In early 1995, Bill Clinton hosted a primetime press conference during a difficult time for his presidency. A reporter asked for his reaction to the fact that the new Republican-led Congress appeared to be dominating the public conversation and the governing agenda in D.C. He replied, "The president is still relevant here."
The line, not surprisingly, landed with a thud. If a leader has to remind everyone of his relevance, it necessarily means his relevance is in doubt.
More than 20 years later, it's a Republican White House that is struggling badly. In fact, CNN reported today that Donald Trump is "closely watching the string of statements" from administration officials denying authorship of a brutal New York Times op-ed about his flailing presidency. The CNN report added that the denial statements "are being printed out and delivered to the president as they come in."
Trump aides strongly denied the accuracy of the anecdote, and senior White House official gave NBC News a memorable response to conditions in the West Wing:
"This is a functioning White House," the senior official said.
But like the Clinton line from 1995, if a White House has to assert that it's actually functioning, officials have already lost at least half the battle.
Making matters much worse, of course, is the overwhelming evidence that this White House isn't functioning at all.
Bob Woodward's new, thoroughly reported book presents Trump's White House as a chaotic "crazytown," led by a hapless and dishonest president, whose orders are often ignored, and who is tricked by aides who steal documents from his desk.
The New York Times' anonymous op-ed presents a White House in which a team of officials, terrified of Trump's antics, have created a "two-track presidency" in which the unhinged president goes in one direction, while responsible adults around him quietly steer the administration in another. It's necessary, the unnamed senior official argues, because Trump is a dangerous, amoral, and unprincipled buffoon who is acting "in a manner that is detrimental to the health of our republic."
The Washington Post reports today that the White House is currently in the midst of a "frantic hunt" for leakers, "windmilling in all directions." A Politico report added, "One senior administration official described a White House in 'total meltdown' by Wednesday evening."
Axios reports, meanwhile, that the president has grown "deeply suspicious" of practically everyone in his own administration, including some of his "senior-most political appointees and even some handpicked aides inside his own White House." The piece added, "A good number of current White House officials have privately admitted to us they consider Trump unstable, and at times dangerously slow."
A variety of adjectives come to mind to describe this White House. "Functioning" isn't one of them.