The New York Times reports that President Trump is angry at Attorney General Jeff Sessions because his Justice Department substituted a weakened travel ban for the original ban; Trump is also peeved because Sessions recused himself in the Russiagate investigation, which in Trump's view was the reason a special counsel was named.
Regarding the travel ban, Ezra Klein wonders whether Trump realizes that he himself is actually the president of the United States:
... “the Justice Dept.” is really Trump’s Justice Department. It is run by a man Trump handpicked to lead it. The revised travel ban — which was an effort to save Trump’s policy from total defeat before the Supreme Court — was crafted with the input of the White House, and only released after Trump’s top advisers cleared it.
... If Trump didn’t want the revised travel ban released, why was it released? Isn’t he the boss? Is he going to fire Attorney General Jeff Sessions? Or ask Sessions to fire someone else? And what kind of leader acts like this, litigating frustrations in public and dodging responsibility for the actions of the organization he runs?
... Harry Truman famously had a sign on his desk saying, “The buck stops here.” Trump isn’t sure where the buck stops, or how to find it, or even whom to ask about it. He doesn’t run the government so much as fight with it.
This is one of several signs that Trump is losing what little grip he has on power. He planned to have a "war room" to rebut negative Russiagate stories, but he can't manage to staff one. He wanted outside counsel for himself, but he was turned down by four top law firms. (“The concerns were, ‘The guy won’t pay and he won’t listen,’” we're told.) He's trying to tout an infrastructure initiative this week, but he has no infrastructure plan.
So it's a strange time for The Washington Post's Greg Sargent to tell us that Trump really looks like an autocrat at this moment:
Students of authoritarianism see a pattern taking shape
Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a professor of history at New York University who writes extensively on authoritarianism and Italian fascism, told me that a discernible trait of authoritarian and autocratic rulers is ongoing “frustration” with the “inability to make others do their bidding” and with “institutional and bureaucratic procedures and checks and balances.”
“Trump doesn’t respect democratic procedure and finds it to be something that gets in his way,” Ben-Ghiat said. “The blaming of others is very typical of autocrats, because they have difficulty listening to a reality that doesn’t coincide with their version of it. It’s part of the authoritarian temperament to blame others when things aren’t working.”
Trump expects independent officials “to behave according to personal loyalty, as opposed to following the rules,” added Timothy Snyder, a history professor at Yale University who wrote “On Tyranny,” a book of lessons from the 20th century. “For Trump, that is how the world is supposed to work. Trump doesn’t understand that in the world there might truly be laws and rules that constrain a leader.”
Sargent acknowledges that "early worries about an unbound authoritarian Trump — fears that our institutions would not hold up or that Trump would bulldoze them — now look overblown." But he's still fretting. So is Masha Gessen, author of a much-read November warning about the potential for authoritarianism under Trump; she pointed out in The New York Times over the weekend that Vladimir Putin "is a poorly educated, under-informed, incurious man whose ambition is vastly out of proportion to his understanding of the world," and yet he's a feared autocrat. Hitler and Stalin also "truck many of their countrymen as men of limited ability, education and imagination," and we know how all that turned out.
But Trump doesn't seem to have an all-consuming hunger for power. If he were becoming a true autocrat, he'd have an instinct for learning where power lies and how to seize it for himself. As it is, he doesn't even know how to use the powers the Constitution grants him.
If he'd wanted to use his election to make himself an autocrat, he would have told the customs and border people enforcing his first travel ban not to stop when the courts first put a freeze on it. Who would have stopped him from defying the courts? Local cops? Another court? Another federal agency? No, no, and no -- if he'd had the will to power. We can say with near-certainty that Republicans in Congress would have fallen in line, muttering something about "the unitary executive." But Trump doesn't have an instinct for that kind of seizure of power.
He has, in place of a true will to power, a will to money and (especially) a will to attention -- see this analysis by The Washington Post's James Hohmann:
The conventional wisdom around Washington is that Trump is being impulsive as he disregards the counsel of his lawyers, who are correctly warning him that the travel ban may not survive a Supreme Court review if he continues to talk about it the way he does.
Yet the president has now explicitly called for a “TRAVEL BAN” five separate times on Twitter over the past four days....
If Trump truly cared about the underlying ban and wanted it to be in place for the country’s security, as he claims, he would not be speaking so freely....
The only explanation, then, is that he cares less about winning the case than reassuring his base....
With his agenda imperiled, Trump increasingly seems determined to create an aura of effectiveness in the hopes that core supporters already inclined to support him won’t be able to tell the difference between optics and substance.
A true authoritarian would long since have seen to it that James Comey crossed paths with some polonium. An ordinary embattled president who was working within ordinary norms would have fully staffed a war room by now. Instead, Trump intends to live-tweet Comey's testimony on Thursday. Ruthless? No. Effective? Hardly. Likely to win the adulation of his base? Sure. And that's what matters to Trump, far more than relentlessly acquiring unquestionable extralegal power.
But Sargent and Gessen aren't completely off base. Trump could have been a successful autocrat. If he'd defied the courts on the travel ban, he would have been admired by many while striking fear in the hearts of many more. What we should take from those who write about Trump as a potential autocrat is that it could happen here, and almost did -- and it might really happen in the near future. One of our political parties clearly won't stand in the way of a norm-smashing president if he's the party's guy. Much of the public doesn't mind the smashing of noms, or actively cheers their destruction. Someone who can win like Trump could absolutely govern like Putin, with the will to do it, and, probably, no Twitter account.
Crossposted at No More Mr. Nice Blog