It was another Fifth Avenue day for President Donald Trump.
His boast back in 2016 that he could shoot someone on the New York boulevard and not lose a voter turned out to be an uncanny assessment of his bulletproof political persona.
And so it was Monday that he skated through yet another sequence of stunning controversies and outrageous plot twists that would have been defining scandals for any other administration.
Had President Barack Obama thought of inviting Taliban terrorists to Camp David at the time of the 9/11 anniversary, the Republican Party would have been in meltdown.
Had President George W. Bush caused the CIA to extract a highly placed Russia asset because of careless handling of classified intelligence, Washington would be in uproar.
And if a Cabinet secretary had threatened to fire top officials if they refused to lie to protect a president – say, Hillary Clinton, had she won in 2016 – impeachment would be in the air.
“You know what’s the most shocking (part) of it – that it isn’t shocking anymore,” Democratic Rep. Eliot Engel, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told CNN’s Erin Burnett.
“I am almost numb. It is one thing after another, after another.”
Yet another logic-busting day in Washington is unlikely to make a dent in a presidency shored up by unshakable GOP support.
There were only the mildest Republican statements of concern – and relief – over the cancellation of Trump’s big Afghan photo op at Camp David.
Impossible to keep up
So thick and fast did the controversies come that it was hard to focus on any one drama – a factor Trump has repeatedly used to his advantage in a constantly riotous presidency. Media fact checks and accounts of the President’s serial dishonesty and shattered governing conventions merely play into his demagogic conceits that Washington elites are not just unfair to him – but also don’t understand his appeal in the “real” heartland America.
In a typically virtuoso performance on the South Lawn of the White House, Trump evaded, spun and dodged his way out of trouble before jetting off to an incendiary rally in North Carolina, in which he blasted the “America-hating left” and claimed Democrats are “not big believers in religion.”
The President’s perpetual cycle of chaos shields him from scrutiny for too long on any one political storm. And he knows that his base voters have taken his advice to believe only the version of reality that he creates for them.
It also makes it difficult for the Democratic-led House – engaged in multiple strands of investigation targeting the White House – to mount an effective oversight operation.
As the new week dawned, Washington was still digesting the stunning news – broken by Trump on Twitter of course – that he’d planned and then canceled talks at Camp David with the Taliban and the Afghan government, which is wary of his bid to get US troops out of the country as soon as possible.
Even Trump may not have got away with that one – perhaps a factor behind his decision not to go ahead, which pitched his administration’s peace initiative into serious doubt.
Before the morning was out, Trump’s mysterious relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin was back in the spotlight.
In an exclusive account, CNN’s Jim Sciutto reported that the US in 2017 had extracted one of its highest covert sources in Russia.
A person directly involved in the affair said the move was driven in part by concern that Trump and his administration had mishandled intelligence that could have helped expose the asset. The story raised fresh concerns about the haphazard national security process in the White House and Trump’s rough relationship with US intelligence services.
The White House said CNN’s report was incorrect.
Trump dismisses corruption claims
Touching on corruption claims tainting his administration’s reputation, Trump also dismissed concerns that his administration was directing government business to his resorts in Scotland and Ireland.
He didn’t argue that such a move would be unethical. The President insisted – with the chutzpah that his supporters love – that he was simply too rich to need the help.
“I’m going to give out my financial condition. And you’ll be extremely shocked that the numbers are many, many times what you think,” said Trump, who unlike other presidents has refused to release his tax returns and to fully divest from his businesses. “I don’t need to have somebody take a room overnight at a hotel.”
Trump also defended states that are canceling GOP presidential primaries, saying Republican dissidents who want to challenge him are “a laughingstock.”
It took only a few hours for the next stunner to break.
The New York Times reported that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross had threatened to fire top National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration employees if the agency didn’t disavow a tweet from a regional office that contradicted Trump’s false claim that Hurricane Dorian was likely to hit Alabama.
Ross called acting NOAA Administrator Neil Jacobs and told him to fix the National Weather Service’s contradiction of Trump’s claim. When Jacobs opposed the demand, Ross told him NOAA’s political staff would be fired, the Times reported.
A Commerce Department spokesperson said the story was false.
It was far from the first time that Trump’s subordinates have felt under pressure to protect his blushes or to show allegiance. Several Cabinet meetings have turned into long sessions in which agency chiefs praise the President.
But the report casts a poor light on an administration that often appears to corrode the integrity on which good governance relies for the consent of the governed.
The ultimate test of Trump’s political resilience will come only in November 2020.
But if Monday is any guide, his opponents will need to sketch a strong campaign message to prevent his pell-mell style from swamping their efforts to hold him to account.