The Trump presidency has that paradoxical summer characteristic where the days pass like molasses but the calendar weeks fly by. We are just about to start the third year of the Trump administration, and it seems both as if he was just inaugurated yesterday, and as if his most recent scandal (at time of writing, boasting to soldiers about a nonexistent 10 percent pay raise, though no doubt there has been another since then) was 20,000 years ago.
But this year is likely to be different, because President Trump is losing his Republican security blanket in Congress.
The New Yorker had a morbidly fascinating investigation into probably the single most important reason Trump is president today: the NBC show The Apprentice. Patrick Radden Keefe tells the story of Mark Burnett, a British reality TV guru who created the show and cast Trump as the business titan host. Trump, with his erratic personality and weirdly compelling off-the-cuff rambling diatribes, was the perfect character.
The problem for the producers (a common one for "reality" television) was that Trump was wildly unsuited to the actual premise of the show. The host is supposed to be a big-shot businessman, and the episodes are structured around business-style challenges which are supposed to determine who gets to be the host's protege and learn the secrets of making deals.
But Trump was a total has-been by 2004, who had declared bankruptcy so many times no major bank would touch him with a 10-foot pole. His businesses were either a sham or visibly collapsing, and when Trump connived to get NBC to rent production space in Trump Tower they struggled to furnish the space because Trump had stiffed local suppliers so many times. "We walked through the offices and saw chipped furniture. We saw a crumbling empire at every turn. Our job was to make it seem otherwise," a producer told Keefe.
Meanwhile, Trump would barely pay attention to the actual mechanics of the show, leading to a lot of post-production work to make it seem otherwise:
Sometimes a candidate distinguished herself during the contest only to get fired, on a whim, by Trump. When this happened, Braun said, the editors were often obliged to "reverse engineer" the episode, scouring hundreds of hours of footage to emphasize the few moments when the exemplary candidate might have slipped up, in an attempt to assemble an artificial version of history in which Trump's shoot-from-the-hip decision made sense. [The New Yorker]
Donald Trump is the kind of person you get when a country stops enforcing laws against white collar crime. The slightest sustained attention on any of his various enterprises (Trump University, the Trump Foundation) has revealed fraud so blatant and so low-return as to be almost pathetic. Half his top campaign officials are either under investigation, turned state's evidence, or actually in prison — and Mueller hasn't even released his official report yet.
Because the Republican Party is morally bankrupt, they categorically abandoned their constitutional obligations from 2017 to 2018 and protected Trump at every turn. Congressional Republicans did not hold a single hearing or open a single investigation into any of Trump's egregious scams or flagrant violations of the constitutional language banning profiteering off the presidency.
That is highly likely to change in 2019. Partly because Republicans have stuck so closely to Trump, Democrats will control the House committees and their subpoena powers. And as Robert Mueller has showed time and time again, the crimes of Trump and his associates are typically extremely easy to figure out.
Trump clearly wants to use his powers of office to stop all these investigations. But Jeff Sessions wouldn't do it, and Trump's choice of acting Attorney General (whose appointment raises large legal questions), Matthew Whitaker, is a low-ranking former U.S. Attorney whose previous company is itself under FBI investigation for fraudulent legal services, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Now, it's certainly possible that Whitaker will successfully obstruct justice on Trump's behalf. But we know what happens when Trump doesn't instantly get his way: He loses his temper and fires someone. He has already yelled at Whitaker at least twice for not obstructing justice fast enough. You have to be pretty dumb indeed to agree to work for Trump at all at this point, but even a stupid person is going to think twice about exposing himself to enormous personal legal risk on this president's behalf.
As Tom Scocca argues, Trump's constant media circus is, at bottom, "a weak personality trying to flee from whatever it can't face up to." Getting away is going to be much harder in 2019, and so the outrageous behavior and internal White House drama will only accelerate. God help us all.