Shortly after George Stephanopoulos published his critical 1999 memoir about the Clinton White House, “All Too Human,” I witnessed a fascinating impromptu debate about the propriety of a former aide dishing on an incumbent president.
The friendly antagonists were two towering figures from the Kennedy White House: Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Arthur Schlesinger and attorney Ted Sorensen, the greatest (“Ask not what your country can do for you ...”) presidential speechwriter in history.
Sorensen advanced the traditional view that a presidential adviser should cultivate, to borrow a 1930s expression, “a passion for anonymity.” Any memoir, any revelation, any honest assessment should wait until the president whom you served has left office.
Schlesinger argued that memoirs published in the moment — brimming with anger or, in Stephanopoulos’ case, disillusionment — are prime source material for historians. Nothing matches the vigor of a former White House aide writing while memories are fresh and the passions of current events are intense.
That urbane discussion — conducted during a meeting of the Judson Welliver Society, the bipartisan alumni association of former White House speechwriters — came to mind this week as Donald Trump went to war against his former top strategist, Steve Bannon.
Watch: Just How Realistic Is Trump’s 2018 Legislative Agenda?
Even the most deranged portions of the Nixon tapes do not contain a passage equal to this formal statement issued Wednesday by the president: “Steve Bannon has nothing to do with me or my Presidency. When he was fired, he not only lost his job, he lost his mind.”
The triggering event was the publication of corrosive excerpts from Michael Wolff’s new book on the Trump White House, “Fire and Fury.” (That prior sentence was written solely for the benefit of those who have been on an ice floe all week without the ability to binge-watch cable).
Bannon, more than anyone else, was the maitre d’ in charge of escorting Wolff to a ringside seat in the Trump White House. Bannon’s own comments about the president he helped elect were scathing. He predicted, according to a book excerpt that ran in the Hollywood Reporter, that there was a one-third chance that Trump would be impeached and another one-third chance that the 71-year-old president would be forced from office for mental incapacity under the 25th Amendment.
Aspects of the Wolff book may be exaggerated, since the author appears to have an idiosyncratic sense of sourcing and double-checking implausible claims.
But a single on-the-record quote from Sam Nunberg, a former campaign aide, tells you all you really need to know about Trump’s unfitness for office. As Nunberg tells it, he was trying to instruct Trump on the Constitution. “I got as far as the Fourth Amendment,” Nunberg recalled, “before his finger is pulling down on his lip and his eyes are rolling back in his head.”
I guess the good news is that, according to Nunberg, Trump has been briefed on the First Amendment, although you couldn’t tell from the president’s attacks on a free press.
Whatever you think of Trump’s policies, the 45th president’s contempt for the norms that have governed his predecessors should be obvious. Every day Trump takes steps (taunting an unstable North Korean leader in a tweet about button size) that would horrify anyone who has occupied the Oval Office, Nixon and Warren Harding included.
Trump’s heavy-handed efforts to impose his fantasy life on reality leads to disasters like his just-disbanded Advisory Commission on Election Integrity.
Because Trump’s ego could not abide that 3 million more Americans preferred Hillary Clinton in the 2016 popular vote, the president tried to gin up evidence of massive nationwide voter fraud. Instead, the commission, which made a mockery of due process, hoisted a white flag without challenging Clinton’s margin in defeat.
Dropping the ball
One of the saddest aspects of Trump’s first year in office is the lack of interest by the Republican Congress in performing even the most rudimentary oversight of this Bronx cheer presidency.
We are at the point when only the terminally naive have any faith in congressional investigations into Russian hacking of the 2016 election. It is worth noting that Bannon (whose record is free of pandering to Moscow) described Donald Trump Jr.’s June 2016 meeting with Russian operatives supposedly offering dirt on Hillary Clinton as “unpatriotic” and potentially “treasonous.”
Putting Russia aside, you would think that — at minimum — Congress might be curious about the ways that Trump and his family have been profiting from public service.
As the Washington Monthly (a magazine with which I have long been associated) details in a devastating article about Trump’s ethics by Nicole Narea, “He has installed immediate relatives at the helm of the Trump Organization, continued to accept payments from foreign governments and private interests, and lavishly billed the government for using his own properties.”
Maybe this is a case for Mitt Romney.
If the 2012 GOP nominee is indeed the next senator from Utah, it raises the potential for serious investigations of the Trump administration, even if the Democrats do not win back the Senate.
Take the plausible scenario of a 50-50 Senate as the Democrats pick up seats in Nevada and Arizona, but lose in Indiana or Missouri. Mike Pence would lose his power to break ties if Romney had the moxie to vote with the Democrats on matters relating to investigating Trump’s misdeeds.
It all comes down to how Republican members of Congress regard their legacy. Do they want to someday be honored for their integrity or recalled as loyal lapdogs to everything Trump?
Jeanne Calment — a French woman who died at 122 years old, the longest life documented by modern records — met Vincent Van Gogh in Arles when she was a teenager. Calment recalled that the artist was “very ugly, ungracious, impolite, sick.”
How you are ultimately remembered matters. Even if you are a junior member of Congress instead of Vincent Van Gogh.
Roll Call columnist Walter Shapiro is a veteran of Politics Daily, USA Today, Time, Newsweek and The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.