Managing the White House cancer
On March 21, 1973, White House Counsel John Dean confronted President Richard Nixon about the growing Watergate scandal. “We have a cancer — within, close to the presidency, that’s growing,” Dean warned. “It’s growing daily.”
Dean’s famous metaphor is relevant to the Trump administration — not because the risk is precisely analogous but because it isn’t. In Nixon’s time, cancer was apt to be a death sentence. The tools to combat it were crude and brutal. Today, even as cancer remains a leading cause of death, for many people it can be managed as a chronic illness, capable of being kept under control with an arsenal of treatments.
That view of cancer — not as a metastatic killer but as a dangerous problem requiring vigilant control — may be the best way of understanding, and dealing with, the Trump administration. In the alarming month since he took office, it has become clear, if it were not already, that President Trump is dishonest, unprepared and undisciplined. His presidency poses an enormous risk to the country — to its safety, standing in the world and relations with allies, just for a start.
So the question becomes: Can the chronic disease that is the Trump presidency be managed? Are there tools available, not to cure him, but to keep his worst tendencies in check?
The situation is worrisome, yet the prognosis is decent. Indeed, we have already seen evidence of effective therapies.
First, the courts. For all his railing against “disgraceful” judges, Trump has signaled that he will obey court orders, including in Thursday’s news conference, when he said a new executive order on immigration “is going to be very much tailored to what I consider to be a very bad decision.” Rule of law beats rule of Trump.
White House senior policy adviser Stephen Miller can take to the Sunday shows to assert that “the powers of the president to protect our country . . . will not be questioned” or that “there’s no such thing as judicial supremacy.” But the evidence suggests that ultimately Trump will comply with court rulings even as he denounces them as “disgraceful” and “political.”
Second, the media. Every president chafes at press coverage and bristles at leaks. Trump is different, quantitatively and qualitatively, in the amount, venom and public nature of his attack. No matter. As Nixon learned, and as the stories leading to the resignation of national security adviser Michael Flynn underscore, reporters continue to do their jobs in the face of presidential hostility and stonewalling.
Meanwhile, as much as Trump may seek to employ the news conference to berate the “dishonest” media, reporters can effectively use the opportunity to confront Trump on untruths and press him as he dodges straight answers.
When Trump, repeating false claims of an electoral landslide, said his had been “the biggest electoral college win since Ronald Reagan,” NBC News’s Peter Alexander fact-checked him in real time — and Trump, confronted with irrefutable numbers, seemed to crumble: “Well I don’t know. I was given that information. I was given — actually, I’ve seen that information around. But it was a very substantial victory. Do you agree with that?”
Third and fourth, the public and Congress. They go together because the growing concerns of the former stiffen the limp resolve of the latter. So it matters that Gallup shows Trump’s approval rating falling from 45 percent just after the inauguration — he is the first elected president with initial approval ratings below the 50 percent mark — to 40 percent last week, 21 points below average.
Bad numbers and bad news — the two are interconnected — can help move even the most spineless lawmaker. At week’s end, there were glimmerings of congressional willingness to engage in the more searching oversight essential to get to the bottom of the Russia mess.
Fifth, personnel, a still-open question. Flynn did Trump the favor of doing himself in. Others in Trump’s inner orbit, whether malevolent or incompetent, will not go as easily. But an obvious solution for a White House in trouble is to trade in true believers for more experienced hands. Trump may not yet be willing to make such changes, and the toxicity of his White House may dissuade the best; on this score, retired Vice Adm. Robert Harward’s decision to decline the Flynn job was disheartening.
It’s impossible to predict, after this turbulent first month, where the Trump administration is heading, and there are many reasons to worry. But it is comforting to recall: The body politic has a resilient immune system.
Are there tools available, not to cure President Trump, but to keep his worst tendencies in check?