An interactive murder mystery game is rocking the White House since last week. An anonymous op-ed in the New York Times by a senior official in the Trump administration triggered a hunt to reveal the identity of the culprit who claimed to be part of a “quiet resistance”. This mystery game is one of many indications in the past weeks that Donald Trump’s presidency has reached a tipping point and began an arduous implosion process.
September has not been kind to Donald Trump. Senator John McCain’s funeral showed the extent of his isolation among the Washington establishment while presidential and congressional polls signalled a negative shift in how most Americans feel about him. However, the most disconcerting development is a book titled: Fear: Trump in the White House, by Bob Woodward, the renowned investigative journalist whose reporting helped bring down Richard Nixon in the 1970s.
Today, this book will be officially released, detailing how aides struggle and conspire daily to save the world from an erratic president. White House chief of staff John Kelly was quoted describing the White House as “crazytown”, and the president’s most senior staff allegedly called him a “fifth grader”, a “liar”, and a “moron”, among other characterisations – a name-calling trend Trump himself incidentally began during the 2016 presidential campaign.
The Woodward book saga is like most of Trump’s political fights since coming to power nearly 20 months ago, a credibility battle between two narratives. Among those that Trump’s credibility has stack up to are former FBI director James Comey, Special Counsel Robert Mueller, adult film star Stormy Daniels and now Woodward. The first narrative portrays Trump on the borderline between a collaborator and puppet of Russian President Vladimir Putin, a populist businessman with no grasp of policies or governance, and a narcissist who has no loyalty but to himself. The second narrative depicts him as a reformer, challenging the status quo; a nationalist who puts country first and a genius fixing the economy and streamlining the government.
Woodward’s account obviously falls within the prevailing first narrative. Trump came to power with no ideology or loyal team of aides, hence this new band of advisers had to fight for access to the president and for influence in shaping policy. Trump brought the reality-TV culture to governance: back-stabbing, outlandish drama and media leaking. First, it was a political “knife fight” between the loyalist who represents the family business (Jared Kushner) and the ideologue who channels the base (Steve Bannon), then the socialite outcast turned book-writer Omarosa Manigault who brought in her book, Unhinged, the secret recording phobia to the White House. Trump’s business instincts fed this competition between aides and he has now lost control of this rivalry. The president took the lead in publicly bashing members of his own team and chastising the existing bureaucracy he leads. The only motto in this White House seems “bellum omnium contra omnes” or “the war of all against all”.
It is hard to resist the temptation of comparing current events to the 1970s. Nixon’s cover-up then was his role in the breaking in and installing listening devices in telephones of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) headquarters at the Watergate office complex. Woodward and his co-author Carl Bernstein – in their book, All the President’s Men – exposed to what extent officials across the Nixon administration were involved in this cover-up. This time around Woodward did not address the hacking of the DNC server and the alleged collusion with Russia, he chose instead a soft target, the mercurial nature of the president himself.
The current debate in US politics is whether this anonymous official, and those quoted in Woodward’s book, are enablers who are not necessarily preventing Trump’s policies or patriots doing this work on behalf of a grateful nation. In the past, while many US officials have been dismissed or resigned for clashing with the president, a few continued to serve for a greater cause, but none before Trump claimed to be forming a “resistance”. James Schlesinger stayed as defence secretary to prevent Nixon from potentially starting a nuclear war. Nixon’s aides ignored the decisions he made while drunk and Trump’s aide stole documents from the Oval Office before the presidential signature could be applied in the name of “national security”.
Trump’s reaction to the anonymous op-ed and Woodward’s book reflects the “nervous breakdown” inside the White House. He demanded the New York Times give up the anonymous official’s identity and asked the Justice Department to investigate, even though no federal law was violated. The White House is floating ideas to run a lie detector test for staff and has a list of suspects. This fear is becoming universal. It must be bad when Vice President Mike Pence goes public to assure Americans, most importantly Trump himself, that he did not discuss invoking the 25th amendment, a constitutional provision that allows the vice president along with most of cabinet secretaries to declare the president “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office”. This path is improbable and mired with risks, but the fact that it is being discussed shows the troubles of this administration.
A worth noting irony is that the publishing house, Simon & Schuster, decided to release Woodward’s book on the 17th anniversary of the September 11 attacks on the United States. This day has been typically a slow day of news where politicians refrain from attacking each other, which shows how this anniversary is no longer potent in US collective memory. The media, Congress and Democrats are also conspirators with Trump in this gradual decay of the US political discourse that has become increasingly polarised.
Measuring the impact of this book and the anonymous op-ed is difficult to gauge at this point. Moving forward, Trump might no longer trust his aides and these aides are less likely to trust each other. Woodward gave us a book of characters that reinforced what we already know from media leaking rather than uncovering damning Watergate-like evidence. It seems the only documentation that will be based on provable facts about the nature of this presidency are the Mueller reports regarding the president’s collusion with Russia and obstruction of US justice. For now, the most probable way to end the Trump presidency remains in the ballot boxes and Woodward’s book strikes at the heart of the president’s credibility and electability. Trump is more isolated than ever before, and the world is watching.