WASHINGTON — It is very disorienting when those who are supposed to be our highest moral exemplars have no morals — not even of the alley-cat variety.
During the sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church, it was stunning to see wide swaths of clergymen, responsible for teaching children right from wrong, perverting right and wrong.
Now it is shocking to see an American president with a twisted sense of right and wrong. In yet another Nureyev leap into the absurd, Donald Trump went from no-collusion to pro-collusion, as Susan Glasser put it in The New Yorker, saying that he would welcome foreign governments’ peddling dirt on his political rivals. Why bother to alert the F.B.I. if you are getting good oppo?
I have seen a lot of politicians lie — even ones I swore never would. I have watched other Republican leaders play on white fears and choke off checks and balances. It’s tough to match Dick Cheney for putting yourself above the law.
When I covered Bush 41, Bush loyalists were looking overseas for dirt on Bill Clinton during the 1992 race. There were unfounded rumors that, while he was a Rhodes scholar at Oxford, Clinton had written a letter about renouncing his citizenship to protest the Vietnam war.
As Michael Isikoff and Eugene Robinson wrote in The Washington Post in October 1992: “A senior State Department official this month ordered the U.S. Embassy in London to conduct an ‘extremely thorough’ search for files on Bill Clinton’s years as a graduate student in England, including any documents relating to the Democratic presidential candidate’s draft status and citizenship, according to department officials.” The instructions came at a time when Republicans were escalating their attacks on Clinton’s draft history.
Around the same time, the Britons went on their own fishing expedition for Clinton’s files. Betsey Wright, a former Clinton campaign official, told reporters that the campaign had received reports that Republicans had approached Tories for help in rifling through files to find damaging information on Clinton.
James Baker, Bush’s chief of staff, was so anguished about “that awful little passport pimple,” as the president called the scandal, that he offered to resign.
Such shame seems quaint in Trumpworld. The president is an unabashed gargoyle atop the White House, chomping on American values.
The way Trump publicly wallows in his mendaciousness and amorality is unique in presidential history. His motto might as well be: “I cannot not tell a lie.” His ego is too fragile to play patriarch to the country, so he takes the more ruinous role of provocateur.
There’s no vaccination against the vile machinations of Trump. But there are some signs, in this sickened capital, that antibodies are kicking in. The president and his top officials are getting taken to task by a range of government watchdogs.
Ellen Weintraub, the chair of the Federal Election Commission, tweeted on Thursday, “I would not have thought that I needed to say this,” as a preface to her stern statement: “It is illegal for any person to solicit, accept, or receive anything of value from a foreign national in connection with a U.S. election. This is not a novel concept.”
Even craven Republican lawmakers — at long last — were squirming over Trump’s contention to George Stephanopoulos that foreign interference in our election would be swell.
Also on Thursday, Special Counsel Henry Kerner recommended that “repeat offender” Kellyanne Conway be removed from her job for violating the Hatch Act, also known as the Act to Prevent Pernicious Political Activities, which bars federal workers from tainting the workplace with politics.
Kerner said his move was unprecedented, but told The Post: “You know what else is unprecedented? Kellyanne Conway’s behavior. In interview after interview, she uses her official capacity to disparage announced candidates, which is not allowed.” The president, tireless champion of the First Amendment, said Conway was merely exercising her right to free speech.
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The Onion chimed in with this headline: “Kellyanne Conway Decides to Lie Low Until Rule of Law Dies Down.”
Trump may have lost his knack for stiletto nicknames. “Sleepy Joe” and “Nervous Nancy” don’t cut it. (Pelosi looked anything but nervous in her “Kill Bill” yellow zippered motorcycle jacket.) And he may be nervous himself because of “devastating” internal polling showing him trailing Joe Biden in key states, as The Times’s Annie Karni and Maggie Haberman wrote. He denied the polls existed but later instructed his campaign to play up different data.
Trump doesn’t want to lose just when he seems to be getting more comfortable with all the power he wields.
He makes it so easy for everyone to focus on the tweets and the maniacal, moronic reality show that you have to struggle to look away and take the measure of what he’s doing.
And what he’s doing is altering domestic and foreign policy in terrible ways while running up huge deficits.
The Trump White House may be a clown show and a criminal enterprise. But it’s also an actual presidency.
It’s turning out to be a genuinely reactionary administration led by a wannabe authoritarian who refuses to recognize constitutional checks on power. The real danger is not the antics but the policies. If Trump isn’t careful, he’s going to add substance to his administration. And it won’t be the kind we want.
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A version of this article appears in print on June 16, 2019, on Page SR11 of the New York edition with the headline: A Down and Dirty White House.