Has Anyone Seen the President?
Back when he was president, Barack Obama told me that only two people treated any interaction with him as a zero-sum game. One was Vladimir Putin, the other congressional Republicans. Both behaved as if there was no such thing as a win-win situation: Any gain for Obama was a loss for them, and any gain for them must also entail a loss for Obama. The moment that the Russian president or congressional Republicans saw he wanted something, they went to work trying to keep him from getting it -- even if it was something they might otherwise have approved of.
Approaching any aspect of life as a zero-sum game has obvious practical costs: Deals that leave some people better off without making anyone else worse off suddenly don’t get done, because making some people better off now, by definition, makes other people worse off. It also comes with some psychological side effects. It cripples your imagination. It blinds and deafens you, as you sort of know what your adversary is going to do or say before they do or say it. Or, rather, you know how you are going to make sense of it: uncharitably.
The zero-sum approach in politics has since spread, as it tends to do wherever it takes hold. It has infected congressional Democrats and parts of the news media, and is seeping into everyday political discourse. Take the case of Stormy Daniels, the porn star, whose interview with In Touch Weekly, along with a bunch of related stories, rests in a tall pile on my lap, as I ride the train from New York to Washington. She claims that in 2006 Donald Trump, whose wife had just given birth to their son, launched a sexual affair with her. She was, according to the Wall Street Journal, paid 130 grand by a Trump lawyer just before the election to keep quiet. Trump’s White House obviously thinks it’s smart to humiliate reporters for even trivial errors, if they happen to reflect poorly on Trump. If Daniels was just making it all up, and the media had repeated her lies, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the press secretary, would be shouting from the lectern and Trump would be ranting about fake news. Instead they’ve been silent.
And so I think most people, in their heart of hearts, would agree that Daniels is probably telling the truth. In her In Touch interview, she recounts a couple of evenings she spent with Trump, in revealing detail. She describes walking into his suite at the Beverly Hills Hotel, for instance. “You could see the television from the little dining room table and he was watching Shark Week,” she recalled. “And he was watching a special about the U.S.S. something and it sank and it was like the worst shark attack in history. He is obsessed with sharks. Terrified of sharks. He was like, ‘I donate to all these charities and I would never donate to a charity that helps sharks. I hope all the sharks die.’ He was like riveted. He was like obsessed. It was so strange, I know.”
Daniels had a lot of interesting things to say about our president, not all of them damning. But the world hardly paused to appreciate her words. Trump’s allies shut their eyes and ears to them, as to pay attention would benefit their adversaries. Fox News barely mentioned the story. Trump’s enemies focused on the words that might be weaponized (affair with a porn star, 130 grand payout) and sort of ignored the others. When the attacks failed to lower the esteem in which most Republicans hold Trump -- and really, how surprised can even the most dewy-eyed Trump supporter be that he did any of this stuff? -- the story faded. The parts of the story that reveal new aspects of Trump’s character are already receding from view. For instance:
1. He’s not a complete lout. He asked her questions about herself. He took an interest in her career. He asked her to sign a DVD. It wasn’t exactly textbook chivalry, but he was far less harsh and transactional than the people who despise him would imagine. Daniels seems to have sort of liked him.
2. The sharks. I can think of many responses one might have to shark attacks. I’ll never give money to shark charities isn’t one of them. It’s even odder because Trump is so famously tightfisted: This is a man who allegedly used the money in his charitable fund to buy a grandiose portrait of himself. Does his mind turn to giving only when he is thinking of the people and causes to whom he will not give?
And what’s this fear in him? In public, Trump preys on the fears of others, while acknowledging no fear of his own. But alone in his hotel room, he wants nothing more than to experience fear, on an endless loop. At least until Stormy Daniels arrives.
I hand my driver’s license to the armed guards at the White House gates and say, “White House press” and half expect them to laugh. I’ve never actually felt like a proper journalist and am always surprised when I’m allowed to masquerade as one. Yet Bloomberg has handed me not only a badge to wear around my neck and a privileged seat in the second row of the press room but also, it will emerge, a serious question to ask Sarah Huckabee Sanders. The question is: “Do you agree with Secretary Mnuchin’s desire for a weak dollar?”
Just this morning, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin apparently said he thought a weak dollar was a good idea. The dollar is falling.
The White House press briefing room sounds like an exciting place to visit, but the minute you are in it you sort of wish you weren’t. It has the cramped uncared-for feel of a public toilet, or a cable television green room. The unenthusiastic attempts to decorate the place were made long ago: a pair of photographs signed by Ronald Reagan, a framed collection of the pens used by Lyndon Johnson to sign Great Society legislation. Obama used to pop in here from time to time, but Trump never does. He prefers the journalists brought to him, often at a moment’s notice. I can’t say I blame him.
Just to see what it feels like I walk up and stand behind the lectern -- then see a small sign that says it’s against the rules.
I take my seat half an hour early and silently practice asking my question several different ways. None of them sound like the questions you hear when you watch the press briefing on TV. At first I’m mainly worried I’m going to mispronounce Mnuchin. Then a thought occurs: How do I know that Mnuchin actually said what I’m claiming he said? And who cares if he did? He doesn’t control the money supply. He has no obvious power to do anything to the dollar, except to print however many of them the Federal Reserve thinks should exist.
A voice comes over the loudspeaker to say Sanders is running late. The journalists around me moan and groan. They’re used to this. This press briefing, like many Trump press briefings, has a hard stop, and Sanders often runs late. The general suspicion is that she’s trying to keep the briefing as brief as possible.
In here you are even more at the mercy of the president’s impulses than the rest of the country. The vast majority of the time nothing much happens. But because you never know what and when Trump will tweet, or insist at a moment’s notice that the media come and observe him doing something, you have to stick around all hours of the day. “They never tell us ‘You’re actually safe to leave’ at the end of the day because they don’t know what Trump is going to do,” says one of my new colleagues. “If you look in and all of them are gone and the schedule says it’s the end of the day, then we make the call, and go home.” It’s been this way from the start. “It really was like the pirates had taken over the ship and had no idea where things were,” says a prominent TV correspondent. “You’d see people wandering around lost. The disarray was intense. They hadn’t read the Obama manual for how to do things.”
On the one hand, the demand for news from this place just keeps growing, and the people inside the press room feel more important than ever. Even the guy from the free paper in nearby Montgomery County, Maryland -- the sort of thing you find just inside the front door of Chinese restaurants -- has a deal with CNN. On the other hand, the White House journalists’ sense of well-being, never great, seems to be in decline. Several confess to me that they aren’t sleeping well, have put on weight, have mental health issues, etc. They’re becoming a bit more like Trump.
And put a foot even slightly wrong in the White House press pool and the president of the United States might very well identify you as an enemy of the republic. Consider Zeke Miller, the excellent 20-something correspondent for the Associated Press. At the start of the Trump administration, then employed by Time magazine, he’d been let into the Oval Office and noticed the bust of Martin Luther King wasn’t where it had been when Obama was in office. Miller dashed off a report saying that the bust had been removed -- then learned, 20 minutes later, that the bust had simply been moved, to a spot behind the open door where he couldn’t see it. He apologized instantly and profusely for his mistake, and corrected it. Nevertheless, Trump, standing in front of a memorial for those who had died serving in the CIA, blasted him by name as an example of journalistic mendacity. Sean Spicer, then the press secretary, accepted Miller’s abject apology and then marched out to the lectern and humiliated him all over again.
I shift in my chair, worrying over my question. Who cares what the White House thinks about the dollar? A hundred or more journalists, three-quarters of them staring at their phones, are now waiting for Sanders.
This question of mine is not a good question. Even I don’t want to hear what the answer is.
Do I really want to be seen asking a stupid question? A person needs to be careful in here. I decide I’m not going to ask a question of interest only to idiot currency speculators. I’m going to ask a question that interests me.
A voice comes on the loudspeaker to say that Sanders is running even later. “Jesus Christ,” says a voice behind me.
I can ask the Trump White House a single question: What will it be? Several pop to mind, in no particular order. Has Trump ever explicitly asked for someone to show him how the nuclear football works? After the New York banks cut him off, in 1990, did Trump accept money, even indirectly, from Russians? If Obama hadn’t made fun of Trump at that White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, would he have run for president? Can you name a book that Trump has read, or even pretended to have read? Have you ever heard him speak of art, or music, or dance, or poetry? Is it true, as I’ve been told by reliable sources, that soon after taking office Trump asked a White House photographer to Photoshop a picture of his inauguration to make the crowds look bigger?
Sanders enters the press room, finally. Trump’s response to the Spicer debacle was to make sure that his press secretaries had hair and makeup. Never mind what he’s saying; fix how he looks! Sanders indeed looks great: pale pink lipstick, black dress, pearl necklace and a silver bracelet that looks as if it is digging penitently into her left wrist. She smiles, but as if to prove that she can. She reads a statement. When she’s done about 100 hands go up.
The questions are not like my questions. They address only what’s happened in the last few hours: Trump’s attempt to intimidate FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, the latest twist on the Russia investigation, another school shooting, a rumor that the first official state dinner will be with France. To me, it seems that the interesting questions are not the questions of the moment, but the questions of the moment are the only questions that would not sound completely bizarre in this place. The point of the exercise for Sanders seems to be to pretend to interact honestly with the press without actually doing so -- and also, where she can, to torture the journalists.
It’s a good sign for the country that Zeke Miller soldiers on, in the seat just in front of me. At the start of the news conference he raised his hand, and was called upon. “Secretary Mnuchin made some news over there earlier today when he said that he was pleased to see that there's a weaker dollar,” he says. “Does that reflect accurately the president’s view of U.S. currency?”
The White House press room had emptied when, after 8 p.m., the New York Times breaks the news: Trump tried to fire special counsel Robert Mueller, and was prevented from doing so when White House counsel Don McGahn threatened to quit. Trump calls it fake news, but it is confirmed by other papers and several sources. Who are these sources? From whom did this news come? Who in a position to know such things has an interest in sharing it with the world? Everyone at once notices that Steve Bannon and McGahn have hired the same lawyer to defend them in the Mueller investigation.
I sit down with a former White House press secretary to rewatch the briefing. To my eyes almost nothing of real interest had occurred. I wondered what the thing looked like to eyes better trained. “The briefing’s not a perfect mechanism,” he says. “But it’s actually not bad for accountability. Because you are on display. And everyone can see if you have a bad answer.” Yet he has found the Trump briefings odd, and unlike any he’s ever witnessed. “Like every other administration, we were making an argument about what was good for the country. She’s protecting a fragile ego.”
He pulls up the tape. “The hardest questions in the briefing room are the shortest,” he says. “There is an inverse correlation between the length of the question and the difficulty of answering it.” The first thing he notes is the length of the tape: just over 21 minutes. “Mine averaged more than an hour,” he says. He actually admires the way Sanders eats up what little clock there is, with a long opening statement. He notes that she is different from Spicer. “She’s better prepared. She’s spent some time thinking about what kinds of questions she was going to get. Spicer was just winging it.” He watches for a bit, until a reporter asks if it is true that Trump asked McCabe whom he voted for and Sanders replies that she has no way of knowing, as she wasn’t in the room. “I know he didn’t ask me!” she says, brightly.
He stops the tape. In this moment he sees something much bigger -- a subplot in the Trump presidency. The people meant to speak for Trump either do not have, or do not want, real access to him. The McCabe story is on the front page of major newspapers. There is no chance that someone isn’t going to ask a question about it. “The press secretary is supposed to go to the president and say ‘What did you say to Andrew McCabe?’” he says. “It definitely erodes her credibility with the press when she says, ‘I dunno, I wasn’t in the room.’ And the fact that she is willing to prepare makes you wonder why she hasn’t.”
More to the point, he thinks, there is every chance that Sanders will be swept up in the Russia probe. “And in that case there’s benefit to her saying, ‘I haven’t talked to the president.’” Expect a lot more of her not talking to the president, he thinks.
It’s 8 p.m., but Trump is returning from Davos and a crowd is gathering at the White House to view him. After a bit the 40 or so journalists get summoned to a bleak courtyard outside the building, and are instructed to wait there. It is 37 degrees, and dark, and we all huddle together. After maybe 10 minutes we are escorted by staff to a stretch of asphalt behind the White House, beneath the Andrew Jackson magnolia tree they said they were cutting down but for some reason have not. There we wait some more. Two expensively dressed young women appear with a less expensively dressed male White House staffer, who is apparently showing them around the place. “This is the South Lawn,” he says in the darkness. “And that is the residence.” They giggle and take out their phones. A rat sprints from the Andrew Jackson magnolia into a bush.
Three choppers finally approach. Someone explains that they always have two decoys. The idea is that if an assassin managed to shoot one down there is only a 1 in 3 chance that Trump would be inside. It’s three-card monte.
In the end only the middle chopper lands on the South Lawn. The wind from its blades knocks everyone back a step. No toupee is safe. Trump waits a few minutes, until the propellers are completely still, then walks out, salutes a Marine and marches with great seriousness to the White House back door. There he pauses, for a brief moment, and turns toward the press. This moment is why 40 journalists have spent more than an hour standing in the cold. “Davos was really, really great,” Trump says. “Our country’s doing great. A lot of money is coming into our country. We have many, many people from Davos bringing that money over here. I think it was a very successful trip.” He sounds just like he tweets.
With that he walks inside, followed by his communications director, Hope Hicks. I try and fail to imagine anyone in Davos saying to Trump “I want to bring my money to your country.”
Steve Bannon lives in a brick town house on Capitol Hill, a stone’s throw from the Supreme Court. To discourage people from approaching his front door he’s strung a thin rope across the steps. A second door, hidden behind the steps, opens before I even get to it. A trim young man in a neat suit steps out. “I’m Bigz,” he says.
Bigz leads me into a waiting room. It’s sunny outside, but the blinds are drawn tight and the place is gloomy. One wall is decorated with a painting of Hillary Clinton taking cash from some African warlord, another with a poster of a snarling honey badger, the Breitbart News mascot. The tables are stacked, almost like a bookstore, with multiple copies of polemical works mostly aimed at the Clintons. Michael Wolff’s “Fire and Fury,” in which Bannon is quoted as saying that it was treasonous for Trump’s children to have met with the Russians, is nowhere to be seen. Bigz asks me to wait here, beside a pile of anti-Clinton books, while Bannon wraps up a meeting. “You can read a book if you want,” he suggests, gently.
I talk to Bigz instead. Bigz hails from Uganda. A few years ago he ran for Ugandan political office, and was beaten and jailed. When he learned that the Ugandan regime planned to kill him, he sought, and was granted, political asylum in the U.S. In Washington he set out to make a living tending people’s gardens. He’d knocked on Bannon’s door, and Bannon had hired him to clean up the small patches of green in front of his house. Apparently Bannon liked him so much that he brought him inside to -- well, what Bigz does remains unclear to me. The garden’s dead.
After a bit, Bigz leads me back outside and up the steps, past the thin rope and into the part of the house in which Bannon lives. Bigz makes coffee while I poke around the vast assortment of materials strewn across the old grandma furniture: papers piled on side tables, papers piled on sofas, framed magazine covers lying on the floor, books everywhere. Joshua Green’s “Devil’s Bargain,” which told the story of how Steve Bannon got Donald Trump elected president, is propped on the mantel. The house feels less inhabited than borrowed -- as if, say, a chapter of some Southern fraternity had booted a blue-haired Washington matron out of her Capitol Hill town house and proceeded to trash the place. At the moment the brothers appear to be cramming to raise their grades, so the school doesn’t shut them down before the next kegger.
Bigz arrives with coffee. “What exactly is your job?” I ask. He just smiles as Bannon booms, from some other room, “Dude, he does it all!”
In walks Bannon. He looks as if he’s just pulled an all-nighter, or as if he’s trying to trick people into thinking he’s a drunk. (He doesn’t touch alcohol.) If you walked past him lying on a bench in a derelict Greyhound bus station, you wouldn’t give him a second glance. Now Bannon cannot go out without being recognized and hounded. “I’m on a constant loop out there as the fucking devil,” he says, as he sits down at his dining room table. “I can’t go out. I have not walked into a bookstore since Aug. 15, 2016.” He shrugs. “You’re either going to do this or you’re not.” A lot of people love him and a lot of people hate him, and I get the sense that he regards all of them as troubling, though perhaps not equally so. He’s installed surveillance cameras and bulletproof windows in his home, and hired former Navy SEALs to guard it.
Before I raise the reason I’d come to see him, he talks for a bit. The 2008 financial crisis was a turning point in his political life, he says. His working-class father had retired after 50 years at the phone company. “The market is crashing and Jim Cramer came on TV and said if you need cash in the next 10 years blow out your stocks. My dad called me up and said I just sold all my AT&T. He just gave it away. By the next spring I was radicalized.” Bannon saw the financial crisis as the most dramatic illustration of a problem at the core of American life: the betrayal of society by the elites. It’s not the elites whose children die in the pointless wars they start. It’s not the elites who lose their jobs when U.S. companies move their plants overseas. And it’s not the elites who suffered the consequences of the financial crisis. “This thing didn’t just come all of a sudden,” he says, referring to the crisis. “How did it happen? Who is responsible? We still don’t know the answer to that question.”
Bannon thinks the U.S. is in decline and the people perched on top don’t particularly care. “The elites of both parties are comfortable with America being in decline,” he says. “They manage on the way down, and they make even more wealth.” He sees his job as finding ways to organize the masses against the elites. Trump was never an end in himself but the means to it -- and Bannon clearly finds some of what Trump has done since taking office, like the tax cuts, as, at best, beside the point. He also finds distasteful some of the people Trump brought into his inner circle -- some of the generals who have, in Bannon’s view, wasted trillions of dollars and American lives; plus the financiers. Bannon thinks Goldman Sachs’s shareholders should have been wiped out in 2008, and that its president, Gary Cohn, should have lost his job. Instead Goldman Sachs Group Inc. has survived, and Cohn, who paid himself hundreds of millions of dollars, now gets to swan around as Trump’s economic adviser.
Bannon has a favorite line: If I had to choose who will run the country, 100 Goldman Sachs partners or the first 100 people who walk into a Trump rally, I’d choose the people at the Trump rally. I have my own version of this line: If I had to choose a president, Donald Trump or anyone else I’ve ever known, I’d choose anyone else I’ve ever known. Among the revelations of Wolff’s book was just how many of the people in and around Trump’s White House feel more or less as I do. “Insulting Donald Trump’s intelligence was both the thing you could not do and the thing that everybody was guilty of,” Wolff writes. “Everyone, in his or her own way, struggled to express the baldly obvious fact that the president did not know enough, did not know what he didn’t know, and did not particularly care.” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called Trump “a fucking moron.” Treasury Secretary Mnuchin and ex-Chief of Staff Reince Priebus preferred to describe Trump as “an idiot.” National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster called him a “dope.” Cohn called Trump “dumb as shit.”
Bannon had done something even less forgivable, in Trump World, than question Trump’s intelligence. He’d allowed himself to be given credit for the one thing that Trump could point to as a sign of his genius: winning the election. Time magazine ran a cover with Bannon’s face on it with the headline “The Great Manipulator.” It sits in a frame on his floor right now.
But the more we learn about Trump, the more stupendous Bannon’s achievement appears. It’s as if he took the Cleveland Browns to the Super Bowl and then, in the off-season, turned the football players into Olympic athletes, and won gold in curling.
“I want you to do an exercise with me,” I say, inching close to the reason I’ve come.
He eyes me, but not with hostility.
“If you can get Trump elected president, you can get anyone elected president. And so I want you to tell me the steps I’d need to take to get elected. What do we need to do?”
He shakes his head quickly. The question doesn’t offend him. He just thinks I’m missing the point. “What was needed was a blunt force instrument, and Trump was a blunt force instrument,” he says. Trump may be a barbarian. He may be in many senses stupid. But in Bannon’s view, Trump has several truly peculiar strengths. The first is his stamina. “I give a talk to a room with 50 people and I’m drained afterward,” Bannon says. “This guy got up five and six times a day in front of 10,000 people, day in and day out. He’s 70! Hillary Clinton couldn’t do that. She could do one.” The public events were not trivial occasions, in Bannon’s view. They whipped up the emotion that got Trump elected: anger. “We got elected on Drain the Swamp, Lock Her Up, Build a Wall,” he says. “This was pure anger. Anger and fear is what gets people to the polls.”
The ability to tap anger in others was another of Trump’s gifts, and made him, uniquely in the field of Republican candidates, suited to what Bannon saw as the task at hand: Trump was himself angry. The deepest parts of him are angry and dark, Bannon told Wolff. Exactly what Trump has to be angry about was unclear. He’s had all of life’s advantages. Yet he acts like a man who has been cheated once too often, and is justifiably outraged. What Bannon loved was the way Trump sounded when he was angry. He’d gone to the best schools, but he had somehow emerged from them with the grammar and diction of an uneducated person. “The vernacular,” Bannon called Trump’s odd way of putting things. Other angry people, some of whom actually had been cheated by life, thrilled to its sound.
After a couple of hours, Bigz shows me back out through the garden he no longer tends. Steve Bannon reminded me of someone, but it’s not until I’m back in my hotel room that I realize who. He was a character from “The Big Short.” He saw the world differently from virtually everyone in his profession, and it led a lot of people to think that he was insane. But he was right and they were wrong, and the rest of the world has yet to come to terms with why.
Before I go to bed I send him a note. I’d planned to go watch the State of the Union address at the Capitol. I now think I’d rather watch Bannon watch the State of the Union address. Bannon is understandably gun-shy after the Wolff saga. He’d agreed to meet me for lunch so long as we spoke on background, and he had the right to vet any quotes. So I suggest safe terms: I tell him I’d like to record his play-by-play thoughts about Trump’s big speech, on the record -- though if he says anything he regrets in the moment he can just tell me, and I won’t use it.
“Cool,” he replies.
Off to see Walter Shaub, at a restaurant across the street from Trump’s Washington hotel. For many years, right up until July of last year, Shaub ran the 75-person Office of Government Ethics. I’d tried to get him to meet me in Trump’s hotel, but he wouldn’t. “I won’t go into that building,” he wrote back. “Aside from the remote possibility that I’d be whisked away to Guantanamo, I refuse to contribute even so much as my presence, much less my money, to the dark spiritual energy that place has brought to my city.”
The effect of Trump on the 2-million-person enterprise he’s meant to be running deserves even more attention than it has been getting, in my opinion. Shaub is a microcosm of the problem. One day he was a guy just trying to do his job; the next day his job was impossible to do. “I have real anger,” he says, calmly.
The ethics office was created in 1978, in reaction to the Watergate crisis, to vet for financial conflicts of interest and dubious business associations the people who go to work in and for the White House. It was a bit odd at the time: It wasn’t assigned to do anything that would have prevented Watergate. But it’s even odder now: It was meant to stop exactly what Trump has done. Shaub tells me that he’d gone to work in the ethics office in 2001. He’d sort of drifted into the place; he didn’t think of himself as the kind of person with a particular interest in other people’s transgressions. “Ethics is a weird profession,” he says. “You would think it would attract hall-monitor types. But none of us were hall monitors. We’d say, ‘Let’s work with them to achieve our goals.’ Find a way to do what they want to do within the rules.”
Political appointees didn’t like the trouble Shaub’s office put them to -- making them sell assets or recuse themselves from parts of their jobs -- but they routinely took its advice. Then Trump arrived and did several things at once, all of them disruptive to government ethics. First, he fired his transition team, which Shaub’s office had spent vast amounts of time preparing, so that they knew the ethical standards required of the people the president appointed to government jobs. Then, as Shaub puts it, “Trump ran around announcing his nominees before we had a chance to do our work.” Finally, Trump installed as his White House counsel Don McGahn.
The ethics office had only two sources of power. One was the Senate’s refusal to hold hearings for nominees before the office had signed off on them. The second was the vigilance of the White House counsel, always on alert for anything that might tarnish the president. These sources of power are matters of custom, not law. There is no law saying the Senate needs to wait for the office to vet candidates. And there is no law saying the White House counsel needs to care about corruption. He just always has -- until now. McGahn struck Shaub as both uninterested in ethics, and ignorant. “My mind was blown by how little he knew about the process,” Shaub says. “I’ve never met an attorney less equipped for the job he was about to undertake. How could he know as little as he knew and be taking this on?”
Trump soon answered that question. He himself didn’t care. He wasn’t going to divest himself of his businesses, but instead mix his new political life into his old business life. (No conflict, no interest!) That, thought Shaub, set the tone for his entire administration. “We were expecting a tidal wave of financial disclosure reports, and they were not coming,” Shaub says. Only the Senate’s last-minute insistence on maintaining a role for the ethics office stopped it from becoming entirely powerless. But Shaub soon found himself in this bizarre situation where Trump would announce that “the Ethics Committee” was holding up his nominations. “He used Anthony Scaramucci as an example,” Shaub says. “And we’d never even heard of Scaramucci. I never saw a Scaramucci report or a Scaramucci anything.”
Shaub quit in July. “I thought, I don’t want to be window dressing for corruption,” he says. He had no fat bank account and no other job waiting for him, but he decided that he simply had to devote himself to fighting the collapse of ethical norms. “My wife took a lot of pressure off me when she said, ‘Even if we lose the condo it’ll still be worthwhile knowing you did what you could do.’” What he could do was complain publicly about the Trump administration. “I thought maybe I could get an article written in Federal News Radio,” he says. “I mean, what government official thinks anyone is going to pay attention to him? I thought at most I might get an article in the Hill.”
Shaub opened a Twitter account and started to tweet about the ethical collapse inside the government. In short order he was profiled in the New York Times and the Washington Post, and was offered a contract by CNN. Now he finds himself a full-blown public figure, attacked by the White House, and its journalist friends, as an attention-starved grandstander. And he hates it, all of it. He wasn’t cut out for this; he was cut out to be a federal employee. “I have so many days I go home and I’m a little depressed,” he says. “I never wanted to lead this life. Being in the public eye sucks. I’m getting recognized on the streets and the subway. It’s taken a toll on my physical and mental health. This is, like, the most brutally unpleasant thing. They can’t understand that there are people who exist who are fighting for a principle, not a party.”
Across the street, to Trump’s hotel. A friend who’d agreed to meet me here for dinner surprises me by bringing a friend of his, Michael Govan, the director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. We find our way to a table on the balcony in Trump’s steakhouse and gaze down upon a sea of white people. Half of them are dressed for golf, the other half for lobbying. The director of LACMA looks up toward the enormous skylight 200 feet above and laughs.
Floating in the midst of giant crystal chandeliers and a 50-by-20-foot American flag are a quiet procession of white cloth panels. If you were a guest of Trump’s hotel you might guess that these are acoustic panels, or a bizarre new way to keep pigeons from flying around the building. They are actually a work of art, created in 1983, by a Southern Californian named Robert Irwin. The piece had been commissioned by the government when this was still called the Old Post Office building, before Trump leased it and turned it into a hotel. Like the building itself, the installation is landmarked, and so protected from whatever desire Trump might have had to get rid of it.
The interior of the Old Post Office had a bluff grandiosity that you took in once and then ignored thereafter. Irwin took the $50,000 the government was willing to spend, and set out to change the way people looked at the space. He thought of his white cloth panels as windows, suspended in midair. But these windows were not transparent: They interrupted the space. Before, the post office looked more or less the same no matter where you stood, which is why you would never give it a second look. After, the space and the light were punctuated, and you began to notice things you hadn’t before. “Irwin helps you to see,” Govan says. “The whole point of this is to see better.”
“Forty-Eight Shadow Planes,” Irwin called his work. Unable to remove them, Trump’s people have instead engulfed them with chandeliers, TV screens, the flag. It was, as an art-world person might say, a study in contrasts. The artist walked into the building and decided that what it needed was help being seen. Trump walked into the same building and decided that what it needed was to be decorated, with great clanging symbols of wealth and power, less like pictures than words. Govan had only ever seen the photographs of Irwin’s work taken before Trump got his hands on the space. Now he took it in in the flesh. “The flag hurts this a lot,” he says, delicately, “Because it’s competing with it.”
Govan tells me that if I want to understand what Irwin was up to I need to read the book about him written by the great Lawrence Weschler. “Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees,” it’s called. I don’t know why but at that moment I have a brief vision of the look on Trump’s face when his ghostwriter tells him he wants to call the next Trump autobiography “Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees." Trump’s entire life strategy has been to ensure that no one who looks at him forgets his name. I now think of it as a strategy to avoid being seen.
The night is loud with sirens, and Steve Bannon’s neighborhood resembles a war zone. There’s no sign of Bigz inside Bannon’s house, but several other people, his publicist plus a few friends of Breitbart News, sit watching two big-screen TVs, which are lodged between the Clinton cash painting and the honey badger. Fox News fills both screens. Bannon enters, takes one look at the scene and says, “Can we change it to CNN? My brain already hurts.” He advised a president who couldn’t take his eyes off cable news, but he himself detests it. “I can’t watch a second of it,” he says. “Zero.”
A young man grabs a remote to search for CNN. On Fox News, the presidential motorcade waits outside the White House, for Donald Trump to emerge.
“I think I actually rode up with him last year,” Bannon says. It’s funny how close Bannon came to Trump, without actually feeling close to him. He never called him anything other than “Mr. Trump.” He saw other people near him make the mistake of pretending to know our president. Trump didn’t enjoy familiarity. He preferred that people see him from a distance.
Bannon is irritated he’s still being subjected to Fox News. “Does anyone know what channel CNN is?” he asks. Apparently, no one does. It’s in a galaxy far, far away.
Bannon has yet to see a transcript of Trump’s speech. But he knows enough to be worried about it. Bannon’s movement is about fetishizing U.S. citizenship. “It’s not ethno-nationalism. It’s just nationalism,” he says. “We’ve got to make citizenship as powerful as it was in the Roman Republic.” He thinks that people who voted for Trump are at this moment asking a pair of related questions: “Where the fuck’s my wall? And where’s Mexico’s check?” Now, incredibly, there appears to be the possibility that Trump will offer a path to citizenship for people his supporters have been trained to think of not as Dreamers but as criminals. Bannon doesn’t think that Trump, in the end, will do this. But he’s not sure. “The whole thing is whether path to citizenship is in there,” he says, of the State of the Union speech.
Going to Davos was bad enough. This talk coming from the White House about softening its stance on the so-called Dreamers is another. Bannon thinks the reasons for both are the same: Trump’s White House has been spooked by recent polls -- taken just after Stormy Daniels’s story came out -- showing a collapse in his approval by women, especially white women. “It’s a total free fall,” he says.
The Time’s Up movement against sexual abuse and harassment now has Bannon’s full attention, too. “The top seven stories today are all guys getting blown up,” he says. “And these are not small guys.” He’s a connoisseur of anger, and in women’s anger about sexual harassment he senses a prelude to their anger about a lot more. “I think it’s going to unfold like the Tea Party, only bigger,” he says. “It’s not Me Too. It’s not just sexual harassment. It’s an anti-patriarchy movement. Time’s up on 10,000 years of recorded history. This is coming. This is real.”
One of Bannon’s acolytes finally locates CNN. “It’s been a rocky year for a lot of the members of the cabinet,” Wolf Blitzer is saying.
“There we go,” Bannon says. “Hate TV.”
Now Melania Trump enters the House chamber, and finds her seat. “She’s wearing suffragette white,” Bannon says. “Suck on that.”
At length Donald Trump himself enters the House of Representatives, and is surrounded by people who at least pretend to wish him well. “When you’re in there watching it’s tiny,” says Bannon, with interest. “It feels like Fenway.” He notes Trump’s blue tie -- and that Trump puts a lot of his decision-making energy into the smallest details of his appearance. Arriving at the rostrum Trump picks up a glass of water, holds it for a moment and then, curiously, just sets it back down. “Did he just pick up the water and not drink it?” asks Bannon. No one replies.
Now Trump is speaking, and it isn’t two minutes before Bannon is shaking his head. What bothers him is that instead of speaking directly, Trump -- or his speech writers -- has decided to go straight to the human props in the balcony. “There’s this concept that you can’t just tell a story,” Bannon says. “That you have to personalize it with characters.” Also Trump’s sniffing again, cokehead style, the way he did in his debates with Hillary Clinton.
“What’s with the sniffing?” I ask.
“I don’t know,” says Bannon, honestly. “It happens sometimes.”
Words are now coming out of Trump’s mouth but Bannon seems to be only half listening. He’s got a pair of phones out and is scrolling through the speech, the text of which someone has just sent him. As he reads his face flushes. “They have path to citizenship in here,” he says, matter-of- factly. “It’s terrible. It’s a betrayal.”
He leaves the room for several minutes, perhaps to compose himself. When he returns he takes real notice of the remarkable scene that is unfolding. At even the most anodyne applause lines the Democrats remain seated. Bannon seems to view the Democrats less as the opposition party than figures of fun. “The Democrats don’t matter,” he had said to me over our lunch. “The real opposition is the media. And the way to deal with them is to flood the zone with shit.” But he stares at the seated Democrats with genuine wonder. “Look at this,” he says. “Even Reagan -- I’ve never seen a State of the Union like this.”
“Tell me when you think Trump really cares about what he is saying,” I say.
Bannon laughs, but not a happy laugh. “I will.”
When Trump points to yet another of his props in the balcony, Bannon drifts out to get a Diet Coke. “Any time there’s one of these ‘stories’ I can take a break,” he says, over his shoulder. Clearly he’s preoccupied by Trump’s upcoming offer to the Dreamer kids. When Trump finally utters those words, Bannon cannot fathom them. “It’s unbelievable,” he says. “Terrible, terrible.” He watches the muted reaction inside the Capitol. The Democrats just sit there, glaring at Trump. But the Republicans sit there too. There’s no deal to be had. Trump just blew up his base for nothing.
“Who talked him into it?” I ask.
“I’ll let you guess,” he says. He says something else a moment later, but his publicist shouts, “That's off the record!”
The night’s not all bad, from Bannon’s point of view. The moment he seems to most enjoy is a line Trump delivers, after he’s told the story of a 12-year-old boy who tended the graves of fallen troops. The boy, Trump says, “reminds us why we salute our flag, why we put our hands on our hearts for the Pledge of Allegiance, and why we proudly stand for the national anthem.”
“Boom!” Bannon explodes, and pumps his fist. When Trump shortly follows this with a plug for “beautiful, clean coal” (ad-libbing, with typical weirdness, the “beautiful”), Bannon says “I love it,” and starts to laugh. “He’s trolling! He’s trolling from the podium.” By now Trump is simply ignoring the side of the room on which the Democrats sit in silence and delivering the speech only to the Republicans. To “Liddle Bob Corker” and “Lyin’ Ted Cruz” and “Lightweight choker Marco Rubio” and “Jeff Flake(y)” and “Truly weird Senator Rand Paul” and “Publicity seeking Lindsey Graham” and all the rest of the Republicans he’s insulted on Twitter, yet who stand and cheer for him. “He can’t look down and tweet,” Bannon says and laughs.
At the end of the speech, Bannon wanders out of the room. Just then one of the young men in the room looks up from his phone. “Fox News’s first reaction: What did Bannon think?” he shouts.
What Bannon thinks, I'm guessing, is that Trump does not understand how he got elected. He doesn’t understand the power of the anger he’s tapped, almost by accident. And he likely never will. There’s a throwaway line in Michael Wolff’s book: Trump never learned how to read a corporate balance sheet. His approach to his own ignorance is not to correct it but to compensate for it.
Trump has obvious weaknesses as a public speaker. His advisers declined the invitation to the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner last year because they didn’t think Trump could pull it off. “The central problem,” Wolff writes, “was that the president was neither inclined to make fun of himself, nor particularly funny himself -- at least not, in [Kellyanne] Conway’s description, ‘in that kind of humorous way.’” Bannon’s gift was to realize that he could simply ignore Trump's weaknesses and play to his strengths, and a lot of people, distracted by the strengths, would never see the weaknesses. Hang a giant American flag in the atrium of American political life, and people cease to notice the art hanging from the ceiling.
Eventually, Bannon walks me out into the street. It’s dark and quiet, but for the sirens. “It’s ridiculous. It’s like a country under siege,” he says. “It’s over-the-top.” The dome of the Capitol rises like a reminder of something over the Supreme Court. Bannon points to a battery of police officers standing around a metal barrier they’ve erected in the street. “You know what that is?” he says. “It’s a blast shield.” The houses inside the blast shield, he notes with real wonder, are now more valuable than the ones on the outside. And he’s on the inside.
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David Shipley at email@example.com