America Is Without a President

The news from the White House includes a porn star and the head of the National Enquirer and no one sees that as unusual.

The porn star* is Stormy Daniels, also known as Stephanie Clifford. David J. Pecker, whose last name seems entirely appropriate in this context, is the chairman of the company behind the Enquirer. Daniels did an interview broadcast by 60 Minutes in which she gave details of a one night stand with Donald Trump and alleged she was once physically threatened by someone who appeared to be acting on Trump’s behalf several years before he ran for office.

Pecker made news in a New York Times story which explained how he used his access to the president to improve his business opportunities in the Middle East, specifically, in Saudi Arabia. The story featured a cameo appearance by the president’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, who is also suspected of using his proximity to power to help his family real estate business.

These two events are notable because they have been placed into the mainstream of public discourse by the president of the United States. Each story shows the character of the man we have elected to that high office. You are judged by the company you keep and President Trump not only has friends in low places he detests the accomplished sort most aspire to be. The stories of the week symbolize how the Trump presidency has dragged us all down to a level where most of us do not care to spend our time.

According to my records this is the 62nd article I have written since Trump took office. Most have a similar theme: Donald Trump is unfit to be president and that has always been the case since he first rode down the escalator of Trump Tower to declare he was running. All hope that bringing the perspective of a businessman to the White House would be refreshing or helpful to the country is lost. Fourteen months in, Trump is at the controls of a dive bomber on trajectory to crash in a low rocky valley.

A few months back I wrote a column suggesting we had achieved “peak Trump.” What I meant by the phrase is that Trump, as president, has achieved all he can hope to achieve in terms of following through on his own vision for America. Since he is a poser not a leader there is no reason to think he will ever put forward any helpful policy ideas he can describe as his own. Instead, he will follow the lead of Congress and take credit for anything he senses as being popular with his core supporters. We have not achieved peak Trump on the inverse side of the scale. When it comes to bad behavior and poor management it is hard to know where the bottom might be, but it is fair to say every move he makes takes us deeper into the valley of darkness.

The Tightening Circle

From the start of his administration Trump has surrounded himself mostly with people he is comfortable with. The Trumpsters he brought with him from New York, including his son-in-law and daughter, his former body guard, and his former communications director, are all the rough equivalent of body men. In political operations, built to support people holding high office, there is often someone who serves as a butler to the principal. This person is responsible for keeping the official on schedule, keeping track of promises made, carrying bags and papers, and acting as a key touch point between the official and the full staff.

In Trump world, almost everyone is a body man. Those on the outside see this and it is why it is so difficult to hire quality people in the White House once someone leaves or is fired. Lately, there are reports Trump intends to be his own communications director, eventually his own chief of staff, and he wants to hire only people who will do what he says without a lot of debate. He mis-perceives that as president he is in complete control. Although the American presidency is often described as the most powerful job in the world, the president himself is not all powerful. No president can successfully go it alone. Even attempting to do so puts the country at risk.

The planned replacement of David Shulkin as secretary of Veterans Affairs with Ronny Jackson, who has been serving as White House physician, is the most recent and troubling example of the trend. Trump is making no effort to find the best people to help him run the federal government and is instead relying on Fox News and casual contacts from his daily life to fill important roles. It is hard to conceive of even the Republican controlled Congress allowing Jackson to take over as the leader of the VA. To do so would be a mass dereliction of duty by official Washington. He is in no way qualified for the job.

Since January of last year America has been without a president. No one is in charge. No one is looking past 5p.m. on any particular day. No one is making a daily effort to make the country better than it was yesterday. The only task is propping up the president’s ego and protecting him from his worst tendencies and from outside forces eager to take him down.

Personal Life

The baseline incompetence is bad enough, but on top of that Trump’s personal life appears to be a mess. It is rare to see any evidence that he has a normal relationship with his wife or his children for that matter. Whether the Trump marriage is a business arrangement or not, his wife and family have been forced to endure personal humiliation as the president’s past indiscretions reveal themselves in the nation’s newspapers, on television, and the internet.

His staff is forced to defend him and lie for him. The president’s credibility is non-existent, so much so that nearly anyone claiming that he cheated on his wife or a business partner is immediately more believable than he is. There is consensus that President Trump is not a nice human being. Some are willing to excuse his bad behavior by saying they didn’t hire him to be nice, they hired him to be president. Others look on in horror and wait for some final catastrophe that proves politically fatal.

The Mueller Probe

The most likely source of a conflict that would paralyze Trump and force him from office is the on-going investigation led by former FBI Director Robert Mueller.

Each day brings new information tying members of the Trump campaign to Russian attempts to influence the 2016 election. These bits of evidence are routinely denied by the White House or explained away as coincidence, but in Mueller’s final report (or in any new indictment) it is likely each coincidence will be strung together with all the others to paint a full picture that will be hard to explain away.

At the same time there is no doubt President Trump is doing everything in his power to stop the Mueller investigation. He says it is a hoax. He calls for its end. He inquires about who he can fire to make it stop. His intent is clear. He is the best witness for the prosecution on a charge of obstruction of justice.

As Trump tears down the American presidency he survives day to day as a political pornographer. In this role he is successful and terrifying.

Merriam-Webster — Pornography, Def. 3: The depiction of acts in a sensational manner so as to arouse a quick intense emotional reaction.

He is given credit as a master manipulator for the way he uses his Twitter account, and unpredictable public statements, to influence the daily news cycle and change the subject whenever he is the focus of negative coverage.

But even this observation gives Trump too much credit. He has the audience he has not through his own work, but through the work of the 44 men who held the office before him. They are the ones who built the U.S. presidency into the force that it is. They are the ones who gave Trump his audience by building the credibility of the office to the point where anything the president does or says is news. Trump is simply exploiting their work for his own narrow and selfish purposes.

We are being held hostage by a man with no intention of leading the nation; a real life comic book villain who delights in the fact that he stole the American presidency, and so far no one with power has the courage to do anything about it.

*In recent weeks there has been much debate over whether Stormy Daniels is indeed a porn “star.” Some claim there is no evidence her work in pornographic movies rises to the level of stardom, so the description gives her too much credit. Others argue Daniels is a very smart businesswoman who happens to be in pornography, so referring to her simply as a porn star sells her talents short.

This is the kind of debate that takes up considerable space and time in American politics under President Trump. It is another sign the Trump presidency is a wasted presidency.

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Dean Pagani

Dean Pagani

Photojournalism for Brands and Ideas.