The Ellen DeGeneres Show had a recent bit where two sisters were put on a spinning chair, seated back to back and then spun at a high rate of speed. As they were spinning, they were asked questions until the chair stopped. You couldn’t help laughing as these two, stumbling a bit as they stood up, tried to answer simple questions like, “What is the weather?” It was vintage DeGeneres. The more times they were spun around, the less capacity they had for the most basic queries.
This is how the Trump presidency feels, except it is not funny. Part of our dizziness comes from the complete disconnect between what we should be able to expect of the leader of the free world and the man who now holds that position, a point made brilliantly by George Will.
The other contribution to our unsteadiness is that Trump is playing an elaborate game of spinning our chairs. Every time we start to see clearly what is potentially horrifying in this administration—collusion with Russia to tilt the election—he spins the chair again with some kind of headline-making move. Just as we steady ourselves and clear our heads, he fires someone who threatens him or launches Twitter tirades intended to keep our heads spinning. While we are off-kilter, he is rearranging core American values. There is no loyalty to the truth or accountability (forget the Constitution), just to image, power, and wealth.
Spinning the Sally Yates Timeline
One great difficulty is that it is difficult for the public to follow the timelines that illuminate Trump’s actual motives. For example, Trump fired acting Attorney General Sally Yates with the public explanation that he had to because she declined to direct the Department of Justice to defend his unconstitutional and indefensible Muslim country travel ban. (By the way, the Department of Justice has a history of standing up for the Constitution even when a president won’t, contrary to some of the Republicans who recently questioned Yates on her decision not to enforce the foolhardy first travel ban.)
In fact, we learned this week that her firing closely followed her report to the White house that the head of national security, Michael Flynn, was potentially compromised by Russia.
Take a moment to absorb that—it is stunning. When Trump fired Yates, no one in the public knew that she had made these disclosures to the White House. Indeed, the White House waited 18 days from her report to fire Flynn, despite his potential threat to national security. Of course, Trump did not tell the country at the time that he fired her right after she blew the whistle on Flynn. The country would never have learned about her report and its proximity to her firing except that she testified this week before a Senate Judiciary subcommittee investigating Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
Trump kept Flynn for 18 days knowing full well that Flynn was a national security liability, but then let him go on the flimsy explanation that Flynn had lied to Vice President Mike Pence. Who keeps a national security advisor who is potentially compromised by the very country casting a shadow over your administration, but then lets him go because he’s a liar? A spinner.
Spinning the Comey Timeline
The good news is that the spinner-in-chief is running out of the energy needed to make 350 million people unsteady. Indeed, with his firing of FBI director James Comey and its timing the springs may be sprung. Democrats are calling for an independent investigator with the president removing the man who was investigating his ties to Russia, and the Republicans are split.
An ordinary firing would have received 100% support from Republicans. Not so this time, and historians are providing the backdrop to understand the magnitude of this action, in which the president has removed the FBI director investigating him and will now be able to choose his replacement (who may or may not pursue the investigation, with or without vigor). To them, this looks like Nixon’s infamous Saturday Night Massacre. But worse, because this is about actions that are potentially traitorous. The very premise causes vertigo.
Comey’s firing was accompanied by a bizarre explanation that circles back to Hillary Clinton and Comey’s interference in the election. If that were his reason, though, Trump would have fired Comey ages ago. Pay attention to the time line here: Comey was fired the day after Yates testified about her report to the White House, the firing that followed, and that Trump knew for 18 days that his national security advisor was compromised vis-à-vis Russia. This was a moment of clarity in the Trump era.
If you didn’t wonder if the Trump machine had colluded with Russia before, you had to wonder after Yates testified with deep credibility. So in the Trump universe, what he desperately needed was a major distraction. He leapt to fire Comey, so recklessly and without consultation or warning to his staff. In short, the Comey firing and its timing was more spinning to get us to look anywhere but where our straight-line vision would take us.
What is most stunning in all of this furious spinning is that it did not occur to Trump to have an answer ready for the American public about why he had suddenly fired Comey. It appears he believes that we are all so dizzy at this point that he need not explain himself anymore. That would be incorrect. The American people are putting their collective foot down on terra firma: The latest poll numbers show his approval rating slipping to an abysmal 36% with 58% disapproving his performance. And that’s before he threw out Comey with a patently implausible explanation. Unlike Ellen DeGeneres’s guests, there is no reason for us to stay seated on the spinning chair. Indeed, it’s time to stand up and demand the truth that Trump can’t abide.