Two Political Dramas

In my mind’s eye, I am watching tow television screens, one showing the response to the anonymous N Y Times editorial citing resistance to Trump within the inner circles of the White House, and the other screen showing the hearing on whether or not to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to a seat on the United States Supreme Court. Some commentators have claimed that the two dramas are interconnected in that a President under such a cloud as is Trump should not press forward with such a weighty nomination. But Trump is still President. The issues involved in the two dramas are very different and so let us explore them separately. One is about an unprecedented breakdown in the organization of the White House and the other is about what it means to be a very, very conservative judge, which is hardly a new question.

It has always been the case that part of a President’s job is to win over his own staff and cabinet so that they will carry out his directives. It took Lincoln a year to win over his cabinet and then only after a private confrontation with his Secretary of State Seward who, as governor of New York, had been a major figure in forming the Republican Party. In that meeting, Lincoln insisted that he would follow his own mind. Obama’s staff, for their part, were so in awe of their boss that they followed him to his conclusions even if his ideas evolved, as happened, according to Ben Rhodes, his confident and chief foreign policy speechwriter, when Obama shifted from wanting to bomb Assad for using chemical weapons to thinking better of that, so advised by Merkel, and decided that he need congressional authorization to proceed for to do otherwise would rob congress of its war making powers and that would not be good for the country.

Bob Corker has said that he knew what was going on, that the staff was trying to contain Trump, from the first days of his Presidency. Corker didn’t bother to mention it because it is such a conventional thing to do. Reagan and Bush 43 weren’t all that equipped to take on the office, but they were willing to delegate a lot of power to their cabinets while they went off to clear brush. Reagan got his national security briefings through films prepared for him because he wasn’t up to taking oral and written briefings. The staff adjusts to the President just as the President adjusts to his staff. The trouble with Trump is that he doesn’t want to adjust, wants to do things, and without any knowledge of much of anything, and so fights with his staff and cabinet. So the internal resistance has not been over by the President and so draws its own conclusions about what they are supposed to do when they are confronted with Presidential whims. No, they are unelected, but they have been appointed to high positions and take an oath to be guided by the Constitution, and they have to take their own duties seriously. They are not just clerks.

This is what I posted shortly before Trump was inaugurated:

“What are the compensating mechanisms which will settle in so the Trump Administration is not as out of whack as it might be?... We have already seen one thing. Trump doesn’t follow State Department guidelines in making contacts with foreign leaders. Not an altogether bad thing given that carefully crafted nudgings of partners and enemies does not always bear fruit. But the answer to a mercurial style will be that foreign friends and adversaries will deal only with the people in the Administration they regard as responsible: the Secretary of State or the Secretary of Defense. So China will not be shaken by Trump’s call to Taiwan, unless it thinks it can make some use of it. Theresa May will not be insulted by his cavalier treatment of her and the “special relationship”. Netanyahu will know who to go to to get what he wants. The fact that Trump considered such a wide array of figures for Secretary of State might well mean that he is as confused as his opponents think he is, not that he is wisely sifting through alternatives to find a personality that matches up with his own, whether as compensation for his own tendencies or as a spokesman for his own tendencies. Jon Huntsman was Ambassador to China at a time when Trump believed China was ripping us off on trade. He is part of the problem. But never mind. The campaign was the campaign and this is now. Trump always had a soft spot for Petraeus, and that might have been enough to get him the job, although Petraeus might have said something untoward in their interview, or not been sufficiently pro-Russian, and so the search got expanded. Never mind. Whatever his reasons, Tillerson is one of Trump’s most consequential appointments because the new Secretary of State will be the person who will be relied on by friend and foe to provide the definitive American foreign policy.”

I would correct that today only by saying that Tilleron could not appear to remain loyal to Trump while pursuing his own set of responsibilities, while Pompeo and Mattis do seem to be able to pull off this trick and stomach what they have to do.

My guess, today, is that the author of the NY Times op ed piece is John Kelly, the chief of staff. He has frequently said that he is the one who tries to keep Trump on track and tells him not to do things--or to do something, like criticize Putin. He also says this is the worst job he has ever had, and so he keeps at it because of his patriotism. Also, Kelly is high enough in the food chain to take on the responsibility for speaking so out of turn, perhaps believing that something crucial is coming up and so it is a cry for people outside the administration, whether in Congress or Robert Mueller, because those who check the President may be on their way out, which includes both Kelly and Mattis. The op ed writer also believe he needs to stay in place as long as possible. Kelly is also conservative and so would applaud the agenda and is not planning on a political office beyond the one he has. Kelly is the only one who has not said so far that he is not the author of the article. Also, Kelly has lost a son in battle, and so the worst thing that can happen to him already has. He has nothing to fear. I agree the identity of the op ed writer will come out shortly.

As to Kavanaugh: He seems to be a nice guy, a man genuinely fond of his family, and identified with the broad sweep of legal history: desegregation of the schools, a woman’s right to an abortion, and so on. But press down a bit more closely and he is a radical conservative who would likely overthrow the precedents he seems to hold as unassailable. Consider what he said, when pressed, on the Garza case, which he decided just last year. It concerned a seventeen year old girl in federal custody who wanted an abortion and did not speak English. She had met all of the state and federal standards but Kavanaugh went further, invoking what he admitted was a not perfect analogy to how young people in custody are to be dealt with, and said that the government could add an additional requirement, which was to find her a guardian with whom she might or might not consult about her decision to have an abortion. Kavanaugh says he took notice of the fact that the guardian had to be found and appointed in a timely manner, but admits that the requirement for parental consent is an imperfect analogy given that the girl was unaccompanied by any adult. The question is why he added this additional standard, something his fellow jurists did not view as required. One could ask Kavanaugh how it could be, given that he says a judge just applies the law to  a set of particular facts, that his colleagues could reach an opposite conclusion if a judge’s job was so cut and dried. It may be that Kavanaugh tinks, though he would be too modest to say so, that he probed more deeply than his colleagues did.

My point is that Kavanaugh probes and probes  until he comes up with a context or an insight that has alluded other people and results in an analysis that supports his conservative worldview. That is the point at which he rests, satisfied. It is like Freud saying that if you probe a dream long enough, you will come to the conclusion that at its heart is a sexual desire. Then Freud will be satisfied.  So Kavanaugh can go on and on about how right Brown v. Board of Education ios and how wrong Plessy v. Ferguson was but he always finds a reason to show, as Corey Booker demonstrated a few days ago, why more recent civil rights cases are to be found in favor of those opposed to their expansion. Kavanaugh is a godly conservative. He believes in all the right values until it is time to not push them forward as one might expect of a conservative whose basic instinct is to say go as slowly as possible in allowing change to happen.

The Times anonymous op ed and the Kavanaugh confirmation are political dramas because in both cases new events can change things and unfold the meanings of the basic situations that are portrayed. The given of the White House mess is that it is unprecedented to have such a loose cannon as Trump in charge when everyone assumes that so much power is put in the hands of the president because anyone elected to that august office will handle it in a mature way, every President sort of like Henry Fonda. How do you reign in such a situation? Will the author of the Times op ed piece step forward? Will some important senators step forward and announce that Trump is dangerous? Will the midterm elections serve as a rebuke of trump and so lead to some controls over him from Congress? We, the audience, do not know how the drama will play out.

The issue is the same with the Kavanaugh hearing, though there the time for a dramatic climax is fast running out. Most Supreme Court confirmation hearings since Bork are formal affairs where little is said by the nominee and Senators just go through the motions. Is this hearing different? So far, not so, but the Democrats are still hoping something will turn up. Kavanaugh will be caught in some coverup of his radically conservative point of view or he will lose his cool, both long shots, however much the crisis in the White house emboldens Democrats to do something, anything, to upset the applecart of these hearings. So, as with any drama, we anticipate something, create for ourselves suspense, but do not know how the suspense will be released or the basic situation transformed by something that happens into something understood very differently, as happens in Sophocles and Shakespeare and any other playwright worth their salt.