UPDATE: White House chief strategist Steve Bannon is reportedly on his way out. As I noted in this piece, Bannon's removal will not lead to a pivot, and any reporter who suggests otherwise will inevitably be proven wrong the next time the president does something racist and unpresidential.
It’s been 17 days since retired Gen. John Kelly joined the White House amid a wave of media goodwill. As chief of staff in the place of the feckless Republican political operative Reince Priebus, the theory went, Kelly might be able to “rein in” President Donald Trump. Kelly would impose “military discipline” on a White House that had devolved into warring factions, controlling the information the president received, restoring order to the decision-making process, and curtailing Trump’s Twitter habit. “There hasn’t been much good to say about Trump in a long time,” wrote Vanity Fair’s T.A. Frank. “But recruiting Kelly suggests that he learns, very belatedly, from his mistakes, and that he’s capable of some small degree of humility.” Journalists often caveated their commentary with acknowledgments that the White House’s problem was far deeper than communications failures, and that much would depend on whether Trump was willing to listen to Kelly’s advice. But expectations for the new chief of staff were sky-high -- Frank’s piece was titled, “Will John Kelly Save Trump’s Soul?” The pivot, at long last, had arrived.
To put it mildly, those takes haven’t aged well.
Under Kelly’s tenure, the president offered up unhinged, improvised threats toward North Korea that suggested he was on the brink of ordering a nuclear strike. He lashed out at Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), thanked Russian President Vladimir Putin for expelling U.S. diplomats, and his White House openly admitted he had helped draft his son’s deceptive response to reports that he had met with Russians during the presidential campaign. And yesterday, Trump used a press conference to all but offer open support to the white supremacists and neo-Nazis who rampaged through Charlottesville, VA, over the weekend in support of a statue honoring Confederate General Robert E. Lee.
Kelly was present yesterday as Trump put those racists on equal footing with those who showed up to oppose them, declaring that both sides included some “very fine people” and were equally to blame for the violence that erupted. He watched with apparent despair as the president praised protesters who had carried torches while chanting, “Jews will not replace us.” He looked on as Trump did his best to shred the fabric of a nation sorely in need of healing. No American general has been so thoroughly routed since Lee surrendered at Appomattox Courthouse.
And yet, while the events of recent weeks are horrifying, they are not entirely surprising. Critics -- including Trump’s Democratic opponent -- warned throughout the campaign that Trump lacked the necessary temperament to be trusted with the U.S. nuclear arsenal, that he would never be able to work with Congress, that he was too closely tied to Russia, and that he was the candidate of choice for white nationalists and other deplorables. These were all known quantities; things are proceeding as we might have expected. And that leads us, inexorably, to the following conclusion.
The pivot is not coming. There is no decision this president can make that will alter the trajectory of his administration. It’s long past time for journalists to stop predicting a change in course is imminent, or even possible.
For more than a year, every brief moment of normalcy -- every instance in which Trump did not devolve into crude attacks on his opponents during a speech, or fired a controversial staffer, or even managed to avoid tweeting anything “controversial” for a handful of days -- has been accompanied by journalists willing to say that Trump had hit the “reset” button, that now he was finally becoming “presidential.” Inevitably, those journalists found themselves with egg on their faces in a matter of days, as Trump reverted to form and proved those moments anomalies, not the beginnings of a trend.
I understand why reporters and commentators might be overeager to declare that change is on the way. It is uncomfortable to live in a world in which the president of the United States is an unhinged egomaniac who offers sympathy for literally the worst people in American society and lashes out at the institutions that support democratic governance. It makes sense that those whose jobs involve trying to make sense of this situation might grasp for anything that could reestablish normalcy.
There’s also a bias in the press toward a change in storylines. Reporters strive to identify “new news,” and as such are susceptible to over-reading discrete instances as the start of a new trend. “Trump is doing something new” is a much more interesting story to tell than “Trump is doing the same thing,” and so it’s a story that gets told disproportionately to the reality.
But the reality is, things aren’t normal because Trump is the president -- no shuffle in the White House or effort to change the message can change that. This is who he is. He rose to political prominence by questioning the legitimacy of the first black president, started his campaign with a racist rant against Mexicans, and was elected in spite of the publication of a tape in which he bragged about sexually assaulting women. He obviously cares more for his private interest than he does for public service. He values people and organizations solely on the basis of whether they support him personally. He has shown over and over again that he lacks either the intellect or the temperament to do his job. He is 71 years old -- none of this is going to change.
This week, there were rumblings (though to some extent they have dissipated) that White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon might be on his way out, having lost the president’s favor. It would be an unalloyed positive for the despicable former chief of Breitbart.com to no longer have a job steps from the Oval Office. If that were to happen, I would expect some in the media to declare that the pivot had finally arrived. They would be wrong. As Trump said yesterday, Bannon joined his campaign late in the game. Trump was an unhinged racist before Bannon, and he’ll still be one if Bannon leaves. Anyone who claims that a Bannon removal would be the start of a real change will inevitably be quickly embarrassed.
Instead of constantly looking for signs of the pivot, journalists should be stressing the remarkable consistency of Trump’s tenure. The administration’s throughline is chaos and hate, failure propagated by laziness and stupidity. Trump told us who he was, and he is living up to it.