Man­ag­ing the White House can­cer

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION - RUTH MAR­CUS ruth­mar­cus@wash­

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?

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