Trump’s growing fissure with his allies
President Donald Trump’s political isolation deepened this week, after he drew sharp criticism from military leaders, business executives, and Republican lawmakers over his response to a deadly “alt-right’’ protest in Charlottesville, Va. The president blamed the violence in Virginia—in which swastika- waving white supremacists clashed with counterprotesters over the removal of a Confederate statue—on “both sides.” He said the “Unite the Right” rally contained some “very fine people” (see Talking Points), and later denounced the growing movement to take down Confederate memorials as an attack on “our culture” (see Controversy). The CEOs on two White House business advisory councils disbanded in protest (see Best columns: Business). Without mentioning Trump by name, senior leaders in four branches of the military strongly condemned the white supremacists who led the Charlottesville rally. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley said racism and extremism are an offense to “everything we’ve stood for since 1775.”
Many Republicans also distanced themselves from the president’s comments. House Speaker Paul Ryan said there could be “no moral relativism when it comes to neo-Nazis.” Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, a longtime Trump defender, said the president had not shown “the stability” or “competence” needed to lead the country. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell—who had a profanitylaced screaming match with the president earlier this month—told aides he was horrified by Trump’s comments, and questioned whether Trump had sufficient understanding of government to salvage his presidency, The New York Times reported.
The White House staff, meanwhile, underwent another shakeup, with the firing of chief strategist Steve Bannon. His departure came after the self-described “economic nationalist” and former Breitbart News executive chairman gave an interview in which he denigrated other senior aides and admitted the president’s bellicose rhetoric on North Korea was a bluff. After his dismissal, Bannon immediately rejoined Breitbart, declaring he would use the far-right site to “crush” his moderate West Wing enemies. “The Trump presidency that we fought for, and won, is over,” Bannon said.
What the editorials said
Trump’s response to Charlottesville showed he is “politically inept, morally barren, and temperamentally unfit for office,” said The Economist. In failing to condemn neo-Nazis, the president flubbed “the simplest of political tests.” His equating of white supremacists with those protesting against them revealed “the degree to which white grievance and angry, sour nostalgia is part of his worldview.” Trump “still has the support of four fifths of Republican voters,” but GOP leaders surely know their president is “harming their country and their party.” Bannon’s firing is “welcome news” for the nation, said the Chicago Tribune. His strident, anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant nationalism brand of politics is “divisive and repugnant.” But with “stories to tell and no reputation for keeping his gripes to himself,” Bannon may prove more destructive to this presidency outside the West Wing than inside.
That seems unlikely, said The Wall Street Journal. Bannon’s allies at Breitbart have already been tearing into chief economic adviser Gary Cohn and national security adviser H.R. McMaster for months, to no great effect. The “larger question” is whether the president “draws the right lessons” from all this. Bannon’s firing suggests Trump will let Chief of Staff John Kelly impose message discipline on the White House and stop the feuding. But Trump won’t get his presidency back on track until he stops attacking his allies and spewing “divisive rhetoric.”
What the columnists said
Regardless of Bannon’s departure, this remains the “Breitbart Presidency,” said Rich Lowry in the New York Post. With his “shockingly conflicted” response to Charlottesville, Trump spoke not as the leader of the country, nor even of one party, “but as the leader of an inflamed faction.” With his support eroding—his approval ratings have dropped below 40 percent in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, the three states that swung the election in his favor— the 45th president is “slip-sliding toward a crisis of legitimacy.”
Pressure is growing on Trump’s staff to “resign in protest,” said Jamie Weinstein in the Washington Examiner, but that would be a disaster. Kelly, Cohn, and McMaster are at least trying to curb the president’s more dangerous instincts. If they leave, Trump will replace them with yes-men who’ll never stand up to him. That’s just a rationalization, said Brian Beutler in NewRepublic.com. If Trump truly is becoming more unhinged by the day, as some senior aides are admitting to journalists, shouldn’t they try to force his removal for the good of the country? If Kelly or McMaster quit and told the world of their concerns, it would put intense pressure on the “spineless” GOP leadership to impeach this deranged president or force his resignation.
Removing Trump from office is a “terrible idea,” said Kevin Williamson in NationalReview.com. Yes, he’s “venal, vain, and vicious”—but voters knew that when they voted for him. Voiding the results of an election would be a flagrant negation of democracy, making the country “truly ungovernable.” So unless special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation turns up specific crimes worthy of impeachment, we’re stuck with President Donald Trump until 2020. “You buy the ticket, you take the ride.”
Illustration by Howard McWilliam. Cover photos from SSG Michael L. Casteel/U.S. Army, AP, Getty