Beginning with warnings of Russian blackmail and ending with confounding presidential statements, this week revealed a White House in deeper trouble than buoyant financial markets have recognized.
The strongest evidence came not from attacks by opponents but rather the words and actions of President Donald Trump and his aides. Taken together, they pose the greatest threat to fulfillment of a presidential term since Bill Clinton faced the Monica Lewinsky scandal two decades ago.
Trump’s troubles span every element of executive leadership:
- Legal: He fired FBI director James Comey as the agency investigates ties between Trump’s campaign and Russians who interfered with the 2016 presidential election. He told NBC’s Lester Holt that unhappiness with the investigation played a role in his decision — an acknowledgment that could influence assessments by prosecutors or lawmakers as to whether he aimed to obstruct justice.
Trump insisted he is not personally under investigation, even if campaign aides and associates are. But the president also disclosed that he was concerned enough to ask Comey the question directly while considering the director’s job status. He hired a private law firm to respond to Senate investigators about business ties to Russia.
- Political: Trump’s penchant for false statements had long since undercut his credibility with most Americans; just 25 percent in last month’s NBC News/Wall Street Journal rated him highly for “being honest and trustworthy.” But the president’s admission that advice from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein played no role in his decision to fire Comey — directly contradicting accounts by Vice President Mike Pence and top aides — shredded their credibility as well.
That matters around the world. The word of presidents and their aides represents a critical component of America’s economic, diplomatic and military power.
And it matters at home, where Trump seeks support from Congress and its constituents. By week’s end, Trump’s approval rating had once again fallen below 40 percent in some polls, dangerous territory for fellow Republicans in 2018 congressional elections. If Democrats recapture control of the House, Trump would face the serious threat of impeachment proceedings.
- Managerial: By firing Comey so abruptly on Tuesday, the president left his staff unprepared for the firestorm that followed.
Management problems surfaced this week even before the firing. In testimony to Congress, former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates recounted her urgent warning to White House counsel Don McGahn that Michael Flynn, then Trump’s national security adviser, had become vulnerable to Russian blackmail because the Russians knew he had lied to Pence.
It took 18 days for the president to fire Flynn — for a different reason, by the president’s account. He told NBC’s Lester Holt it “didn’t sound like an emergency” when McGahn relayed Yates’ warning, noting that he “didn’t know” the acting attorney general.
Other interviews this week demonstrated related problems for a president whose inexperience in government makes him unusually dependent on advisers.
To The Economist, Trump asserted that his personal pressure caused China to stop manipulating its currency to the disadvantage of American competitors. “As soon as the president got elected, they went the other way,” added his Treasury secretary, Steve Mnuchin, who sat in on the conversation.
Those assertions are false. Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama pressed China on currency values for years; by 2015, the International Monetary Fund declared the yuan no longer undervalued. If Mnuchin in fact knew that — as any U.S. Treasury secretary would be expected to — then the exchange suggested he felt the need to humor the president rather than address him honestly.
To Time magazine, Trump blasted digital technology employed on new Navy aircraft carriers and said he had directed that, instead, “you’re going to goddamned steam” power to launch jets. The comments blindsided and befuddled defense officials, one of whom told The Washington Post that Trump was misinformed even though there were “elements of reality in what he said.”