Roses are red
Trump’s face is vermilion
He looks more than ever
Like a sad (!) vaudevillian
On Valentine’s Day, the world awoke to more evidence that Donald Trump’s presidency is one yuuuuge, nostalgic tribute to the slapstick heyday of American music hall.
It is far too early to guffaw. Trump remains a greater threat to global security than the Keystone Kops, none of whom showed enthusiasm for using nuclear warheads as first-strike weapons. As with the portly Young Leader in Pyongyang, we don’t want to laugh ourselves to death by letting the funny stuff occlude the dangers.
But the abrupt end to Mike Flynn’s marathon 23-day stint as national security adviser offers reasons to be cheerful beyond natural amusement at the cascade of pratfalls that are imbuing this White House with the vaudeville spirit.
Take the hilarious collision between two of the Stooges. Within minutes, alternative fact maven Kellyanne Conway’s claim that Flynn had Trump’s full confidence was contradicted by irritable press guy Sean Spicer (victim of Melissa McCarthy’s brutal Saturday Night Live parody, and widely tipped to be the next to go).
Another comic gem, with hindsight, was this from candidate Trump in the summer: “I’m going to surround myself only with the best and most serious people,” he told The Washington Post (of which more below). “We want top-of-the-line professionals.”
So how’s that all working out for ya, Mr Prez? Flynn was so good that, as a private citizen before Trump took office, he flirted with felony by discussing the relaxation of sanctions with the Russian ambassador; underscored his serious security chops by doing so in an insecure phone call, which was duly tapped and leaked; “misled” Vice President Mike Pence into parroting his denial; and excused that as a memory lapse in all the high excitement of preparing for government. Some bundle of rookie mistakes for a top-of-the-line pro.
A grander cause for modest optimism, meanwhile, is that Donald Trump quickly realised he couldn’t save Flynn, the super-patriot with the shady Russian connections who publicly preferred Putin’s leadership over Obama’s. All right, I know, it isn’t much. An aphid – not your average aphid, mind; the aphid at the bottom of the fourth-grade remedial political studies class at Aphid High in Boise, Idaho – would have worked that out.
But at least it hints at Trump being less divorced from reality than he appears. Were he wholly cocooned within the fantasy bubble of his own omnipotence, he’d have dismissed the allegations as fake news and tried to brazen it out. Instead, the tangerine Oliver Hardy appreciated that a scandal touching on his own, slightly sensitive Russian connections was one fine mess that urgently needed cleaning up.
And here’s an even better reason for hope. Fears that the surge of two-bit propaganda, as pioneered by Steve Bannon at Breitbart, rings a death knell for traditional, costly journalism have receded. This was a big-league win for old school reporting (sources, facts, quaintly archaic stuff like that), primarily by The Washington Post.
This may not be the beginning of Trump’s end, but it must mark the end of the beginning. Already, David Gergen, a sober Republican commentator who worked in Nixon’s White House, reprises Howard Baker’s famous Watergate questions. What did the President know? And when did he know it?
If Trump knew after the event about Flynn’s unlicensed diplomatic foray, if he was warned he was vulnerable to Russian blackmail, but did nothing, that is embarrassing. If he knew beforehand, and gave tacit approval to Flynn’s chat with the man from Moscow, that is damaging. If he expressly put Flynn up to it, that might be catastrophic.
When The Washington Post sinks its teeth into a dodgy, paranoid President, precedent teaches it is as prone to remove them as a distempered pitbull. The paper, along with CNN and others on page 1 of the new Enemies List, will never let go.
They may never unravel the full truth of what and when Trump knew about Flynn’s call, let alone about the President’s commercial links (if any) to Russia. If they do, it will take months and probably years. And even then, in a time of lowered expectations about propriety, a scandal to dwarf Watergate might not lead to resignation, impeachment, or Trump being forcibly stood down under the 25th Amendment.
So while the astounding pace at which this administration reveals its dodginess, amateurishness and autocratic contempt for the rule of law suggests it won’t endure for long, that may be wishful thinking. In their silent movies, great vaudevillians like Keaton and Chaplin traded on an ungodly knack for cheating certain death. Trump will hope to do the same.
Even so, after less than a month it becomes clear that Trump is no more immune to the laws of political science than his predecessors. If a Republican-dominated Congress is too cowardly to challenge and contain him, the judiciary and the media are plainly not.
One charlatan farceur has already slipped thanks to blessedly durable journalistic values. Many more banana skins – Muscovite or otherwise – lie in President Donald J Clownface’s path. No one doubted his presidency would be entertaining. What we doubted was that it wouldn’t end in terrible tears.
It may yet. But in the twin forms of judges applying the law and journalists exercising their First Amendment rights, the Constitution is asserting itself as a barrier to the misuse of power. Without tempting fate, we can risk a coy smile of relief about that.
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