Earlier this year, Donald Trump ignored the advice of his team and declassified portions of the so-called "Nunes memo." Despite the fact that the document left the White House worse off than it was before, the president claimed at the time, reality be damned, that he'd been "totally vindicated."
Four months later, in June, the Justice Department's inspector general's office published a report on the federal law enforcement's behavior during the 2016 presidential election. The IG effectively shredded every narrative Trump had peddled for months, prompting the president to say the document "totally exonerated" him.
And on Friday night, in the wake of incredibly damaging court filings, it happened again.
After the filing from Mueller, Trump tweeted that it "totally clears the President. Thank you!" But in fact there was nothing in either court filing that exonerated Trump, and one portion strongly suggested that Trump was personally involved in a campaign finance violation.The Manhattan prosecutors said Cohen had paid off two women to suppress their stories about affairs with Trump -- a campaign expense that was improperly not reported -- and said he did so "in coordination with and at the direction of" Trump.
The rhetorical pattern points to a couple of unavoidable truths. First, the president is a little too fond of the word "totally." Second, when confronted with incriminating information, Trump's first instinct is turn to gaslighting as a strategy, making up his own reality in the hopes that everyone else will simply play along.
It's an approach that does his presidency no favors. On Friday afternoon, federal prosecutors directly implicated the sitting American president in a felony. Around the same time, we learned of Special Counsel Robert Mueller's latest filing, which shed some additional light on the Trump Organization's associations with Russia during the 2016 campaign.
It's against this backdrop that Trump told reporters on Saturday, "On the Mueller situation, we're very happy with what we are reading." This isn't just bonkers, it's emblematic of a political posture that should worry the president's Republican allies.
The Atlantic published an interesting piece late last week -- before the release of Friday's court filings -- noting that neither Team Trump nor its allies have the foggiest idea how to respond to the intensifying scandals surrounding the president.
The article added that even if White House officials crafted a credible strategy, it wouldn't make any practical difference, since Trump would "likely ignore" it anyway.
Over the weekend, the Washington Post ran a related report adding that in Republican circles, there's growing "anxiety" that the president and his team "have no real plan." The article added:
Facing the dawn of his third year in office and his bid for reelection, Trump is stepping into a political hailstorm. Democrats are preparing to seize control of the House in January with subpoena power to investigate corruption. Global markets are reeling from his trade war. The United States is isolated from its traditional partners. The investigation by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III into Russian interference is intensifying. And court filings Friday in a separate federal case implicated Trump in a felony.The White House is adopting what one official termed a "shrugged shoulders" strategy for the Mueller findings, calculating that most GOP base voters will believe whatever the president tells them to believe.
That's quite a pair of paragraphs. The first points to a presidency overcome by crisis of Trump's own making; the second points to a belief inside the White House that the Republican base is easily manipulable and can be counted on to believe nonsense.
The Post's report went to note:
Rather than building a war room to manage the intersecting crises as past administrations have done, the Trump White House is understaffed, stuck in a bunker mentality and largely resigned to a plan to wing it. Political and communications operatives are mostly taking their cues from the president and letting him drive the message with his spontaneous broadsides."A war room? You serious?" one former White House official said when asked about internal preparations. "They've never had one, will never have one. They don't know how to do one."
The first step toward addressing a problem is coming to terms with the fact that the problem exists. Republicans in Trump World haven't yet reached this stage.
Instead, they have a president who doesn't recognize bad news as bad news, and who manages to convince himself that every piece of incriminating evidence is "totally" good for him.
Republicans who are risking their futures on Trump's political instincts are placing a very dangerous bet.