Despite innumerable objective indicators of failure and incompetence - including a stalled and unpopular health-care bill, declining chances of a tax reform bill, criticism from European allies, a special prosecutor, the termination and scandals involving former national security adviser Michael Flynn, open warfare among staffers and a growing list of court decisions slapping down his Muslim ban - President Donald Trump continues to squawk “Fake news!” and rail at underlings. Now he is parting ways with his communications director Mike Dubke.
The Post reports, “The communications operation - and Dubke and Sean Spicer specifically - have come under sharp criticism from Trump and many senior officials in the West Wing, who believe the president has been poorly served by his staff, in particular in the aftermath of the Comey firing.” But, of course, it was Trump, egged on by son-in-law Jared Kushner, who decided to fire Comey, give his staff no notice, concoct a fake rationale and then undercut his own excuse within 24 hours. Trump cannot very well concede all of that, so, naturally, he labels the debacle a “communications problem” - the last refuge of every failing president.
It hardly matters whether Dubke stays or goes, whether Spicer (as has been reported) takes a less public role, whether the hapless chief of staff Reince Priebus gets replaced or whether thuggish campaign cronies Corey Lewandowski and David Bossie head up a “war room.” Swapping one set of semi-competent staffers for another set of semi-competent staffers even less temperamentally suited to the White House will not reverse Trump’s fortunes. Let’s face it: The most talented people won’t take jobs with this president. The talent pool, already shallow, evaporates as scandals wash over the remains of Trump’s agenda.
Trump’s apologists cry, “But his base is with him!” or “In the Rust Belt, they don’t care!” That’s a comment on blind partisanship and the impact of Fox News-type propaganda and should not provide solace to Trump for several reasons. First, his core groups (e.g. older voters) are starting to drift away. Second, his core base of support is a minority of a minority of the 2016 electorate, which is insufficient to reelect him in 2020. Third, congressional Republicans scattered across the country, now at risk of losing the House, are not impressed with his continued support in deep-red quadrants; Republicans in mildly competitive seats better scramble to save their own political hides.
Trump’s problems will only get worse thanks to his own limitations and to Robert Mueller, the one man inside the Beltway entirely immune to spin and whose credibility remains pristine despite his intersection with the Trump administration’s antics. Ironically, on the day Trump and Dubke’s parting came to light, both Trump’s limitations and Mueller’s advantages are on full display.
The presidency, we see once again, is beyond Trump’s intellectual and temperamental capabilities. The Post reports, “President Trump consumes classified intelligence like he does most everything else in life: ravenously and impatiently, eager to ingest glinting nuggets but often indifferent to subtleties.” Sorry, but a man of extraordinary ignorance who is unable to absorb nuances is going to fail as president. He will not only fail to grasp critical data but also incentivize the intelligence community to ferret out whatever evidence of collusion and obstruction it can find:
“Trump’s standing among career intelligence officers remains strained. He has continued to disparage their motives and work - most notably by refusing to accept the consensus of the CIA, the FBI and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence that Russia waged an unprecedented effort to disrupt the 2016 election. In a recent television interview, Trump said that it ’could have been China, could have been a lot of different groups.’
“And Trump’s reaction to the disclosure that he shared highly classified information with Russian officials was to declare it his ’absolute right’ to do so and lash out at leakers - making clear that he still sees his own intelligence services as adversaries.”
In short, he cannot successfully fake being presidential and cannot reconcile himself to the need to listen to those who know more than he does - and are in a position to damage his presidency. As a result, debacles will continue to unfold.
As for Mueller, he has been “building a team, designing a budget and forcing the Federal Bureau of Investigation to withhold from Congress documents he may be interested in-all in his first full week on the job,” according to the Wall Street Journal. Those expecting this to drag on for years underestimate the amount of information at his disposal, the assistance Comey can provide in getting him up to speed, the number of cooperating witnesses he will be able to unearth and the president’s own loquaciousness.
To sum up, Trump can holler at the media and fire every communications staffer in sight. It won’t matter. His current predicament is beyond spin. His own shortcomings and the arrival of a special counsel with immense responsibilities and unimpeachable character mean this is no “communications problem.” The presidency is collapsing, and only the speed and method by which it eventually ends are in question.
Rubin is a Washington Post columnist.