The insurrection of Jan. 6 and Donald Trump’s attempts to steal the election loom so large in our consciousness that it’s sometimes hard to remember just how disastrous, chaotic and amoral his presidency was, pretty much every day for four whole years.
Looking back is also a good way of putting today’s blistering coverage of the Biden presidency in context. The relentless message we’re currently getting from our top news organizations is that Biden is unpopular and incompetent, that he is trying to do too much, and that the economy is being mismanaged.
So let’s look back and remember what real incompetence looks like; what it looks like when a president is a dangerous narcissist who only cares about himself. Let’s look at the exceedingly low standards journalists set for a president back then, allowing Trump to exceed them.
This, by popular demand, is the first in what will be an occasional series of posts about what things were like four years ago this week.
The Shift in Tone That Wasn’t
A week earlier, a New York Times headline had credulously proclaimed “First Trump State of the Union Address Makes Appeal for Unity,” with Times reporters writing that he had “steered clear of the nationalist rhetoric, political attacks and confrontational tone that have been his calling cards both as a candidate and as a commander in chief.” (The initial Washington Post banner headline was “A call for bipartisanship.”)
Now, a week later, the Times reported “Mr. Trump is back to being a disrupter. After accusing Democrats of being un-American and even treasonous for refusing to applaud during his State of the Union speech, he said on Tuesday that he would welcome a government shutdown if he cannot reach a spending deal with Congress that tightens immigration laws.”
Reporter Mark Landler then went on to make the argument – unheeded by his news organization and himself – that listening to Trump is basically a waste of time. He wrote of “a creeping sense of numbness” because “Trump has said so many outrageous things, has broken so many taboos and has insulted so many people that his latest outbursts no longer shock. To some, they seem more of the same.”
There were nearly three years of this to go.
Knives Out in the White House
The Washington Post last month wrote a snarky hatchet-job profile of White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain, with one of the complaints being that he spends too much time on Twitter.
Four years ago this week, Trump was already on his second chief of staff, Gen. John F. Kelly, having fired his first, Reince Priebus, by Tweet, in July 2017.
Four years ago this week, Trump staff secretary and trusted confidant Rob Porter resigned after his two former wives accused him in interviews of physical abuse when they were married to him.
And suddenly the knives came out against Kelly, who had known of the accusations against Porter for months, but protected him until they went public.
The Washington Post reported that the White House was soon “engulfed in chaos… as officials scrambled to contain the fallout,” and that “Dormant rivalries have come alive.”
Kelly, “the man whose mission had been to enforce order in the West Wing” was suddenly “focused instead on a more personal goal — to save his job” after he and Trump had conversations “described as ‘very turbulent.’”
A “West Wing aide” told the Post: “If you hate Kelly, this is your moment.”
Kelly kind of offered his resignation, though remained in the job for nearly a year longer.
“Sources” told Gabriel Sherman of Vanity Fair that Trump was “discussing a shake-up to his West Wing” because he’s “increasingly frustrated that members of his administration aren’t going to war for him.” Sherman reported that Trump regularly spoke by phone to his “braintrust,” which included Fox News host Sean Hannity.
The Bullshit Memo
Trump the previous week had allowed the release of a memo composed by the staff of House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes. He then claimed that it “totally vindicates ‘Trump'” in regard to the FBI investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
Daniel Dale, then at the Toronto Star, wrote that the memo “not only fails to reveal a titanic scandal. It reveals no scandal at all. And that is even if you take it at face value.”
This week four years ago, Trump blocked the release of a classified Democratic memo rebutting the Republican memo.
Meanwhile, a few days after Trump suggested that top Justice Department should face consequences for conduct he called “a disgrace,” the No. 3 official at the Justice Department suddenly resigned.
Also this week four years ago, Trump’s lawyers advised him against sitting down for a wide-ranging interview with the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller, concerned that he could be charged with lying to investigators.
No Need to Know
Carol D. Leonnig, Shane Harris and Greg Jaffe reported for the Washington Post that Trump had “declined to participate in a practice followed by the past seven of his predecessors: He rarely if ever reads the President’s Daily Brief, a document that lays out the most pressing information collected by U.S. intelligence agencies from hot spots around the world.”
He “opted to rely on an oral briefing” instead.
Just last year, a CIA report disclosed that Trump only got briefed two or three times a week, and that briefers achieved “only limited success” in their attempt to deliver timely and relevant intelligence.
Don’t. Push. That. Button.
In January of 2018, Trump famously tweeted that his “Nuclear Button” was “much bigger & more powerful” than North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un’s, “and my Button works!”
This week four years ago, with concerns growing that Trump was considering a “bloody nose” attack, a group of Democratic senators wrote Trump a letter saying they were “deeply concerned about the potential consequences of a preemptive military strike on North Korea and the risks of miscalculation and retaliation.”
Hatred of Brown People
A month earlier, Trump had referred to Haiti and African nations as “shithole countries.” This week four years ago, it became even clearer that his hostility towards non-white immigrants extended to all of them, not just the undocumented.
His proposal to cut legal immigration rates was designed in such a way, the Washington Post reported, that it “would disproportionately affect immigrants from Latin America and Africa” and “would delay the date that white Americans become a minority of the population” from one to five or more years.
Also that week, an FBI investigation into the death of a Border Patrol agent Trump had repeatedly called the result of an attack – and which he used to argue for the border wall — found no evidence suggesting he had been attacked.
After years of publicly using the deficit as an excuse to demand spending cuts, on Feb. 7, 2018, Republicans “formally broke free from those fiscal principles and announced a plan that would add $500 billion in new spending over two years… several months after Republicans passed a tax law that would add more than $1 trillion to the debt over a decade,” the Washington Post reported.
Surprise! Trump is Trump and the GOP is Trump
In order to keep treating Trump like a normal president – which they felt obliged to do, or risk appearing to be liberals – our elite political media had to play all sorts of tricks on their own minds.
One was that they constantly seemed surprised to learn the obvious. Then, more often than not, they forgot about it.
This week four years ago was bookended by two illustrative columns from Dan Balz, the Old Man of the Washington Post newsroom, and its ultimate spreader of conventional-wisdom manure.
On Feb. 3, Balz finally realized that “The Republican establishment — there are a few dissenting voices, of course — has succumbed to the power of the presidency, and this president in particular.”
And on Feb. 10, Balz finally realized that the “White House under John Kelly is not so calm and competent after all.”
Trump Wants a Parade
Presidential aides and stenographers went scrambling after Trump apparently decided he wanted to have a huge parade in his honor through the streets of Washington.
The Washington Post reported – with a straight face – that “President Trump’s vision of soldiers marching and tanks rolling down the boulevards of Washington is moving closer to reality in the Pentagon and White House, where officials say they have begun to plan a grand military parade later this year showcasing the might of America’s armed forces.”
The New York Times reported that “Tanks, jets and other killing machines painted olive-drab and tan could be rolling the routes of the nation’s capital later this year for a peacetime parade inspired by President Trump.”
Unreported until 2020, Trump “asked his staff not to include wounded veterans, on grounds that spectators would feel uncomfortable in the presence of amputees. ‘Nobody wants to see that,’ he said.”
Trump finally got his parade more than a year later, for an unprecedentedly politicized July 4. It cost over $5 million, some of the money raided from National Park fund, some bankrupting Washington D.C.’s anti-terror fund
That’s not all, I’m just out of time.
But how do you feel about how things are going this week, compared to that?