Donald Trump held his little televised negotiation pageant on Tuesday, in an attempt to prove he hasn't lost his marbles. Since he didn't robotically repeat the words "no collusion" over and over again, he received some good reviews from the media in the immediate aftermath. On Wednesday he undid all that with another early morning tweetstorm, as well as a photo op with his cabinet in which, instead of talking about the agenda as planned, he whined about the media and forgot to address any issues. His "stable genius" tour collapsed in less than 24 hours.
But it's not wise to chalk all this up to Trumpian craziness and forget about what he's saying. He is still the president of the United States, the most powerful job on the planet, and he's backed by a party that is increasingly willing to cater to his whims to keep him happy. He was not a happy president on Wednesday morning:
In the first, he once more demeans the justice system, calling it broken and unfair because it issued a ruling he doesn't like. Recall that he was livid last year when his Muslim ban was halted, reading his order at one of his raucous post-inauguration rallies:
Courts seem to be so political and it would be so great for our justice system if they would be able to read a statement and do what's right. . . . A bad high school student would understand this. Anybody would understand this. It’s as plain as you can have it. I was a good student. I understand things. I comprehend very well, better than I think almost anybody.
He particularly loathes the more liberal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and hates the fact that its judges can issue injunctions. When a Ninth Circuit judge temporarily blocked an order on sanctuary cities last spring, he went ballistic and said he "absolutely" wanted to break that court up.
Presidents often disagree with court decisions. Only Trump has used the occasion to personally insult judges and rhetorically assault the institution of the judiciary itself. His disdain for an independent judiciary has been obvious since he first started campaigning, but it's only become more fervent as president.
His other Wednesday morning tweets pertained to the release of testimony by Glenn Simpson, the owner of Fusion GPS, who commissioned former British intelligence agent Christopher Steele to investigate Trump. (That work produced the now-infamous "dossier.") Evidently this release angered Trump and it's fair to ask just what he meant by demanding, "Republicans should finally take control!"
The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said he didn't know:
“I don’t know what the president has in mind, and I don’t think I better comment until I have a discussion with the president on that,” Grassley said, when asked by reporters.
Then, seemingly catching himself, Grassley added: “And I don’t intend to have a discussion with the president on that point, and I hope he doesn’t call me and tell me the same thing that you said he said.”
Grassley's response raises the question of whether the president is still in the habit of calling senators and pressuring them to end the Russia investigation, as he reportedly did throughout the summer. That's entirely inappropriate, but as we have seen, Trump has no understanding of the duties and responsibilities of the Congress or respect for the rule of law. This is, after all, a man who believes the attorney general's job is to "protect" the president. ("Where's my Roy Cohn?" he supposedly lamented.)
He certainly believes the job of Republicans in Congress is to serve as his personal lackeys. And increasingly, we see that many are willing to do so.
Trump's morning tweetstorm just got him started. He completely lost the thread at the Cabinet meeting later in the day, where he once more made clear that he spends hours each day watching cable news:
It was a tremendous meeting. Actually, it was reported as incredibly good, and my performance — some of them called it a performance; I consider it work — but got great reviews by everybody other than two networks who were phenomenal for about two hours.
He claimed he had gotten "letters" from anchors who said it was "one of the greatest meetings they'd ever witnessed." He continued to brag for several more minutes. Then, obviously still smarting from the fallout resulting from Michael Wolff's book, he declared:
We are going to take a strong look at our country’s libel laws, so that when somebody says something that is false and defamatory about someone, that person will have meaningful recourse in our courts. Our current libel laws are a sham and a disgrace and do not represent American values or American fairness.
Trump is currently being sued for defamation by one of the women he publicly called a liar during the campaign, implying she was too ugly for him to assault. Here's a convenient, up-to-date, list of all the people, places and companies he has insulted on Twitter alone. Here is a list of the nearly 2,000 lies he told in 2017. He is one of history's most prolific liars and legendary gutter fighters and is completely without shame, so such a threat would be mordantly funny if it weren't coming from the president of the United States.
Trump has been threatening to change the libel laws since before the election. He told rally-goers back in 2015 that he wanted to make sure that “when they write purposely negative and horrible and false articles, we can sue them and win lots of money," saying that when he became president, news organizations like The New York Times and The Washington Post would “have problems.” Last summer he took another tack, threatening to use executive power against NBC:
President Nixon tried to do that to The Washington Post. The paper's legendary publisher, Katharine Graham, said it cost millions for the company to defend itself and that that had been the single most destructive action he took against press freedom.
So yes, Trump is an embarrassing fool with all of his whining about the media. But he's also showing that his authoritarian tendencies are being indulged on a number of different levels. The institutions have held up pretty well so far, and the specific threats he has made to this point are empty: There are no federal libel laws to "look at," and only individual TV stations have licenses, not the networks themselves. But the larger point is that he's putting pressure on First Amendment rights and the idea of an open society, and some of the people we expect to defend those are abdicating their responsibility.
To understand the danger, ask yourself what Trump will do if we have a major terrorist attack or a war. We already know the answer, and it's not good.