As the worst week in a cursed presidency wound down, I spotted more and more forecasts that Donald Trump would resign, including from Tony Schwartz, who wrote “The Art of the Deal” for Trump and presumably understands his tortured psyche.
They struck me not as wishful or fantastical.
They struck me as late.
Trump resigned the presidency already — if we regard the job as one of moral stewardship, if we assume that an iota of civic concern must joust with self-regard, if we expect a president’s interest in legislation to rise above vacuous theatrics, if we consider a certain baseline of diplomatic etiquette to be part of the equation.
By those measures, it’s arguable that Trump’s presidency never really began. By those measures, it’s indisputable that his presidency ended in the lobby of Trump Tower on Tuesday afternoon, when he chose — yes, chose — to litigate rather than lead, to attend to his wounded pride instead of his wounded nation and to debate the supposed fine points of white supremacy.
He abdicated his responsibilities so thoroughly and recklessly that it amounted to a letter of resignation. Then he whored for his Virginia winery on the way out the door.
Trump knew full well what he should have done, because he’d done it — grudgingly and badly — only a day earlier. But it left him feeling countermanded, corrected, submissive and weak, and those emotions just won’t do for an ego as needy and skin as thin as his. So he put id before country and lashed out, in a manner so patently wrong and transcendently ruinous that TV news shows had to go begging for Republican lawmakers to defend or even try to explain what he’d said.
Those lawmakers wanted no part of him. The same went for the corporate chieftains he considers his peers. And for the generals he genuinely reveres. The heads of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines all went out of their way to issue statements condemning the hatred that Trump wouldn’t take on. A soft coup against a cuckoo: It confirmed how impotent Trump had become.
On Tuesday he “relinquished what presidents from Roosevelt to Reagan have regarded as a cardinal duty of their job: set a moral course to unify the nation,” wrote The Times’s Mark Landler, in what was correctly labeled a news analysis and not an opinion column. Landler’s assessment, echoed by countless others, was as unassailable as it was haunting, and it was prompted in part by Trump’s perverse response to a question that it’s hard to imagine another president being asked: Did he place the neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, Va., on the same “moral plane” as those who showed up to push back at them?
“I’m not putting anybody on a moral plane,” Trump answered.
Indeed he wasn’t. And if you can’t put anybody on a moral plane, you can’t put yourself on Air Force One.
On Friday Trump finally dismissed his polarizing chief strategist, Steve Bannon. That’s excellent. And irrelevant. A president’s team doesn’t matter when he himself is this lost.
In The Atlantic, under the headline “Donald Trump Is a Lame-Duck President,” David Graham wrote: “For most presidents, that comes in the last few months of a term. For Trump, it appears to have arrived early, just a few months into his term. The president did always brag that he was a fast learner.”
In Axios, Mike Allen and Jim VandeHei noted that the president had “systematically damaged or destroyed his relationship with — well, almost every group or individual essential to success.” They then listed these “methodically alienated” constituencies: “the public,” “CEOs,” “the intelligence community,” “every Democrat who could help him do a deal,” “world leaders,” “Europe,” “his own staff.”
In The Times, Michael Shear, Maggie Haberman and Glenn Thrush reported that several of his top advisers couldn’t see how his presidency would recover. “Others expressed doubts about his capacity to do the job,” they added.
Striking a similar note, Tennessee Senator Bob Corker, who has not been among Trump’s frequent Republican critics, told reporters, “The president has not yet been able to demonstrate the stability nor some of the competence that he needs to demonstrate.”
This is a question of more than competence. It’s a question of basic interest, and when I look back through the lens of the present wreckage at all that’s happened since Trump descended that escalator in Trump Tower in June 2015, I see clearly that he never in fact wanted or set out to be president, not as the position is conventionally or correctly defined.
He revealed that repeatedly as he rejected the traditional rules and usual etiquette, refusing to release his tax returns, bragging about his penis size, feuding with the Muslim father of a fallen American soldier and electing puerility over poetry at nearly every meaningful moment.
Because of his victories in the Republican primary and then the general election, his campaign was hailed for its tactical genius. But it was driven by, and tailored to, his emotional cravings. All that time on Twitter wasn’t principally about a direct connection to voters. It was a way to stare at an odometer of approval and monitor, in real time, how broadly his sentiments were being liked and shared.
Applause. Greater brand exposure. A new layer of perks atop an existence already lavish with them. Utter saturation of Americans’ consciousness. These were his foremost goals. Governing wasn’t, and that was obvious in his haziness and dishonesty before Election Day and in his laziness and defiance after.
He made clear that conflicts of interest didn’t trouble him, drawing constant attention to Trump properties and incessantly pointing out that nothing in the law of the land compelled him to divest his business interests.
He opened the White House door wide to unmoored and unserious people, most recently Anthony Scaramucci, who, during his nanosecond as communications director, disparaged Bannon as someone engaged primarily in a limber act of self-gratification. That was on the record. Then Bannon disparaged his administration adversaries as being so threatened by him that they were “wetting themselves.” That was on the record, too.
A president is supposed to fill important posts. Trump dallied. A president is supposed to be involved in lawmaking, but members of Congress who met with Trump about the repeal-and-replace of Obamacare were aghast at his ignorance of the legislation and of the legislative process itself.
A president is supposed to safeguard the most sacred American institutions, repairing them if need be. Trump doesn’t respect them. He has sought to discredit and disempower the judiciary, the free press, the F.B.I., the Congressional Budget Office. He even managed to inject politics into, and pollute, the Boy Scouts. This is the course of a tyrant.
I haven’t mentioned Russia. How astonishing that it can be left out and there’s still a surfeit to rue.
Trump hasn’t been exercising the duties of his office. He’s been excising them, one by one. The moral forfeiture of the past week was the capper.
And as I watched the Bushes and the generals and Trump’s former rivals for the Republican presidential nomination step into the public square to enunciate their own principles about murderous bigots and domestic terrorists, I realized that they weren’t going through any typical this-is-what-makes-us-Americans motions. They weren’t preening.
They were, in the words of The Washington Post’s James Hohmann, “filling the void.” If Trump wasn’t going to do his job, others had to.
I kept coming across variations on the verdict that he had “failed to lead,” and that phraseology is off. “Fail” and “failure” imply that there was an effort, albeit unsuccessful.
Trump made none. He consciously decided that he didn’t care about comforting or inspiring those Americans — a majority of them — who weren’t quick and generous enough with their clapping. He was more interested in justifying himself.
So he picked division over unity, war over peace. And make no mistake: He didn’t merely shortchange the presidency. He left it vacant.