The Final Demise of “Adults in the Room”

Trump’s staffers have alternated between enabling his bad behavior and claiming they’re protecting us from his worst instincts. This defense can’t hold.

Donald Trump
President Donald Trump speaks to members of the press on July 26. Alex Wong/Getty Images

The Democrats’ 2-week-old impeachment push is already getting to Donald Trump, but for now, most other Republicans seem to be doing their best to keep their heads down on the merits, or pretend it’s all hilarious, or resort to full Alex Jones deep state talk. As Jennifer Rubin observed Friday, only a handful of prominent Republicans have fleshed out complex working theories to defend Trump’s Ukraine-gate behavior. Reps. Devin Nunes, Mark Meadows, and Jim Jordan are out on the hustings, matching the wackiest of conspiracy theorists beat for beat. But a lot of more cautious Republicans find themselves pincered between telling the truth about Donald Trump and the blowback from still-loyal right-wing media and the president himself. As Lee Drutman notes here, nobody in the Republican Congress will turn on Trump individually; their electoral fortunes are too closely bound up to his. But as he further notes, if and when they do turn, it will happen quickly. Until that moment, they will support him, with few exceptions, no matter what happens.

As the polling numbers tick up in favor of impeachment and the public witnesses increasingly erratic and dangerous behaviors, do keep in mind that a growing number of highly placed people, inside the administration, are going to want to preserve their ability to exculpate themselves, although they will wait until the very instant the yellow inflatable slide is unfurled on this presidency before they do so. Which is why we can expect to hear a lot of compromised people offering up evidence that other wrongdoers were more compromised than they ever were, in tandem with the sudden departures of officials, such as Energy Secretary Rick Perry, (who maybe will or maybe will not be leaving the administration shortly). But every cornered co-conspirator, like every December snowflake, is different, and it may be of use to try to understand and flesh out the 11th-hour bravery that will begin to go down. It’s being seeded, already, before our credulous eyes.

Until now, Donald Trump has largely hidden from accountability behind a wall of internal administration enablers who insist, if pressed, that he is the best and greatest president in the whole entire history of presidenting, and they get away with it because, like him, they suffer no consequences, and like him, they cannot be shamed. As a transactional matter, they take what they can derive from proximity to power, then bail to Dancing With the Stars or maybe just make money off the for-profit prison industrial complex. But if impeachment fever continues to gather steam, those swept up in the scandal will eventually need to make heroic efforts to deflect any blame from themselves. We’re already witnessing Vice President Mike Pence floating the “I’m too dumb to know what I was being asked to participate in” defense, while Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is going for the full-on Brett Kavanaugh–style shouty conspiracy theory defense. Rudy Giuliani authentically believes that the fate of the republic has long rested on his shoulders alone, and he has opted for the straight-up Few Good Men defense, insisting that if we all knew what he knows, we’d be blackmailing Ukraine too.

Be prepared for that to accelerate, and also for it to get even dumber and more circular. One of the stunning revelations of the Robert Mueller report was also one of the most underappreciated: Time after time, Trump’s acts of obstruction of justice were derailed by high-level officials simply ignoring him. As Mueller put it, “The president’s efforts to influence the investigation were mostly unsuccessful, but that is largely because the persons who surrounded the president declined to carry out orders or accede to his requests.” Mueller continued:

[James] Comey did not end the investigation of [Michael] Flynn, which ultimately resulted in Flynn’s prosecution and conviction for lying to the FBI. [Don] McGahn did not tell the Acting Attorney General that the Special Counsel must be removed, but was instead prepared to resign over the President’s order. [Corey] Lewandowski and [Rick] Dearborn did not deliver the President ‘s message to [Jeff] Sessions that he should confine the Russia investigation to future election meddling only. And McGahn refused to recede from his recollections about events surrounding the President’s direction to have the Special Counsel removed, despite the President’s multiple demands that he do so. Consistent with that pattern, the evidence we obtained would not support potential obstruction charges against the President’s aides and associates beyond those already filed.

Why does that matter? Because one of the ways in which Trump’s own ineptitude and lack of accountability shield him from consequences is that the people who work for him sometimes take it upon themselves to ignore him. They further take it upon themselves to lie to him, manipulate the information he sees, and also manipulate the information about what he has done. Ukraine-gate is a kind of triple lutz involving each of the above. Trump is thus cocooned in a sprawling bubble of faux patriots, who protect him from the truth and protect him from himself. (It’s important to remember that despite all of this, Donald Trump still is the real president. He can still do things, like abandon American allies, as he did on Sunday evening. Kurds will die tonight because of his reckless action.)

But the belief that you can hang in for the looting without being tagged for the parts when the president runs with scissors into the abyss is not courageous—it’s delusional. It’s also enabling, which helps explain why the strategy has thus far been a win-win argument for Donald Trump, who gets away with what he does by claiming that he was just “joking,” and for Hope Hicks and Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Don McGahn, who can pretend that they valiantly served to save Donald Trump (and by extension the rest of us) from Donald Trump. It’s why the Resistance Inside the White House is allowed to publish anonymous op-eds about how it’s really protecting us, a setup for the day when we are told that everyone who colluded with and enabled an unfit president was a hero all along.

Three noxious years of the “grown-up in the room” narrative, which immunizes Trump from responsibility by treating him like a child and also immunizes the so-called grown-ups by recasting their complicity as levelheaded modulation of his most reckless impulses, is enough. There will be a lot more storytelling in the coming weeks about the valiant intercession of the government officials surrounding Trump, and all the many ways they served as moderating influences. Don’t be fooled—they’re looking to find an escape hatch. Whistleblowers have led the way, but they remain few and far between. The remaining adults in the room need to act like adults and put the country before the tired charade of a secret shadow resistance, which was never really resistance, and which will not serve as exoneration.