Linda McMahon: “Good morning, Mr. President. Thank you for the opportunity to serve at SBA. Our outreach and other scored programs are being so successful, so thank you. We’re on a good trajectory, and still a lot of work to do.”
White House chief of staff Reince Priebus (since fired): “On behalf of the entire senior staff around you, we thank you for the opportunity and the blessing you’ve given us to serve your agenda and the American people. And we’re continuing to work hard every day to accomplish those goals.”
This nauseating spectacle was variously compared in the media to a Third World dictator demanding his subordinates kiss up to him or face immediate incarceration in a gulag, or a boardroom meeting on Trump’s former reality-TV show The Apprentice aimed at humiliating the associates competing for his favor. But it was also a message Trump was sending loud and clear to anyone in the country, from Rod Rosenstein to MS-NBC host Lawrence O’Donnell, that he had nothing to fear from the 25th Amendment because he had his Cabinet members exactly where he wanted them. Not only would they not vote to remove him, they were too busy jockeying for place to suck the royal asshole even to think of crossing Trump.
Rosenstein Revelations a Victory for Trump
The September 21 New York Times article accusing Rod Rosenstein of having mused about secretly recording meetings with Trump and lobbying the Cabinet to invoke the 25th Amendment against him couldn’t have been better news for Trump. Indeed, a few sources, including New Yorker writer John Cassidy, have suggested that sources in the Trump administration leaked it themselves to give Trump the excuse he’s been looking for to fire Rosenstein and his boss, Jeff Sessions. Not only does it give Trump the ability to claim that Rosenstein committed a firing offense, it also takes public attention away from the controversy surrounding Trump’s nomination of Right-wing judge Brett Kavanaugh to take Anthony Kennedy’s position on the U.S. Supreme Court, the allegations of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford that he tried to rape her when he was 17 and she was 15, and the bizarre tit-for-tat negotiations between Dr. Ford and the Senate Judiciary Committee over whether and how she’ll be able to tell her story to the committee.
Interestingly, commentators on Trump’s favorite news outlet, Fox News, have given him conflicting advice on whether he should seize on the Times article to fire Rosenstein. “Rod Rosenstein must be fired today,” Fox personality Laura Ingraham said in a tweet. But Sean Hannity, who’s probably closer to the President than Ingraham, warned him on the air that the Times article itself might be a “deep state” conspiracy to provoke the famously thin-skinned Trump into a rash firing of Rosenstein that will only hurt him politically and damage Republicans’ chances in the 2018 midterm elections. Likewise, U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) and Jason Chaffetz, former Congressmember and current Fox News contributor, have warned Trump not to take any actions based on reporting in the New York Times.
Rosenstein himself has issued two strongly worded denials of the Times story. In his first statement, which he gave to the Times in time for them to include it in the article, “The New York Times’s story is inaccurate and factually incorrect. I will not further comment on a story based on anonymous sources who are obviously biased against the Department and are advancing their own personal agenda. But let me be clear about this: based on my personal dealings with the President, there is no basis to invoke the 25th Amendment.” Later in the evening on September 21, he issued another statement which read, “I never pursued or authorized recording the President and any suggestion that I have ever advocated for the removal of the President is absolutely false.”
I suspect the only open question remaining is whether Trump will fire Jeff Sessions and Rod Rosenstein now or wait until the midterm elections. My prediction is he will wait until the elections. If the Republicans retain control of both houses of Congress, he can fire anyone he wants and he will have nothing to fear. Trump has his Cabinet so totally bullied and intimidated he doesn’t have to worry about the 25th Amendment. If the House remains in Republican hands, he won’t have to worry about being impeached, either — and even if the House goes Democratic in this year’s midterms (less likely than most people think because Republican state governments have done such a great job gerrymandering House districts that the Democrats will have to win a massive victory in the national House vote even to eke out a bare majority), the Republicans will almost certainly still hold the Senate and will definitely be able to keep there from being the two-thirds vote needed to convict Trump on an impeachment and remove him from office.
I don’t for a moment think Donald J. Trump is an “idiot,” a “moron” (with or without an expletive prefix) or “unhinged,” as former Trump aide Omarosa Manigault Newman calls him in the title of her new book about him. It’s indicative of just how far the entire U.S. government has descended into bizarrerie that the idea of Rod Rosenstein, of all seemingly dull, boring people (Trump derisively calls him “Mr. Peepers,” after the late Wally Cox’s role as the milquetoast protagonist of a 1950’s TV show), would secretly be recording Trump, doesn’t seem all that far-fetched when we know at least two people who used to be in Trump’s inner circle — Omarosa and his former attorney, Michael Cohen — did secretly record him. But I don’t think for a moment that Trump is crazy — just very good at instigating crazy, self-destructive behavior in those around him.
I think Omarosa described him correctly when she wrote of Trump as he was in 2003, when he hosted the first season of his reality-TV show The Apprentice and she first worked with him as one of the contestants:
[W]henever there was a disagreement or an argument, his eyes lit up. He loved conflict, chaos, and confusion; he loved seeing people argue or fight. He sat up even taller when people made a strong case when defending themselves. I adapted my boardroom strategy accordingly. Sometimes I gave backhanded compliments to my fellow contestants — and Trump would zero in on it. If I was openly critical of them, he’d smile.
Donald Trump is a gutter-fighter whose street smarts approach genius. Trump’s statement that the White House is “a well-oiled machine” isn’t the flat denial of reality a lot of people assume it is. It’s an indication that his administration, with staff members constantly jockeying for position, sometimes seemingly at each other’s throats, always pushing for his favor, is run the way he wants it to be run, the way every Trump enterprise has been run. Trump is a bully who thinks strength and toughness are the best qualities a person, especially one who’s a leader or hopes to be one, can have.
During the devastating hurricanes of 2017 and 2018 a lot of news commentators made the silly statement that Trump seems to be “empathy-challenged.” They were missing the point big-time. Trump not only has no empathy, he’s proud of that: he thinks empathy and compassion are the qualities of weaklings. That’s one reason he hated Mikhail Gorbachev, former premier of the Soviet Union and a leader who wanted to reform the U.S.S.R. to make it democratic. In his featured interview in the March 1990 issue of Playboy, Trump said he was “very unimpressed” with Gorbachev and added, “What you will see there soon is a revolution; the signs are all there with the demonstrations and picketing. Russia is out of control and the leadership knows it. That’s my problem with Gorbachev. Not a firm enough hand.”
The leaders Trump expressed admiration for in that interview were the officials of the Chinese Communist Party who violently and murderously suppressed protests against the regime in Tiananmen Square in 1989. The Wikipedia page on Tiananmen Square (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tiananmen_Square_protests_of_1989) states, “As the protests developed, the authorities veered back and forth between conciliatory and hardline tactics, exposing deep divisions within the party leadership. By May, a student-led hunger strike galvanized support for the demonstrators around the country and the protests spread to some 400 cities. Ultimately, China's paramount leader Deng Xiaoping and other Communist Party elders believed the protests to be a political threat, and resolved to use force. The State Council declared martial law on May 20, and mobilized as many as 300,000 troops to Beijing. The troops suppressed the protests by firing at demonstrators with automatic weapons, killing multiple protesters and leading to mass civil unrest in the days following.”
In his 1990 Playboy interview, Trump told journalist Glenn Plaskin that the Chinese leaders had been wrong to try to conciliate with the demonstrators, and right to attack and kill them. “When the students poured into Tiananmen Square, the Chinese government almost blew it,” Trump said. “Then they were vicious, they were horrible, but they put it down with strength. That shows you the power of strength. Our country is right now perceived as weak ... as being spit on by the rest of the world.” When Plaskin realized how often Trump was using the word “tough” as his paramount virtue, he asked Trump to define it. Trump replied, “Tough is being mentally capable of winning battles against an opponent and doing it with a smile. Tough is winning systematically.”
Donald Trump is running the United States the way he has always run things, including his private businesses. He’s always been the sort of boss who hires people without giving them a clear idea of what he wants them to do, and lets them fight it out for his favor and his enrichment. He’s running the White House the same way he ran the Trump Organization. Trump fundamentally does not believe in democracy; as a business owner he’s always run a family firm without even nominal responsibility to a board of directors or shareholders who elect them, and he likewise sees no reason to hold himself accountable to the American people.
His attitude is that his election (and never mind that three million more Americans voted for Hillary Clinton to be their President than voted for Donald Trump) allows him to do whatever he wants with the country, and he has no intention of leaving power before his term is up. Indeed, I don’t think he has any intention of leaving power even when his term is up; I think he intends to rig the 2020 election through more effective and less traceable versions of the ways Richard Nixon attempted to rig his re-election — the tactics, including crimes, that collectively became known as “Watergate” — and continue his family’s power beyond 2024 by installing his daughter Ivanka as his successor. In my darkest moments, indeed, I wonder if I will ever again live to see a day in my country’s history when its chief executive is not named Trump.
Americans have one and only one alternative to stop Donald Trump. We have to register to vote, to turn out for every election, and to vote for Democratic candidates for every office. Progressives should be challenging pro-corporate Democrats in primaries — as they’ve already started doing, with mixed results (some successes in state legislative races and in Congress) — but even if we lose the primaries, we must still vote for the Democrat who wins. A pro-corporate Democrat is worlds better than a Republican because even the most pro-corporate Democrat will vote against the Trump agenda and for the preservation of America’s (admittedly limited) democracy.
If the Democratic Party does not regain control of at least one house of Congress in the November 6, 2018 midterms, Trump and his cronies will be able effectively to end America’s 240-year-old experiment in republican rule. The truth is that simple, and that stark. If the Republicans keep control of Congress after this year’s election, Donald Trump will be able to fire Rod Rosenstein and Jeff Sessions, and to install an attorney general who will either fire Robert Mueller outright or so limit his jurisdiction and his ability to function that Mueller will resign. Trump will also be able to pack the U.S. judiciary with hard-line Federalist Society/Heritage Foundation judges, so the U.S. courts will no longer be an avenue for social justice, but quite the opposite — an enforcement arm for corporate privilege and racism, the way they were from the 1880’s to the 1930’s.
Donald J. Trump wants to put his permanent stamp on American history. He wants future generations to speak of two eras in American history: B.T. and A.T. He wants the history books of the future to tell the story of how America had descended into weakness and carnage until Donald J. Trump, the hero on horseback, rode into Washington, D.C. to drain the swamp, destroy the “deep state” and establish the Trumpocracy. And he is quite the opposite of “unhinged.” He is fixated on these goals and determined to do everything he needs to in order to achieve them — including literally murdering his political enemies, just as the Chinese leaders he so admires did in 1989.
And, as weak a reed as the Democratic Party is, it’s the only force in the U.S. that can stop him — if enough people turn out to vote on November 6 and stay engaged enough in politics to push the Democrats in a progressive direction and make them generate policies that actually benefit the 99 percent. It’s not a forlorn hope — we did it in the 1930’s, and to some extent again in the 1960’s — but it’s the only hope we have, and those who say “there’s no difference between the two major parties,” in the face of all the evidence the Trump administration and Republican Congress have provided that there are profound differences between the two major parties, are doing neither themselves, their country nor the progressive cause a service.