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A president can abuse power by pressuring a foreign government to help his campaign. A president also can exploit power by making the cultural world a political prop. This is a story about the latter.
Until Donald Trump entered office, not much drama surrounded the prestigious National Medal of Arts. President Ronald Reagan signed legislation creating the award in 1984, and every president since has given it out, honoring the work of painters, writers, actors, architects, dancers, and musicians.
Under Trump, the awards stopped: He passed up chances to hand out the medals in 2017 and 2018—the longest drought in the past 35 years. But now, I’m told, he’s poised to announce his first slate of winners later this month. It not only includes names that seem, in part, to be tailored to the president’s personal preferences—namely, the actor and MAGA enthusiast Jon Voight and all five U.S. military bands. But in choosing the winners, Trump appears to have ignored input from the committee that typically recommends artistic luminaries as candidates for the award.
Until this point, Trump has shown little enthusiasm for the arts world. For three years running, he’s proposed budgets attempting to zero out federal funding for the National Endowment for the Arts. The administration has argued that the NEA’s activities—including promoting the arts through financial grants—are not “core Federal responsibilities.” The NEA works with a body called the National Council on the Arts to offer recommendations for the national award. (The council’s rank and file are holdovers from the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations; Trump has nominated four people for seats, but the Senate has yet to confirm them.) Look at the NEA’s webpage devoted to the medal, and you’d be forgiven for thinking that Obama never left office.
[Read: The role of the artist in the age of Trump]
When members of the National Council on the Arts met late last month, however, they got a surprise: They learned that Trump had made his picks, and the winners would be formally announced in a matter of weeks. In choosing the recipients, though, Trump had bypassed recommendations the council had previously put forward, several council members told me. The members said that was a break from past practice and that presidents normally give the council’s recommendations more credence. When they looked at the names, some members objected to what they saw as partisan political considerations or a lack of diversity.
The council members, who spoke with me on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly, said that in addition to Voight and the bands, Trump chose the bluegrass singer Alison Krauss and Sharon Percy Rockefeller, the president and chief executive officer of WETA, a public broadcasting station in the Washington, D.C., area. A president is allowed by law to give out 12 medals each year; Trump apparently stopped at these few. Efforts to reach Voight, Krauss, and Rockefeller were unsuccessful. The White House declined to comment.
An NEA representative told me in an email that Trump had indeed made his picks, but the names are “embargoed.” Asked whether Trump followed the council’s recommendations, the representative cited the federal law that established the National Medal of Arts, which states that the president shall award it “on the basis of recommendations” from the council to those he deems worthy based on their “outstanding contributions” to the arts. In the email, the representative said that “the process set forth [in the statute] was followed,” and that the winners all met the selection criteria under the law.
Yet “there was alarm, and some surprise” at the meeting last month, one council member told me. “This was the first time that we had heard that there was going to be a medal award, and the decisions did not match our recommendations. That in itself was a new experience. We all immediately recognized that not only were recommendations not followed, but the kind of diversity we had striven for in the past in the various [artistic] disciplines had not been followed.”
The intent behind the president’s selections is unclear. But Voight, at least, is an effusive Trump loyalist who endorsed the president in 2016. In May, he tweeted a video message in which he said: “Let us stand with our president. Let us stand up for this truth: that President Trump is the greatest president since Abraham Lincoln.” Trump noticed the adulation. “Thank you so much, @JonVoight!” he tweeted in July.
Honoring the Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force, and Coast Guard bands would seem an innocuous gesture. But it fits a pattern of Trump trying to wrap himself in patriotic symbols and pageantry. At a conservative conference earlier this year, he literally hugged the American flag. On July 4, he staged an unusual spectacle on the National Mall, where he delivered a speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial and showcased military tanks and planes.
The problem with Trump’s picks isn’t that the recipients aren’t deserving, some of the council members said. Voight is an accomplished actor who won an Academy Award for his performance in the 1978 film Coming Home and now stars in the Showtime drama series Ray Donovan. Military bands perform concerts at home and abroad and act as goodwill ambassadors of sorts. Krauss, a Grammy Award winner many times over, “is one of my favorites,” the council member told me. “She has a great voice and she’s hardworking, with a significant body of work.” Rockefeller has had a decades-long career in media and was recently named one of the most powerful women in Washington. She is also the chair of the board of trustees of the National Gallery of Art in D.C. and serves on the board of the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
[Read: The real cost of abolishing the National Endowment for the Arts]
What troubles some council members—apart from Trump’s unilateral decision making—is that the president has failed to honor people from a broad array of artistic backgrounds. “The traditional disciplines, such as dance, theater, or literature, weren’t represented in whatever capacity,” a second council member told me. “And it clearly seems to be a political agenda by the president.” A third faulted Trump for failing to identify a person of color deserving of an individual award. The message is that “there’s no person of color in the artistic ecosphere worthy of recognition by our nation,” this council member said. “We would rather not make an award than award someone of color. That’s deeply troubling and disturbing, especially given the current climate, when there are groups of people in this country who feel under duress.”
Past presidents, in many cases, handed out the maximum number of awards or close to it, honoring people in multiple fields. Bush gave medals to the jazz musician Wynton Marsalis, the science-fiction writer Ray Bradbury, and the theatrical set designer Ming Cho Lee, among dozens of others. Obama’s medal recipients included Tony Kushner, whose play about the AIDS epidemic, Angels in America, won a Pulitzer Prize; Bob Dylan, the singer-songwriter; and Rita Moreno, the first Latina actor to win an Academy Award.
One of the winners selected by Obama was the acclaimed novelist and short-story writer Tobias Wolff. When I first emailed Wolff to talk with him about Trump’s picks, he replied, “What true artist would accept [the medal] from these hands?” When we spoke by phone later, he questioned whether Trump truly values the fields he’s purportedly trying to celebrate. “It’s kind of ridiculous for this particular president to be handing out awards for the arts,” Wolff said, “especially when he himself is so sublimely uninterested in them.”
Trump could smooth things over, if he were inclined to try. He could dust off the recommendations from the council and give out another medal or two or three. It would seem an easy, cost-free gesture if a celebration of the arts was foremost on his mind, a way to honor people toiling in creative fields that get little national recognition. But that doesn’t seem to be what’s driving him.
James Mattis doesn’t want to talk about it—except when he does. The retired four-star general who resigned on principle as Donald Trump’s secretary of defense has said ever since that he will not publicly criticize the sitting president, because he owes a “duty of silence.” But his public resignation letter was a clear airing of policy differences. And then there was this swipe he took at the president in a recent speech: “I earned my spurs on the battlefield … And Donald Trump earned his spurs in a letter from a doctor.”
While Mattis maintains his semi-silence—which he cryptically promised The Atlantic’s editor in chief, Jeffrey Goldberg, is “not going to be forever”—a small but growing number of retired senior officers have come forward, taking the rare step of criticizing the president despite the military’s strong apolitical tradition. Three retired generals who spoke with us underscored why this is so rare, and why they take this tradition so seriously. The military is one of the most overwhelmingly respected institutions left in a bitterly divided country; one reason is that its current and former leaders tend to stay out of partisan politics. As such, the exceptions are extraordinary. What follows is a running list of retired senior officers who have criticized Trump or his policies—plus a few who explained why they won’t.
William H. McRaven
Rank: Four-star admiral
Notable experience: Head of United States Special Operations Command, and architect of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden in 2011
Retirement: From the Navy in 2014
What he’s said: Last year, McRaven wrote an op-ed after Trump threatened to revoke former CIA Director John Brennan’s security clearance, asking the president to revoke his as well, “so I can add my name to the list of men and women who have spoken up against your presidency.” In mid-October, he went further in The New York Times—right up to the verge of calling for the president’s removal from office: “If we don’t care about our values, if we don’t care about duty and honor, if we don’t help the weak and stand up against oppression and injustice—what will happen to the Kurds, the Iraqis, the Afghans, the Syrians, the Rohingyas, the South Sudanese and the millions of people under the boot of tyranny or left abandoned by their failing states? … President Trump seems to believe that these qualities are unimportant or show weakness. He is wrong … If this president doesn’t demonstrate the leadership that America needs, both domestically and abroad, then it is time for a new person in the Oval Office—Republican, Democrat or independent—the sooner, the better. The fate of our Republic depends upon it.”
Rank: Four-star general
Notable experience: Director of the CIA, director of the NSA, and principal deputy director of national intelligence
Retirement: From the Air Force in 2008
What he’s said: Hayden has been a strong critic of Trump almost from the beginning of his presidency, but avoided calling for an impeachment investigation until this year, when he did so in a Washington Post op-ed with Neal Katyal. In a phone conversation with us this October, he explained why: “If we survive two terms [of Trump], I think America will be very different.”
“After careful review of the articles of impeachment for President Richard M. Nixon, we now believe it is appropriate for the House of Representatives to begin the process by launching an impeachment investigation,” he and Katyal wrote for the Post. “No legislator should rush to judgment one way or the other. The process should be designed to uncover the facts … But if the facts show that Trump ordered or participated in the commission of crimes, in particular crimes that may have allowed him to win the election, we think it incontrovertible that impeachment would be warranted.”
Rank: Four-star general
Notable experience: Commanded special-operations forces in Iraq and the international mission in Afghanistan, and was the architect of the raid that killed the al-Qaeda in Iraq chief Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in 2006
Retirement: From the Army in 2010
What he’s said: Last year, McChrystal described Trump as immoral and dishonest in an interview with ABC News: “If we have someone who is as selfless and as committed as Jim Mattis resign his position, walking away from all the responsibility he feels for every service member in our forces, and he does so in a public way like that, we ought to stop and say, Okay, why did he do it? We ought to ask what kind of commander in chief he had that Jim Mattis the good marine felt he had to walk away … I think it’s important for me to work for people who I think are basically honest. Who tell the truth as best they know it. I don’t think [Trump] tells the truth.”
ABC’s Martha Raddatz asked whether McChrystal thought Trump was immoral.“I think he is [immoral],” he responded. “If we want to be governed by someone we wouldn’t do a business deal with because their background is so shady, if we’re willing to do that, then that’s in conflict with who I think we are. And so I think it’s necessary at those times to take a stand.”
Rank: Four-star admiral
Notable experience: Supreme allied commander for NATO
Retirement: From the Navy in 2013
What he’s said: Stavridis called Trump’s plans to withdraw from northeastern Syria a “mistake of epic proportions”; earlier this year he took aim at the president personally in Time magazine, where he explained why he thought the retired generals who had served in Trump’s Cabinet had left.
“What attracted Trump to generals in the first place? It seems he was attracted to the macho, direct, domineering profile that many civilians associate with generals, like Jack Nicholson’s portrayal of a Marine in A Few Good Men,” Stavridis wrote in Time. “He may have thought associating with them would burnish his own credentials as an alpha male. (Remember, he also hired General Michael Flynn, who later pleaded guilty to making false statements to the FBI.) But it has likely dawned on Trump that generals are more cerebral than he ever would have guessed, have a pesky habit of quietly judging him in ways that got under his skin, are more intellectual planners than operational Rambos, and don’t quite care about the politics and media signals that the President holds dear.”
Rank: Four-star general
Notable experience: Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton, and secretary of state under George W. Bush
Retirement: From the Army in 1993
What he’s said: Active in Republican politics in the 1990s, Powell has since said the GOP needs to “get a grip” and that Republican politicians are afraid to speak out, despite a foreign policy “in shambles” under Trump.
“A couple [of] weeks ago, the president put a circle around Southeast Alabama, saying it’s going to get hit by a hurricane. He put it on top of the meteorological prediction,” Powell said in remarks at the New Albany Community Foundation, in Ohio, in October. “In my time, one of us would have gone to the president and said, ‘Mr. President, you screwed up, so we’ve got to fix it and we’ll put out a correction’ … We’ve got to remember that the Constitution started with ‘We the People,’ not ‘Me the President.’ This is not the way the country is supposed to run.”
Rank: Four-star general
Notable experience: Head of United States Southern Command; served as Trump’s secretary of homeland security and then chief of staff, and resigned in 2018
Retirement: From the Marines in 2016
What he’s said: This fall, Kelly criticized Trump’s Syria policy and his White House staff. “I think that, with all due respect to the president, was a catastrophically bad idea [to pull out of northeastern Syria],” he said at a political conference hosted by the Washington Examiner in October. “And I would just offer, it didn’t happen while I was there. A couple of other people recently left the administration and then he went with his instinct. But it was on a number of levels the wrong thing to do … [I told Trump when I left] ‘Don’t hire someone that will just nod and say, ‘That’s a great idea, Mr. President.’ Because you will be impeached … I have an awful lot of second thoughts about leaving. Because whether you like Mr. Trump or not, he’s the president of the United States.”
Rank: Four-star general
Notable experience: Head of United States Central Command
Retirement: From the Army in 2019
What he’s said: In an essay with Elizabeth Dent in The Atlantic, Votel criticized the pullout from northeastern Syria: “The abrupt policy decision to seemingly abandon our Kurdish partners could not come at a worse time. The decision was made without consulting U.S. allies or senior U.S. military leadership and threatens to affect future partnerships at precisely the time we need them most, given the war-weariness of the American public coupled with ever more sophisticated enemies determined to come after us … This policy abandonment threatens to undo five years’ worth of fighting against [the Islamic State] and will severely damage American credibility and reliability in any future fights where we need strong allies.”
Rank: Four-star general
Notable experience: Head of United States Central Command. Mattis led an infantry battalion in Iraq in 1991, an expeditionary brigade in Afghanistan in 2001, and a Marine division in Iraq in 2003; he was Trump’s first secretary of defense before resigning in protest over Trump’s first call to pull out of Syria, in December 2018.
Retirement: From the Marines in 2013
What he’s said: He has declined to criticize the president, but came tauntingly close in an interview with The Atlantic’s editor in chief, Jeffrey Goldberg: “You don’t endanger the country by attacking the elected commander in chief. I may not like a commander in chief one fricking bit, but our system puts the commander in chief there, and to further weaken him when we’re up against real threats—I mean, we could be at war on the Korean peninsula, every time they start launching something.”
H. R. McMaster
Rank: Three-star general
Notable experience: Director of United States Army Training and Doctrine Command’s Army Capabilities Integration Center; Trump’s second national security adviser; served as a tank commander during the Gulf War
Retirement: From the Army in 2018
What he’s said: McMaster almost never criticizes the president in public, although he spoke out against Trump’s “unfortunate” Syria pullout this fall: “Perception of power is important. And I think we are losing a bit now because of perceived inconsistency and, therefore, unreliability,” he said in a panel appearance in October. “And as a result what happens is, like-minded partners, whose interests really align with yours, they start to hedge … There have been doubts [among allies] across multiple [U.S.] administrations. I do think it’s reaching a dangerous point here where there’s too much misunderstanding and doubt … Gratuitous insults don’t really help. They’re not productive … It’s absolutely not [appropriate to solicit foreign interference in a U.S. election]. And of course what has to happen here is seeing our democracy play out, right? And for the American people, through their representatives … in Congress, to make a judgment as to whether or not that happened.”
Rank: Four-star general
Notable experience: Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff
Retirement: From the Army in 2015
What he’s said: Although Dempsey has written that it is largely unacceptable for retired military brass to criticize the president, he freely subtweets him. On numerous occasions, Dempsey has tweeted oblique responses to Trump’s own tweets about immigrants or Barack Obama.
Rank: Four-star general
Notable experience: Commander of the international mission in Afghanistan, and then CIA director
Retirement: From the Army in 2011
What he’s said: Petraeus opines on policy questions but generally avoids criticizing the president directly. He was, however, among 12 intelligence veterans who signed a statement in 2018 saying Trump was trying to stifle free speech by threatening to revoke the security clearance of ex–CIA Director John Brennan, an extremely vocal critic of the president. Petraeus recently criticized the decision to remove troops from northeast Syria.
“I think we have abandoned our Syrian Kurdish partners,” Petraeus said in an appearance on CNN in October. “They took over 10,000 losses as the defeat of Islamic State was carried out … The elimination of the caliphate that ISIS had certainly with our advice and assistance and enabling and then very suddenly, this is not a phased deliberate plan withdrawal, this is a very sudden exit … This does not end an endless war. It probably prolongs it because this gives ISIS an opportunity for a resurgence … This is not a strategic success.”
Rank: Four-star general
Notable experience: Vice chief of staff of the United States Army
Retirement: From the Army in 2003
What he’s said: Although he has argued that retired military officials should remain apolitical, Keane frequently appears on Fox News as a national-security analyst and advises Trump. He recently criticized Trump’s pullout from northeast Syria.
“I think it is a strategic blunder of significant consequence to permit [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan to use military force to establish a buffer zone,” Keane said in an interview with NPR. “[Trump] has national security advisers around him, obviously. I do believe that most of those advisers were surprised by this decision and clearly believed that we still should be supporting the Syrian Kurds and getting back to the negotiating table with Turkey [on] what the size of that buffer zone should be. And hopefully we’ll be able to do that. But I’m not confident as of today, certainly.”
Rank: Four-star admiral
Notable experience: Former commandant of the Coast Guard
Retirement: From the Coast Guard in 2018
What he’s said: In a phone call with us in November, he said he would “never” call Trump a national-security threat, and said that speaking out on politics can “erode the credibility … for the next generation of military leaders.” But he also explained his prior public comments defending transgender troops after Trump banned their service via tweet in 2017.
“That came out in the form of a tweet from the White House that we were going to banish all transgender service members that would basically reverse a policy decision that had been made during the previous administration,” Zukunft said. “I immediately contacted the secretary of homeland security—in that case, it was John Kelly—to get clarity on whether a tweet constituted a policy. And then the Coast Guard, while I was commandant … we had roughly 20 transgender members that had come out, and there was a policy for them to do [that] … So when I was speaking at [the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank] on a completely different topic, the last question that was asked is where do I stand? And I said, well, I stand with my people. As a leader, I have their back. And so there was an immediate [reaction as if] I was refuting a policy, when in fact, we had a tweet that at that time was not policy. And so I stood behind that comment.”
Rank: Four-star general
Notable experience: Former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff
Retirement: From the Marines in 2019
What he’s said: Dunford has not directly criticized Trump or his policies, though he did come to the defense of Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman, a White House Ukraine specialist and witness in the impeachment inquiry, following attacks on Vindman’s loyalty. When we corresponded with Dunford in October, he explained why he was committed to staying apolitical.
“I will remain apolitical in retirement—I will not comment on President Trump or his policies in public,” he said. “I do believe that retired senior leaders can contribute to shaping defense policy, but that can be done without engaging in partisan politics … Individuals who believe they must act in a manner inconsistent with our ethos must weigh the perceived need to speak out with the potential damage to the institution of the U.S. military. As a matter of routine, nearly 80 percent of the American people trust the U.S. military … That is in large part because we are not seen as Democrats or Republicans. We are seen as Americans who take an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States.”
Vincent K. Brooks
Rank: Four-star general
Notable experience: Former commander of United States Forces Korea and United Nations Command
Retirement: From the Army in 2018
What he’s said: Brooks has spoken publicly on Korea policy and the importance of diplomacy, but hasn’t criticized Trump directly. In October he discussed with us the importance of an apolitical military, but also hinted at the cost of silence.
“What’s at stake, of course, is making sure that our public is being served by people who are indeed apolitical as much as possible. [There is] in many ways frustration about military advice being ignored or undermined. And that is not good for the republic either … I’m not in the way of public speaking about specific persons … But silence itself, like being overly aggressive, can undermine the Constitution.”
Early in President Donald Trump’s term, White House aides worried that he was spending too much time cocooned in the building. So they went to a senior official and pitched an intervention of sorts: Take him to dinner one night at the Peking Gourmet Inn, a Chinese restaurant in the Virginia suburbs where both Bushes dined as president. The aides recognized that Trump was doing himself no favors by marinating in the personal feuds and Twitter spats that make up so much of his daily life, and thought a low-key dinner might be a therapeutic diversion.
“You’ve got to get him out of the White House!” they said to their colleague, a person close to the White House told me. Don’t announce it or make a big deal of it. Just go.
It didn’t work. A homebody by nature, Trump said no.
The fate of a presidency can hinge on just such interventions from staff. Any president can lose sight of what he needs to weather a crisis or stay mentally and physically fit for the most demanding job imaginable; that’s when he needs a staff attentive to his larger interests. Past presidents relied on aides to ease pressures and tell them hard truths—all of which help deter poor decisions. Trump doesn’t seem to have any of that, and as the stressors of impeachment grow, so does the prospect of more erratic behavior and self-sabotage.
A person close to Trump told me that the president feels isolated and has complained that he has no one in whom he can confide. “These heavy issues are weighing on him. He has nobody around him. There’s nobody,” this person said.
Trump at one point had adults in the room: confidants and pedigreed generals and accomplished corporate executives. Their numbers have dwindled as his term winds on and he depends more on his own judgment. The dinner getaway was a valiant, if futile, idea hatched by staffers who wanted to introduce more normalcy into his life. But the senior aide who pitched it is gone, as is much of Trump’s original team. Surrounding Trump instead is a mismatched set of advisers whose focus seems to be their own survival and ambition in a West Wing that has resembled a fast-spinning turnstile. They’ve seen that standing up to Trump is often a path to getting fired. All of which points to a predicament of Trump’s own making: He’s lost or chased away many of the advisers best suited to help him at the perilous moment he most needs their guidance.
[Read: The unraveling of Donald Trump]
Trump’s predecessors leaned on the sorts of candid advisers he has purged. Harry Hopkins moved into a White House bedroom during Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency, so reliant was FDR on his advice and friendship. During World War II, he tapped Hopkins for sensitive diplomatic missions in the Soviet Union and Britain.
President George H. W. Bush’s alter ego was James Baker, who gave up the prestigious post of secretary of state to accept the workaday role of chief of staff when Bush’s 1992 reelection campaign was foundering. When Bush lay dying last December at his home in Houston, Baker was in the room massaging the ex-president’s feet.
There’s no equivalent to Baker or Hopkins in Trumpworld. Two of Trump’s most influential advisers, Mick Mulvaney and Mike Pompeo, are men who have expressed profound doubts about him and who may have ambitions of their own. Mulvaney, the acting chief of staff, called Trump “a terrible human being” back in 2016, when he was a representative from South Carolina. As a representative from Kansas, Pompeo, the secretary of state, warned that Trump would be “an authoritarian president who ignored our Constitution.”
It seems doubtful that either will be massaging Trump’s feet when the end comes: Pompeo’s frequent trips to Kansas have fueled speculation he’ll return to the state and run for a U.S. Senate seat, his profile sufficiently raised. And the president seems to be tiring of Mulvaney, quizzing advisers on whether he should find someone else for the job. Trump does, of course, have his daughter Ivanka and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, working as senior advisers. But at times he’s even seemed ambivalent about their presence.
Though this White House has always been dysfunctional, earlier generations of West Wing aides seemed to grasp not only what Trump wanted, but what he may have needed at a human level—even if he didn’t know it himself. Hope Hicks, his former communications director who worked out of a closet-size office near the Oval Office, was secure enough in her position that she’d offer unvarnished advice Trump didn’t necessarily want to hear, according to former White House officials. Sarah Sanders, his erstwhile press secretary, had evolved into a confidante.
Albeit with limited success, former aides tried to give Trump’s day some structure. They’d wait for him to come down from the residence, at around 11 a.m. eastern time. He’d have a meeting or two, then eat lunch and, often, retreat to his private study to read newspapers and watch TV-news coverage. He might then have another meeting before returning to the residence. “That was his day,” the person close to the White House told me.
A former White House official who is still in touch with his colleagues in the building described Trump’s routine these days as follows: “He comes down to the residence whenever he wants and leaves whenever he wants. He has a meeting if he wants—or he doesn’t have a meeting. He’s totally in control, and if he wants or needs something, he does it.” (That’s a much lighter schedule than other presidents in the modern era have kept. One November day at a comparable point in his presidency, Ronald Reagan worked from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., taking part in a nonstop series of nearly 20 meetings, briefings, news interviews, photo ops, and phone calls.)
One role that Trump’s initial team played was to act as a kind of pressure-release valve for him to air grievances in private. When they gave him his briefing book at the end of the day, they sometimes tucked in printouts of cable-news chyrons in hopes of raising his spirits, the former White House official told me.
Now, though, Trump is less willing to unburden himself to aides he doesn’t know or trust as well, wary as he is of leaks, multiple former White House officials have told me. That’s a combustible dynamic. The ex-officials have told me that if Trump can’t grouse in private, he’s more apt to do it publicly. “A lot of times when he’s venting—a tweetstorm—it’s often because he feels, No one is helping me on this, so I have to pound my chest and do it,” said the former White House official.
Trump’s behavior in office was never all that even-keeled. But under the pressure of an impeachment inquiry, he appears more aggrieved, as I wrote last month. “He was never completely hinged,” another former White House official told me. “The trip from where he was to unhinged, as he is now—that was not a long trip.” (The president, for his part, has called himself a “very stable genius.”) Now, he’s tweeting more than ever and spiking his public appearances with profanity and name-calling.
There’s a certain frenzy to the performances. In one six-minute span at a rally last week in Mississippi, Trump abandoned the teleprompter and darted from topic to topic with all the forethought of a pinball banging off the bumpers: “Spying” on his 2016 campaign. Biden-family “corruption.” Hillary Clinton’s missing emails. The Green Party’s Jill Stein. The Democratic presidential candidate Tulsi Gabbard. The Russia “hoax.” The “dishonest” news media. The 2016 election. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s acting skills. “Barack Hussein Obama.” A Trump-Biden TV debate and the lackluster ratings it would get. That “poor bastard” Beto O’Rourke. Truth as an unstoppable force.
A diversion might help. Obama made a point of getting daily exercise, an antidote to stress, and he’d also golf regularly with a trio of old friends and trusted aides. Covering Obama at the time, I used to think that was a mistake. It looked to me like a missed opportunity to befriend a few Republican senators and, in the process, try to ease the gridlock that dogged his two terms. Watching Trump these past three years, I now think Obama had it right: A reprieve from politics might have been important to maintaining an even temperament.
[Read: Why firing Mick Mulvaney is riskier than keeping him]
Trump has no off switch. He golfs with a procession of Republican senators and senior aides, turning the fairways into an extension of the West Wing. He devours cable-news commentary. According to one of his biographers, Michael D’Antonio, he doesn’t read books. His White House doctor said he sleeps only about four or five hours a night. “It’s all politics, all the time,” the first former Trump White House official told me. “And that can be warping to anybody.”
“He just has no life,” the person close to Trump recently told me.
Staff has also helped other presidents lighten the mood. One of Obama’s rituals was a 6:30 p.m. dinner with his wife and two young daughters in the White House, and aides would make sure he didn’t miss the appointment. During Obama’s second term, White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough once invited reporters into his office in the West Wing. After a while, Obama walked in to say hello. He spoke with us for a bit, and then McDonough broke in and reminded him that it was time to head upstairs for dinner. Obama kept talking. “Mr. President,” McDonough said, more insistently. “Supper time!” Obama left soon after. McDonough told me this week that “Michelle Obama was very committed to protecting family supper time, and all of us in the White House knew to make it a priority for the family.”
In an interview, Valerie Jarrett, a longtime friend of Obama’s who was one of his top aides, recalled a trip to Camp David, where Obama took some friends and staff after a series of tense budget negotiations that had left her upset. Playing pool in Hickory Lodge, where some of his friends were singing karaoke, Obama walked over and urged her to savor the moment. “I was in tears and he said, ‘Don’t cry. Look where we are. We’re at Camp David! What do you have to complain about?’” Jarrett told me. (As for Trump, “There is a very unhealthy pattern of behavior that is certainly abnormal,” she said.)
As with Obama, exercise was important to President George W. Bush, and staff made sure he had time to work out each day, Karl Rove, Bush’s former political adviser, told me. Aides were also mindful of how a sense of loneliness could affect Bush’s performance: Believing that he was a better campaigner when he was with his wife, they would encourage Laura Bush to join him on the road. “We knew it would have a huge impact on him, that he was always better when she was around,” Rove told me.
Presidents themselves have long grasped that their own well-being mattered. Harry Truman would escape the building he called “the great white jail” and spent a total of six months of his eight-year presidency in Key West, Florida. He’d arrive at his home, on a U.S. naval base, clutching a briefcase with his favorite Chopin albums. At night he’d play poker with friends and aides at a specially made table with cigar holders built from machine-gun shells.
“Presidents, in order to deal with these enormous responsibilities, have to have cultivated in their lives the small habits that allow them to relax, that allow the pressure to be diminished, and to clear their minds and come back to the task with energy and focus,” said Rove, who wouldn’t comment on Trump directly. “It’s the small habits of life that allow them to do that.”
Having cycled through so many aides, Trump faces this denouement with a patchwork staff beneath him and with little to take his mind off the ongoing fight. He has his own ideas on how to get through impeachment—some of them dangerous or absurd. Lately he seems determined to out the whistle-blower who first called attention to his Ukraine gambit, despite legal protections designed to shield government whistle-blowers from retaliation. He’s even said he wants to do a dramatic reading of his conversation with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, borrowing from Roosevelt’s notion of a “fireside chat.” (That’s an ill-fated use of FDR’s innovation. Finding a Harry Hopkins might be a bigger help.)
At this point, there doesn’t seem to be anyone capable of talking him out of it. There’s no James Baker in sight, no multistar generals, no adults in the room. There’s just Trump, alone.
The shift of metro areas away from the Republican Party under President Donald Trump rumbled on in yesterday’s elections, threatening the fundamental calculation of his 2020 reelection plan.
Amid all the various local factors that shaped GOP losses—from Kentucky to Virginia, from suburban Philadelphia to Wichita, Kansas—the clearest pattern was a continuing erosion of the party’s position in the largest metropolitan areas. Across the highest-profile races, Democrats benefited from two trends favoring them in metro areas: high turnout in urban cores that have long been the party’s strongholds, and improved performance in white-collar suburban areas that previously leaned Republican.
“When Trump was elected, there was an initial rejection of him in the suburbs,” says Jesse Ferguson, a Virginia-based Democratic strategist. “We are now seeing a full-on realignment.”
In that way, the GOP’s losses again raised the stakes for Republicans heading into 2020. In both message and agenda, Trump has reoriented the Republican Party toward the priorities and grievances of non-college-educated, evangelical, and nonurban white voters. His campaign has already signaled that it will focus its 2020 efforts primarily on turning out more working-class and rural white voters who did not participate in 2016.
But yesterday’s results again suggested that the costs of that intensely polarizing strategy may exceed the benefits. Republicans again suffered resounding repudiations in urban centers and inner suburbs, which contain many of the nonwhite, young-adult, and white-collar white voters who polls show are most resistant to Trump. If the metropolitan movement away from the Trump-era GOP “is permanent, there’s not much of a path for Republican victories nationally,” former Representative Tom Davis of Virginia, who chaired the National Republican Congressional Committee about two decades ago, told me.
Some in both parties see the results as more confirmation of the pattern from the 2018 midterm elections, when Democrats won a majority in the House of Representatives: Trump’s effort to mobilize his nonurban base around white identity politics is having the offsetting effect of turbocharging Democratic turnout in metropolitan areas, which are growing faster than Trump’s rural strongholds.
“The Trump campaign has focused on a singular strategy of looking for more voters who look like the type of voters who already like him, rather than trying to persuade anyone else,” says Josh Schwerin, senior adviser at Priorities USA, a Democratic super PAC that spent heavily in the Virginia races. “But the issues they are using to motivate those potential voters create a backlash for voters in metro areas who don’t like Trump.”
Unique local conditions contributed to each of yesterday’s most disappointing results for Republicans. In Virginia, Democrats benefited from a court-mandated redistricting of some state legislative districts after the initial lines drawn by the Republican-controlled legislature in 2011 were deemed discriminatory against minorities. The new maps substantially increased the African American share of the electorate in four of the six state House seats that Democrats appear to have captured, according to data collected by the Virginia Public Access Project. Huge spending by outside groups focused on gun control, gay rights, and legal abortion also boosted Democrats there.
In Kentucky, the Democrat Andy Beshear appeared to oust incumbent Republican Governor Matt Bevin, though the Associated Press still has yet to declare him the winner and Bevin has indicated he may contest the result. Bevin, a belligerent figure, was among the country’s most unpopular governors, and he provoked a fierce organizing effort against him by teachers and organized labor. “By all accounts, this was the best get-out-the-vote effort ever mounted in Kentucky by the Democrats … driven by the teachers and the labor unions,” says Al Cross, the director of the Institute for Rural Journalism at the University of Kentucky. Bevin also appeared to suffer in rural areas from his drive to pull back the state’s Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act. And even as Bevin apparently was defeated, Kentucky Republicans posted solid wins in the other statewide elections.
But looming over all these local factors was the consistency of the metropolitan movement away from the GOP. Not only in urban centers, but also in suburban and even some exurban communities, Democrats reaped a double benefit: They increased their share of the vote even as turnout surged.
The combination produced some astounding results in Kentucky. Beshear won the state’s two largest counties—Jefferson (which includes Louisville) and Fayette (which includes Lexington)—by a combined 135,000 votes, according to preliminary results. That was nearly triple the total vote advantage that Jack Conway, the Democrats’ 2015 nominee against Bevin, generated in those two counties. Beshear in fact won almost exactly as many votes as Hillary Clinton did in Jefferson County and slightly more than she did in Fayette—an incredible achievement given how much lower turnout usually is for a governor’s race in an off year. “That’s insane. It is incredible. It cannot be stressed enough,” says Rachel Bitecofer, a political scientist at Christopher Newport University, in Virginia.
The legislative elections in Virginia show the same pattern of the suburban erosion for the GOP in the Trump era. Democrats overthrew narrow Republican majorities in both chambers of the General Assembly by capturing at least five state House seats (while leading narrowly in a sixth) and two in the state Senate. They included seats in the Washington, D.C., suburbs of Northern Virginia and near the state capital of Richmond. For the first time in 50 years, Democrats now control all of the state House seats in Fairfax County, which is near Washington, D.C.
But those new gains were probably less telling than what didn’t change: Democrats didn’t lose any of the previously Republican seats that they captured in suburban areas—particularly Northern Virginia and Richmond—in their landslide win in the state in 2017, which foreshadowed Democrats’ gains in the 2018 midterms. “The key is, the Republicans didn’t win back any of the suburban seats they lost,” Davis said. “Basically the mold in those areas hardened. We were like, ‘Oh, it was temporary—a one-time turnout [surge].’ But they didn’t win them back.”
The Democrats’ suburban gains extended down the ballot too. For example, Loudon and Prince William Counties, in the outer Washington suburbs, were once symbols of Republican strength in fast-growing exurbs. Yesterday, Democrats flipped control of the county commissions in both of them.
[Read: The blue wave hasn’t crested]
A similar pattern unfolded in the suburbs of Philadelphia, where Democrats captured a majority in three different counties’ boards and defended their majority in a fourth; the area is likely crucial to the party’s 2020 prospects in Pennsylvania.
Republicans pointed to some good news: The party held the governor’s mansion in Mississippi, ousted a Democrat in a New Jersey state House seat that Trump won in 2016, and elected an African American Republican attorney general in Kentucky. They avoided the worst-case scenario in Virginia by holding close four state Senate seats where Democrats reached about 48 percent of the vote or more. But the bottom line across all the results is clear. As Davis starkly put it, “This was not a good night for the Republican Party.”
John Weaver, a veteran Republican political strategist who has been critical of Trump, says that while Republicans can “cherry-pick” local factors behind each of their losses, the cumulative pattern of suburban erosion for the party is unmistakable. “We are not talking about a gradual change,” he says. “We are talking about dramatic overnight flips from what used to be reliably Republican to now reliably Democrat. And the turnout is massive.”
Though Bevin suffered some erosion in rural eastern counties in the state, the GOP generally held its ground in such areas, both in Kentucky and Virginia. That widening separation between the GOP’s strength outside of metro areas and an intensifying tilt toward Democrats inside of them continues the underlying pattern of geographic polarization that has defined politics in the Trump era.
In 2016, Trump lost 87 of the 100 largest U.S. counties by a combined 15 million votes, but then won over 2,600 of the remaining 3,000 counties, the most for any presidential nominee in either party since Ronald Reagan in 1984. In 2018, Republicans suffered sweeping congressional losses across urban and suburban America, but avoided hardly any congressional losses in heavily rural districts. While big showings in diverse metro areas helped Democrats win Republican-held Senate seats in Arizona and Nevada, Republicans snatched three Senate seats from Democrats in states with large rural white populations: North Dakota, Missouri, and Indiana.
Rather than looking to court urban areas, Trump has more frequently denounced places such as Chicago, San Francisco, and Los Angeles in an attempt to energize his mostly nonurban base. He continues to aim his message preponderantly at culturally conservative whites, and his campaign has signaled that it considers increasing turnout among such voters central to his reelection hopes.
Few in either party dispute that such a strategy could allow Trump to squeeze out another Electoral College victory, even if he loses the popular vote; he could do so by holding a narrow advantage in a few closely contested states, from Florida, North Carolina, and Arizona in the Sun Belt to Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan in the Rust Belt.
But yesterday’s results underscore how narrow a wire the president is walking with that strategy. Even taking into account Bevin’s personal unpopularity, Bitecofer says the Kentucky result should caution Republicans about a plan that accepts metropolitan losses to maximize rural and small-town gains. “If it can’t work in Kentucky … you cannot do it in Wisconsin or Michigan,” she says. Beyond Trump, the urban/nonurban divisions evident in this week’s elections “should scare the ever-loving bejesus” out of 2020 Republican Senate candidates in states with large metropolitan populations, including Arizona, Colorado, and North Carolina. “Their danger level … has increased exponentially,” she argues.
Another GOP strategist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal party strategy, took a similar, if less severe, lesson from the results. In 2016, the strategist noted, Trump benefited not only because rural and non-college-educated white voters turned out in big numbers, but because turnout was weak among minorities and mediocre among young people. But in 2018—and again last night—large turnout in metropolitan areas swamped strong showings for the GOP in rural communities, the strategist noted. That raises the question of whether even big turnout in nonmetro areas will suffice for Trump if the metropolitan areas moving away from him continue to vote at the elevated levels evident in 2018 and 2019.
Trump can’t bank on a 2016 redux: “Clearly that isn’t going to happen this time,” the strategist told me.
Davis, the former NRCC chair, likewise believes that the GOP’s transformation from a party of “the country club to the country” does not add up to long-term success. “What’s happening is that the fast-growing areas [are] where the Democrats are doing better,” he told me. “There aren’t enough white rural voters to make up the difference.” In 2020, he said, “the silver lining” could be if Democrats nominate an extremely liberal presidential candidate, such as Senators Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders, who could leave anti-Trump suburban voters “conflicted.” But, given the intensity of the suburban backlash to Trump, he said, even that is no guarantee that those voters will rebound to him.
Such words of warning have been extremely rare among Republicans: Despite the GOP’s recent metropolitan losses, Trump’s approach has generated astonishingly little dissent inside the party. Yesterday’s results are unlikely to break that silence. But Weaver, like other GOP strategists dubious of Trump, says the party cannot indefinitely ignore the implications of prioritizing rural strength at the price of losing ground in the urban centers, which more and more are driving the nation’s economic innovation and its growth in population and jobs.
“Politics is a free-market enterprise. You have to sell a product,” Weaver says. “And Republicans are going to find themselves, by their own decision making, eliminated as an option for many, many voters, many, many demographic groups for generations to come.”
The main revelation in the latest release of transcripts from the House impeachment inquiry is that Ambassador Gordon Sondland explicitly told a Ukrainian official that the U.S. would withhold military aid until his government pledged to pursue corruption investigations that Donald Trump had a political stake in—buttressing the case that the American president engaged in a quid pro quo in order to settle scores over the 2016 U.S. election and damage Joe Biden.
But it’s also telling that this message was delivered to the Ukrainian government by Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, which, as of this writing, does not include Ukraine as a member. The testimony by Sondland and Trump’s former Ukraine envoy Kurt Volker, two diplomats at the center of the impeachment investigation, also offers a window into what it’s like to be a foreign government trying to make sense of U.S. foreign policy in the Trump era: navigating through the thicket of Trump’s personal interests and America’s national interests, stated U.S. policy and actual U.S. policy, official U.S. representatives and shadow envoys, and mixed messages delivered by a shape-shifting cast of characters and sometimes by the same character in the same breath.
Consider, for example, what Volker had to say about Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, the orchestrator of the president’s efforts to pressure Kiev into probing alleged Ukrainian interference against Trump in the 2016 election and alleged corruption by Joe Biden and his son Hunter in the country. Volker told House investigators that he repeatedly stressed to Ukrainian officials that Giuliani was a “private citizen” and did “not represent the United States government.” He recounted a meeting on July 3 with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in which he emphasized that Giuliani, buying into allegations by a Ukrainian prosecutor general whom Volker deemed “not credible,” was amplifying a “negative narrative about Ukraine” that was influencing Trump’s thinking, and acting as an obstacle to improved relations between the two nations.
Just a week after that meeting, however, Volker was texting Giuliani, “I think we have an opportunity to get you what you need,” and obliging a request from Andrey Yermak, an aide to the Ukrainian president, to connect him with the president’s lawyer. “I feel that the key for many things is Rudi,” Yermak wrote to Volker. If Volker disputed Yermak’s assessment, there’s no record of it in the text messages that he handed over to the committees. Ukrainian officials came to believe that dealing with Giuliani was the best way to convey their views directly to Trump, Volker conceded to investigators.
In another text exchange, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Vadym Prystaiko vented frustration with the disconnect between what he was hearing from Trump’s officials and what he understood to be true regarding Trump’s intentions. In discussing a potential White House meeting between Trump and Zelensky, Prystaiko criticized Volker for portraying the meeting to the Ukrainian as a done deal. “I must admit, I felt that you sugarcoated a message on a visit, or the message I got earlier was not correct,” Prystaiko texted the Ukraine envoy.
“I had probably communicated with [Prystaiko] that, you know, we’re getting nowhere here. We’re trying, but we’re not getting any date out of the White House,” Volker explained to investigators.
[Read: It was a corrupt quid pro quo]
According to Sondland’s testimony, one reason for Volker’s struggle to secure a date is that the White House was holding back on the meeting until Kiev publicly committed to inquiries into Ukrainian meddling in the 2016 election and Burisma, the energy company on whose board Hunter Biden sat.
Volker and Sondland both advocated for the meeting between the leaders, and the official policy across the Trump administration was to maintain military aid to Ukraine. But here, as elsewhere, politics upended policy. Shadow diplomats managed to make hundreds of millions of dollars in military support inexplicably disappear. In Kiev, the authorities were hearing from official channels that the United States was committed to security and reforms in Ukraine. The message via unofficial channels—which seemed to be just as important, if not more so—was that all that really mattered was getting the 2016 and Biden probes going, thank you very much.
“You had an instance where everyone that I spoke with in the policy side of the administration—you know, Pentagon, military, civilian, State Department, National Security Council—they all thought this is really important to provide this assistance,” Volker told the committees. “At least I, Secretary Pompeo, the official representatives of the U.S., never communicated to Ukrainians that it is being held for a reason. We never had a reason. And I tried to avoid talking to Ukrainians about it for as long as I could until it came out in Politico a month later.”
That left one Ukrainian official with no recourse but to text Volker the Politico report about the suspended assistance with the message “Need to talk with you.” As for how he responded, Volker told investigators, “You’re just trying to explain that … we have a complicated system. We have a lot of players in this. We are working this. Give us time to fix it.”
In August, at Giuliani’s insistence, Volker requested that the Ukrainian government add mentions of the specific probes Trump was pressing for when Yermak sent him a draft statement without such references included. “We spoke with Rudy … Following is text with insert at the end for the 2 key items,” Volker texted Yermak, including a new clause about investigating “Burisma and the 2016 U.S. elections.”
[Read: Trump’s reverse cover-up]
The Ukrainian government never actually issued the statement, and Volker told House investigators that this was in part because he’d advised the Ukrainians to “drop it” and instead “work on substantive issues” such as “security assistance.” He explained that he’d counseled them to “avoid anything that would look like it would play into our domestic politics” and to make no reference to Giuliani’s desired probes once he discovered that the U.S. Justice Department had not officially asked Ukraine to initiate the investigations. “I was becoming now here convinced this is going down the wrong road,” the Ukraine envoy explained to investigators regarding his change of heart. Kurt Volker the professional diplomat was rejecting the earlier proposal of Kurt Volker the political go-between.
Sondland, a Trump donor turned diplomat who seems to have been tasked with running point in Europe on Giuliani’s pet project, similarly described operating on dual foreign-policy tracks. “He just kept saying, ‘Talk to Rudy, talk to Rudy,’” the ambassador told the House committees at one point, recalling an instruction from Trump during an Oval Office meeting on Ukraine in May. When Giuliani’s involvement came up while he was talking to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Sondland recalled that Pompeo “rolled his eyes and said, ‘Yes, it’s something we have to deal with.’”
“People usually smiled when they heard Rudy’s name because he was always swirling around somewhere,” Sondland said. But ultimately, he suggested, their hands were tied. “Listen, the State Department was fully aware of the issues,” Sondland told investigators, “and there was very little they could do about it if the president decided he wanted his lawyer involved.”
In one especially revealing exchange, Volker seeks to persuade Bill Taylor, now famous for delivering the most damning testimony of the impeachment inquiry so far, to accept a position as the chargé d’affaires in Ukraine.
Taylor, a career diplomat, wonders: “I am struggling with the decision whether to go. Can anyone hope to succeed with the Giuliani-Biden issues swirling for the next 18 months? Can S [presumably Secretary of State Mike Pompeo] offer any reassurance on this issue?”
“I don’t know if there is much to do about the Giuliani thing, but I do think the key thing is to do what we can right now since the future of the country is in play right now,” Volker responds, in reference to official government business such as helping defend Ukraine from Vladimir Putin’s aggression and collaborating on anti-corruption efforts unrelated to Trump’s political fortunes. Volker notes that while he was not inhabiting a “normal world” of diplomacy, he felt he had “moved the ball substantially forward” in the U.S.-Ukraine partnership during his tenure, “despite everything.”
Now, however, the U.S.-Ukraine relationship has been reduced to a political football, and Volker finds himself out of his post, testifying before Congress on the question of whether the president has abused the power of his office—the abnormal, the “Giuliani thing,” the “everything” having overwhelmed all the substantive policy wins along the way.
Russell Berman contributed reporting.
Earlier this week, E. Jean Carroll took legal action against the president: The writer and advice columnist is suing Donald Trump for defamation. The suit is a sequel, of sorts. This summer, Carroll came forward to say that Trump, in the mid-1990s, had assaulted her in a dressing room at a department store in New York City, pinning her against the wall and forcibly penetrating her with his penis. It was a credible allegation of rape leveled against the sitting president of the United States—and it is best remembered, several months later, for how it fell with a thud. Carroll’s account, which Trump denied in the most Trumpian way imaginable, was generally met, among the American media, in a manner that was itself distinctly Trumpian: not with shock, but instead with a weary knowingness. One more woman. One more claim.
And so now Carroll is pursuing another kind of recourse: Her suit seeks damages, both punitive and compensatory, for what she says are the lies Trump told in the course of denying her claim of assault. In filing the suit, Carroll is following in the legal path of Summer Zervos, a former contestant on The Apprentice who alleges that Trump groped her during what she understood to be a business meeting—and whose account, too, Trump has dismissed as lies. Zervos’s own defamation suit, despite the president’s objections, is currently making its way through the courts. (On Tuesday, the suit, which is in its discovery phase, yielded cellphone records that seem to corroborate Zervos’s account of the alleged assault.)
Both suits are acts of bravery. They are arguments for accountability. They insist that no one—even, and especially, the president of the United States—should be above the law. But both suits, too, are seeking a justice of last resort. They are acknowledging the particular strain of apathy that tends to meet claims of sexual assault in general, but especially those claims made against Trump. In the cases of some other famous and powerful men, the volume of women who came forward to tell stories about them led to a volume of another kind: The women’s stories, told collectively—about Bill Cosby, for example, or Harvey Weinstein—eventually became too loud to ignore. The numbers alone had a corroborative effect. In Trump’s case, however, the physics are reversed in a way that is at once perverse and cruel: The more women come forward, the less any of their stories seem to stick.
[Read: The real meaning of Trump’s ‘she’s not my type’ defense]
Instead, the stories themselves become subsumed in what I have come to think of as the fog: the cloud that hovers around Trump, invisible but omnipresent, made of ignored accusations and stifled voices. In its vapors lurk all the miasmic misogynies that are at this point extremely well known—I moved on her like a bitch; blood coming out of her wherever; a big, fat pig—and that, in their very familiarity, have lost the ability to shock. The fog surrounds Trump, but it also protects him: Every new allegation against him—of groping, of harassment, of humiliation, of rape—diffuses into its ether. Just as Trump himself has achieved a kind of atmospheric ubiquity, the cloud that covers him manages to be everywhere and nowhere at the same time. It expands, but is never expended. Assault is intimate; it is violent. The cloud absorbs those facts, transforming allegations of physical horror into airy notions.
The fog is at work when Trump and his defenders say, with straight faces, that every single woman who has made a claim against him is a liar. In the fog’s haze, it becomes possible for a weary public to learn that the president has been credibly accused of rape—and to throw up its hands. One more woman.
Carroll, in discussing her suit, acknowledged the physics of the fog. She made a point of noting that, in bringing Trump to court, she is seeking not only recompense for herself, but also a broader kind of justice. “I am filing this on behalf of every woman who has ever been harassed, assaulted, silenced, or spoken up only to be shamed, fired, ridiculed and belittled,” she put it in a statement.
And yet the mechanics of that effort will be distinctly personal. What might be most notable about the Carroll and Zervos cases is that they are fighting, in particular, for the dignity of individuality. They are fighting the fog by insisting that the minutest details of their stories matter; that the specifics matter; that the women’s own idiosyncrasies matter. A hallmark of the president’s style, with all its casual cruelties, is an insistence that some people are best understood not as people at all, but as something lesser and lower: as animals; as objects; as, indeed, hazy ideas. The women’s suits reject that premise. They will live or die by their human details. That is how the fog might finally be pierced.
The suits arrive in the midst of a pop-cultural moment that is trying in its own way to bring a new kind of physical intimacy to stories of sexual assault. In her book, Know My Name, Chanel Miller—the young woman once known only as the “Stanford rape survivor”—describes in wincing minutiae what it is like to undergo the corroborative humiliations of the rape kit. The Netflix show Unbelievable details the way trauma can manifest not only as physical pain in the moment of an attack, but also as a psychic ache that lingers in the lives of survivors. There are many more stories that deploy this sort of granularity—stories often told by women, their words blunt and raw and painful.
The fog, however, is dense. It stretches and spreads and it wraps the American president in its protections. Late last month saw the publication of All the President’s Women, an in-depth exploration of Trump’s tendency to objectify the women who cross his path. The book, by the journalists Barry Levine and Monique El-Faizy, includes many new allegations of harassment and assault, some relatively minor and some explosive. (For the latter claims, the authors trace their efforts to substantiate them, but prove unable, in the end, to corroborate the rumors. The White House, for its part, dismissed the book as “trash.”) The most powerful element of the book, however, is the index included at its conclusion: a list of the many, many women who have come forward to claim that Trump mistreated them. The accounts vary; the theme does not. I moved on her like a bitch, the book suggests, is not the exception; it is the rule.
All the President’s Women, nonetheless, met roughly the same reception that Carroll’s initial rape allegation did. Part of that, certainly, might have had to do with the particular timing of the book’s publication (it was released at about the same time that found the House of Representatives initiating its impeachment inquiry into Trump). Part of it, as well, could involve the authors’ choice to include minor offenses (for one, Trump kissing the NBC reporter Katy Tur on her cheek, without her consent) under the umbrella of much more egregious allegations. But the book also offers damning evidence, collectively, of Trump’s lifelong treatment of women as playthings; it could operate just as readily as a textbook on the workings of rape culture. And yet it, too, landed with a thud. It, too, shocked but failed to surprise. “A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic,” the adage goes. The same might be said of the dozens of stories women have told about Trump’s alleged abuses. That is another kind of tragedy.
Carroll’s suit against Trump can be understood, in that sense, as a last-ditch plea for empathy. Zervos’s suit can be understood in the same way. The women are fighting the fog. They are hoping that the painful details of their stories, put into the court record, can somehow shake people out of their apathy. They will be fighting a difficult battle. Carroll, explaining why she didn’t come forward about her experience with Trump before the 2016 presidential election, noted her worry that a claim of rape against him would not compromise his candidacy. On the contrary: The story she told about him, Carroll assumed, would only make Donald Trump more popular.
U.S. President Donald Trump is expected to announce this week he is delaying a decision on whether to slap tariffs on cars and auto parts imported from the European Union, likely for another six months, EU officials said.
The S&P 500 and Nasdaq stock indexes fell from record highs on Monday as uncertainty about progress in U.S.-China trade talks again rose to the fore following comments by President Donald Trump, while a jump in Boeing shares helped the Dow Jones Industrial Average eke out a slim gain.
The dollar slid and global equity markets fell on Monday after U.S. President Donald Trump's remarks over the weekend dashed investor optimism that Washington and Beijing would soon reach a deal to end their debilitating trade war.
U.S. President Donald Trump
is expected to announce this week he is delaying a decision on
whether to slap tariffs on cars and auto parts imported from the
European Union, likely for another six months, EU officials
U.S. President Donald Trump said on Monday he will be meeting with vaping industry representatives as his administration considers tightening e-cigarette regulations amid a nationwide outbreak of vaping-related injuries and deaths.
The United States plans to raise the age limit for vaping to 21, U.S. President Donald Trump said on Friday, adding that his administration would issue its final report on such products next week.
U.S. President Donald Trump presided over a bruising Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) showdown on Saturday in his first visit to New York City after declaring his exodus from the Big Apple and as an...
A senior Pentagon official detailed confusion and concern in the U.S. national security apparatus after the White House blocked aid to Ukraine without explanation, according to testimony released on Monday by the congressional impeachment panel into U.S. President Donald Trump.
White House acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney on Monday withdrew his request to join a lawsuit seeking a court ruling on whether witnesses must testify in the U.S. House of Representatives impeachment probe into President Donald Trump, saying he would bring his own case, according to a court document.
Congressional Republicans said on Monday that weeks of closed-door impeachment testimony have not established that U.S. President Donald Trump pressed Ukraine to investigate his political rivals for his own benefit or that he has committed an impeachable offense.
U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman should not fear retaliation over his testimony to the U.S. Congress in its impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said on Monday.
The U.S. officials who will testify this week at public hearings in the House of Representatives' impeachment probe into President Donald Trump include the current top diplomat in Ukraine, the previous ambassador there and a diplomat who has spent much of his career fighting corruption in Ukraine and elsewhere.
The U.S. House of Representatives committees conducting the impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump on Monday released transcripts from a closed-door deposition with Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Laura Cooper.
The U.S. House of Representatives committees conducting the impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump on Monday released transcripts from closed-door depositions with State Department Ukraine specialist Catherine Croft and Christopher Anderson, a former specialist on Ukraine at the State Department.
A federal judge on Monday dismissed New York's attorney general and state tax commissioner as defendants in U.S. President Donald Trump's lawsuit seeking to block a House of Representatives committee from obtaining his New York state tax returns.
Ukraine expects the United States to maintain or even increase military aid to Kiev next year despite the issue being part of a political battle in Washington over the impeachment of President Donald Trump, Defence Minister Andriy Zahorodniuk told Reuters.
Republicans on Saturday asked that former Vice President Joe Biden's son and the whistleblower whose complaint triggered the impeachment inquiry into U.S. President Donald Trump be called to testify in public hearings that begin next week.
U.S. President Donald Trump said on Saturday that the White House would probably release a transcript of a second call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy on Tuesday.
President Donald Trump's 2016 campaign CEO Steve Bannon delivered potentially damaging testimony on Friday against Roger Stone, describing communicating with Trump's longtime adviser about WikiLeaks despite Stone's later denials and saying he believed Stone "had a relationship" with the website's founder.
The U.S. government on Friday called one-time White house adviser Steve Bannon to the stand in its trial of President Donald Trump's former aide, Roger Stone.
An official on the White House's National Security Council said he heard the U.S. ambassador to the European Union explicitly press Ukrainian officials to investigate Joe Biden and his son, according to a transcript released on Friday by Democrats leading the impeachment probe of President Donald Trump.
U.S. President Donald Trump is expected to announce this week he is delaying a decision on whether to slap tariffs on cars and auto parts imported from the European Union, likely for another six months, EU officials said.
Donald Trump's personal lawyer looking for platform to make president's case
Development emerges 18 months after Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew the US from the accord in May 2018
Donald Trump made a request to the former president of Ukraine to announce an investigation into Joe Biden, in exchange for a state visit to Washington, it has been reported.
The House impeachment inquiry interviewed Mike Pence special adviser Jennifer Williams, a specialist on European and Russian affairs who listened in on Donald Trump's "quid pro quo" call with Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine, after issuing a subpoena commanding her to appear, circumventing White House objections to her giving testimony.
'Dwindling' support for alliance under Donald Trump said to be undermining defence
Abdul Latif Nasir was just about to leave Guantanamo when Donald Trump tweeted that there 'would be no more releases'. He has now been told he will stay there forever. Andrew Buncombe on the fate of the last 40 inmates held at the prison
Event featuring Donald Trump's border wall built by kids reportedly leaves attendees 'horrified'