Editor’s Note: John Avlon is a CNN senior political analyst and anchor. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
It is no longer tenable to pretend that concerns about the President’s character and judgment are simply partisan.
As Bob Woodward’s new book “Fear” and a bombshell anonymous op-ed published in the New York Times make clear, the reality of the Trump presidency is even worse than it appears.
The new developments show that there seems to be a core cadre of administration officials who are serving primarily to contain the damage created by President Donald Trump. Critics – and Trump himself – may call them cowardly, treasonous or opportunistic, but in this civic stress test for our nation, they may be redefining what it means to be part of the patriotic resistance.
A clear consensus view has emerged over months of reporting, interviews and simple reading of the President’s own tweets: that the man is uncommonly petty, incurious and impulsive, with little to no fidelity to facts. Despite the best attempts to spin and normalize, life inside the White House seems to be best described as “crazytown” when compared to any other administration in our history.
By the Washington Post’s latest careful accounting, Trump states a lie or falsehood eight times a day – nearing 5,000 over the course of his 20 months in office. This is not in the same moral universe of past Presidents like “Honest Abe” Lincoln, or even politicians like FDR who were known to bend the truth to make a deal. Still, President Trump can state to Woodward with a straight face that his version of an accurate book would be one that shows “that nobody’s ever done a better job than I’m doing as President.”
“The root of the problem is the President’s amorality,” the anonymous, currently serving senior administration official writes in the New York Times op-ed. “Anyone who works with him knows he is not moored to any discernible first principles that guide his decision making. … It may be cold comfort in this chaotic era, but Americans should know that there are adults in the room. We fully recognize what is happening. And we are trying to do what’s right even when Donald Trump won’t.”
There is no clear precedent for this in American history. The 25th Amendment was designed to apply to physical incapacity, not incompetence or irresponsibility. But it confirms the urgency of the situation we find ourselves in as the longest lasting democratic republic in history. Bob Woodward’s book recounts the President’s former economic adviser Gary Cohn removing papers from the President’s desk that would have withdrawn the United States from trade agreements with South Korea during a time of increased tension with the nuclear dictatorship in the North.
“I stole it off his desk,” Cohn is quoted by an associate as saying in Woodward’s book. “He’s never going to see that document. Got to protect the country.” Former Staff Secretary Rob Porter is quoted as estimating that he spent a third of his time trying to delay or derail “really dangerous” ideas by the President arising out of impulse rather than solid intelligence.
This also tracks with the divergence in the administration between official policy and actions – most notably in attempts to contain Russian aggression, given the President’s inexplicable reluctance to criticize Vladimir Putin, a courtesy he extends to virtually no other human, including the Pope.
There is reason to thank this largely unnamed axis of adults inside the administration for minimizing the damage to transcendent national interests in a time when we have elected a President with – in the words of the Times piece’s author – “anti-democratic” impulses.
But there is far less cover available to the conservatives in the co-equal brand of government known as Congress who have long spoken of the erratic and irresponsible nature of President Trump in private, but have been afraid to speak that truth in public for fear of facing the wrath of their conservative populist base.
Whatever rationalizations are applied, this will ultimately be recognized for what it is: a cowardly dereliction of duty.
There are conservative policy successes from this administration – “effective deregulation, historic tax reform, a more robust military and more,” as the author of the op-ed states with some pride. But they are mixed in with the almost daily litany of insults and moral embarrassments from Trump himself. And these accomplishments seem to be largely the result of this group of Republicans, who can credibly claim that “this isn’t the work of the so-called deep state. It’s the work of the steady state.”
The need for Operation Contain the President is also evidence of the dangerous game we play when we encourage demagogic forces in our politics and feel that we can channel them in constructive directions when power is achieved. The wisdom is ancient: golem always turns on its creator.
There is culpability for Republicans who enabled and encouraged Trump’s rise.
Trump’s base is likely to be the last to recognize reality. While he is the least popular president on record at this point in his term on a national level while presiding over a robust economy, conservatives have rallied around him and seem impervious to new information.
One of the challenges we will face is whether this Trump base will ignore the statements from the President’s own senior staff in favor of their own emotions. This is not just the dark legacy of tribal politics, but also the elevation of feeling over thinking in our society.
Democracy is not a spectator sport, and we all have a responsibility as citizens in our various capacities to hand over our country to the next generation in better condition than it was handed to us. We are in danger of falling far short of that goal by giving in to our worst instincts of hyperpartisan groupthink and the elevation of greed over any concept of common good and common ground.
The first step toward solving a problem is recognizing that we have one. Operation Contain the President is preferable to the deep destabilization that would result from removing a democratically elected president absent significant new evidence to warrant it. But you do not need to be an impeachment enthusiast to recognize from this avalanche of evidence that we have a problem in the United States – and his name is President Trump.