Donald Trump is making an aggressive effort to stem the crisis of authority afflicting his presidency at a critical moment.
With midterm elections looming, he’s facing new questions about his fitness for office, and he’s hunting a hidden rebel within his own camp.
The President took immediate steps to address the situation on Monday, hitting out at Bob Woodward’s new book, which, along with an op-ed by an anonymous senior official in the New York Times, presents a devastating picture of his performance.
“The Woodward book is a Joke - just another assault against me, in a barrage of assaults, using now disproven unnamed and anonymous sources…” Trump tweeted.
“Many have already come forward to say the quotes by them, like the book, are fiction. Dems can’t stand losing. I’ll write the real book!”
Typifying the sense that what would once seem absurd now counts for normality in this White House, Vice President Mike Pence on Sunday offered to take a lie detector test to prove he was not the author of the op-ed which assailed Trump for “half baked, ill-informed and occasionally reckless” leadership.
Pence and the President’s counselor, Kellyanne Conway, tried to put the spotlight on the motives of the anonymous official, warning that there could be “criminal” dimensions to the op-ed, boosting Trump’s calls for a Justice Department investigation.
But the controversy is unlikely to ease in the week ahead. Woodward’s new book is due to be published on Tuesday, and the veteran journalist is promoting his damning account of the President’s leadership.
“People better wake up to what’s going on,” Woodward said on CBS’s “Sunday Morning” while touting “Fear: Trump in the White House” as a detailed inside account that mirrors the op-ed’s claims that a group of senior officials is working to save the nation and the world from Trump’s rash decisions.
If the version of events revealed by Woodward and the anonymous official is true, America is facing a deeply dysfunctional presidency and crisis of governance with no parallel in modern history, apart, perhaps, from the paranoid final days of the Nixon administration.
According to these accounts, the President of the United States would appear to be deeply unsuited to his responsibilities, uninterested in the details of policy, lacking knowledge, and in the words of the anonymous senior official, “impetuous, adversarial, petty and ineffective.”
Such a state of affairs would leave the country with a leadership void in the Oval Office and compromise the effectiveness of government. It would also tarnish America’s image in the world and could offer openings to adversaries if the White House is constantly distracted.
But the idea that there is a core of “adults in the room,” as described by the op-ed writer, subverting the President’s authority and wielding for themselves the power granted to the commander-in-chief during an election season should also be a troubling one, since it raises questions about the integrity of America’s democratic system itself.
The counter punches
Following days in which the White House was in a defensive crouch, Conway and Pence fought back on political talk shows Sunday after sources told CNN the administration had narrowed its suspicions over who wrote the article to a few individuals.
“To the President’s point, there could be a national security risk at hand; he doesn’t want this person in a meeting where he’s discussing China, Russia, North Korea,” Conway told CNN’s Jake Tapper on “State of the Union.”
She said there could be a criminal aspect to the writing of the opinion piece – though she was unable to say exactly how the author might have broken the law when it appears that the act of disloyalty amounted to exercising the right to free expression.
“I have really no idea, nor do you, what else this person has divulged,” Conway told Tapper. “I think somebody so cowardly and so conceited would probably go a step further.”
On “Fox News Sunday,” Pence was asked whether senior officials should take lie detector tests to prove they did not write the explosive opinion piece in the Times.
“I would agree to take it in a heartbeat and submit to any review the administration wanted to do,” Pence said.
The Vice President also argued that the author of the Times article was guilty of more than just disloyalty.
“The honorable thing to do here is for this individual to recognize that they are literally violating an oath. If they are that senior administration official, they are violating an oath not to the President, but to the Constitution.”
Pence appeared to be arguing that by showing such disloyalty to the President and even whispering about invoking the 25th Amendment to remove him, the “resistance” the op-ed writer mentions is subverting the democratic process.
But those who have praised the actions of the op-ed writer, and officials mentioned in Woodward’s book who appear to be acting to contain an impulsive President, counter that senior officials may be acting to protect the Constitution itself from Trump’s attacks.
Trump’s calls for Attorney General Jeff Sessions to investigate the author of the Times article have renewed fears about the President’s expansive view of executive power. After all, he is effectively calling for the government’s instruments of criminal investigation to be brought to bear against someone who has committed no obvious crime.
“Does this President not understand that the Justice Department is not a tool of his own personal power?” Virginia Sen. Mark Warner asked Sunday on “State of the Union.”
Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse, meanwhile, warned that the incessant chaos at the White House was distracting from crucial problems.
“I don’t have any desire to beat this President up, but it’s pretty clear that this White House is a reality-show, soap-opera presidency,” Sasse, a frequent Trump critic said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
“What you’d like is the President to not worry so much about the short term of staffing, but the long term of vision-casting for America, pull us together as a people, help us deliberate about where we should go and then build a team of great, big-cause, low-ego people around you,” he said.
November is coming
The fresh uproar at the White House and questions about Trump’s leadership style and personality could not come at a worse time for Republicans, with less than two months to go before midterm elections in which Democrats hope to cripple his presidency by winning the House of Representatives.
Some pundits are now beginning to wonder if Democrats have a narrow path to victory in the Senate as well.
Any sense of demoralization that sets in amid GOP voters could dampen their turnout in the election, one reason why Trump is stepping up his campaign swings through red states and imploring his loyal base to turn out in record numbers.
One top Trump aide, budget chief Mick Mulvaney, warned behind closed doors on Saturday that even GOP candidates such as Texas Sen. Ted Cruz could be at risk of losing and were not “likable” enough, The New York Times reported.
Mulvaney made his comments, according to the Times, at a meeting with party donors alongside Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel. The Times said a person at the private event provided the paper with an audio recording of Mulvaney’s remarks.
Trump however is adamant that there will not be a “blue wave” of Democratic victories, but a Republican tide in November, based on the strong economy and what he claims is the record-breaking performance of his administration.
“Republicans are doing really well with the Senate Midterms. Races that we were not even thinking about winning are now very close, or even leading,” the President said in a late Saturday evening tweet. “Election night will be very interesting indeed!”