White House

He Shows He Is Unfit. Yet He's Still the President.

The system can deal with a crooked president. But not a crazy one.

Not reassuring.

Photographer: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

President Donald Trump is not always crazy like a fox. And that -- more than obstruction of justice, or any potential criminality related to Russia -- is the greatest threat facing the U.S. It's also a threat that U.S. institutions are failing to acknowledge, let alone confront.

Trump is unlikely to succeed at completely derailing the FBI investigation into his campaign's ties to Russia. But he might undermine it enough to avoid any serious consequences. Even without his subterfuge, the investigation could prove inconclusive.

But at least there is an investigation into Russia, in addition to congressional inquiries, news reporting, and a general mobilization of expert opinion and institutions. The investigations are vital. Unless they are, ultimately, beside the point.

For two days early this week, Trump's staff went to great lengths to establish a plausible claim that Trump did not instigate the firing of FBI director James Comey. Instead, White House aides and Vice President Mike Pence insisted that Trump was responding to concerns raised in a memo by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.

This White House has not assembled a highly competent or ethical team. So the explanations were pretty dodgy. But they nonetheless represented a coordinated effort to define Trump's actions and confine the political damage from firing Comey.

Then on Thursday Trump told NBC News anchor Lester Holt that Rosenstein's memo wasn't even significant. "I -- I was going to fire Comey," Trump said. Holt immediately questioned him on the issue, all but encouraging Trump to get his story aligned with the previous White House talking points. Trump wasn't having it.

"Oh, I was gonna fire regardless of recommendation," Trump said.

There is good reason for journalists and others to ask whether Trump's statements to Holt constitute something close to an admission that he fired Comey to impede the Russia investigation. (Trump said he was eager for the investigation to end.) There is good reason to use this interview as evidence that Trump's White House staff is often no more truthful than Trump himself.

But the issue of the motives and means of the Trump White House is small compared with the enduring madness of the man himself. Trump's admission to Holt was not an effort to distract from a bunch of bad news stories. Does Trump use such tactics? Frequently. And from this comes the notion that Trump is "crazy like a fox."

But the Holt interview wasn't evidence of being crazy like a fox. This was not a devious move. Trump can be cunning. But he also flails wildly, harming others often and himself occasionally. His recent interviews with the Economist and Time were bizarre and frequently incoherent.

As my colleague Jon Bernstein wrote:

Trump can't be bothered to even master his own talking points, even in something which could put his entire presidency at risk. Or perhaps he's intellectually incapable of doing so.

Trump is almost supernatural in his multivariate unfitness, combining combustible levels of ignorance, amorality, venality and mental imbalance in a way not seen even when Richard Nixon drank alone.

The Russia investigation serves as an outlet for collective anxiety about Trump's unfitness, just as the prospect of indictments offers a potential deus ex machina to resolve the dangers inherent in Trump's administration. But what if they resolve nothing? Or take too long doing so?

It's easy to miss the dense and haunted forest of Trump for all the trees. Speaking to National Public Radio, Republican Senator Ben Sasse, who has kept a safe distance from Trump, spoke of his concerns and lamented the state of American political conflict.

We have a crisis of public trust in this country that is much deeper than just the last four months or the last 18 months. We have an erosion of a shared narrative about what America is about. And we have the huge unpopularity of almost all of our governing institutions. That should trouble everybody.

Yes, indeed. That's all true. Meanwhile, however, we have a slightly more pressing problem. The president of the United States is mentally and morally unfit with a nuclear arsenal at his fingertips. And no one in Washington knows what to do about it.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net

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