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Please Stop Playing Chicken with President Trump

“Why don’t you just fire [Robert] Mueller?” a reporter called out to President Trump in the Cabinet Room at the White House Monday afternoon, according to a transcript of the event. From the video, one can see that the president—flanked by his military advisers—selected this inquiry from a number of other indistinct questions that were being shouted at him. Perhaps so that everyone could hear it, Trump warmly echoed this reporter’s question: “Why don’t I just fire Mueller?” Hearing this, the reporter called out again, reframing the prompt to sound like a dare: “Yeah, just fire the guy.” Perhaps we ought to assume that the reporter didn’t mean it as a cavalier challenge, but as an extreme hypothetical. Maybe he intended to lure Trump into a discussion of his thinking about the downsides. If so, Trump didn’t take the bait. He said that this was indeed under consideration and something he has been advised to do: “many people have said: ‘You should fire him.’”

In this way, for the umpteenth time, the president and the press together mulled over this curiously vile proposition. Firing the Justice Department special counsel is a true stinker of an idea. It would certainly fail to alleviate Trump’s and his friends’ and aides’ legal problems. Firing Mueller would exacerbate Trump’s already formidable political problems, and it would forever foreclose the possibility that he could be convincingly personally exonerated (admittedly, this already seems like a faint possibility). At the same time, firing Mueller would be terribly destructive to the rule of law, the independence of the Justice Department, and the reputation and foreign policy of the United States. As in the past, neither the president nor the press broached these enormous downsides.

Unfortunately, the Cabinet Room exchange is part of a genre—an approach to Trump that has persisted since the early days of the campaign and, in part, fueled his improbable ascent. In July 2015, before Trump had run a single campaign ad, The Onion published a satirical op-ed in Trump’s own voice headlined: “Admit It: You People Want To See How Far This Goes, Don’t You?” The satire has proved to be prophetic, not only for the campaign but for the administration. It’s worth admitting: Some people, inside and outside the news media, have approached this president as a performer for a captive and captivated audience that’s dying to learn just how far he’ll go. The old metaphors of governance don’t quite fit this model of a president. Trump doesn’t judiciously steer a ponderous ship of state through a sea of troubles. Trump is the daredevil who’s about to jump the motorcycle of state over another yawning abyss.

Even that metaphor is too generous. A professional stuntman does the mathwork required to avoid catastrophic error, and even then hires an ambulance crew to stand by off camera in the event of disaster. From trade wars to Muslim bans, and from actual wars to firing the law enforcement officer investigating him and his friends, in this White House, questions about the wisdom of an extreme course of action, its likelihood of success, its consistency with the Constitution, and its anticipated costs and benefits are all deemphasized. Those topics might spoil the fun and fail to promote the show. The overriding question—the question that gets shouted to Trump over the roar of Marine One and repeated through the speakers of his own televisions—is one about whether he will break boundaries with raw nerve. Does he have the guts to be truly extreme? Can he keep his improbable streak alive with one more wild gambit?

I want to make the case that everyone should stop doing this—stop playing chicken with this particular president. That may seem obvious, but it’s probably a hard habit to break if you’re close to Trump. Being encouraged, even challenged, to do and say taboo things suits Trump’s self-image. He rewards people who choose this mode of interaction with him. He answers their questions, promotes their shows, sits for their interviews, and hires them on to his staff. If you work in any proximity to the White House, accentuating Trump’s outlandishness and derring-do is great for ratings and promising for your career. Beyond the incentives, it’s in hardly anyone’s job description to affirmatively stop Trump from heedlessly putting us all at risk, and it’d clearly be punishing and disagreeable work. (If there are any members of Congress reading this, please note: This is your job.) After all, evaluating risks for the whole nation and making a final decision on weighty public matters is fundamentally the president’s task. It was something of a tradition among White House reporters to confront past presidents with the occasional extreme hypothetical as they struggled under that lonely burden. It was an interesting way of revealing how the man wrestled with the job.

Trump is not like past presidents, and there are good reasons to believe prompting him (however innocently) to consider taking extreme measures is uniquely dangerous.

Three unique characteristics are at the core of the problem:

First, Trump is unusually prone to abandon his own judgment in favor of what others suggest to him.

Trump reportedly has a habit of adopting the views of the last person he’s spoken with. Some of his public reversals manifest this pattern. For example, he made a DACA deal with Democrats one morning and then abandoned it the very same day it, after his nationalist aides rounded up hardline congressmen and staged an intervention.

Even more troubling, Trump is uniquely heavily influenced by mass media. It’s commonplace for insiders to observe that cable TV news reports carry more weight with him than those of the US intelligence community. No president before Trump has ever spent as much time in front of the television. Nearly every day, on an approximately half hour delay, he recapitulates Fox News segments as tweets in his own voice, sometimes as policy announcements, and once as a memorable veto threat.

Second, Trump is uniquely unprepared to evaluate the risks he’s taking.

Never before has a candidate with no experience in government and no prior record of service to the country ascended to the presidency. Entering office, Trump had never faced a challenge that is comparable to running even a municipal government, much less a nuclear superpower. He daily demonstrates misconceptions about how the government operates and what its capabilities are. His business career offers no comfort that he has developed the analytical tools a professional uses to evaluate risk. His ability to distinguish reliable information from fiction, and reliable advisors from hucksters, is manifestly poor. Trump never had to satisfy the demands of a board of directors or a boss other than his father. Where Trump has dealt with anyone who relied on his business judgment rather than his ability to entertain and provoke (tenants, investment partners, lenders, casino bondholders, Trump University students, etc.), he has left behind a trail of injury, fraud, and disappointment.

Third, we face unique uncertainty about Trump’s true interests, loyalties and motivations and we can’t rely on him act ethically.

Without prejudging the outcome of any investigation, we can observe that:

  • We know uniquely little about Trump’s life because he has successfully avoided disclosing so much of it.
  • He hasn’t set aside even his known private interests.
  • He has already used public resources for his own private profit in a way that no other president has dared.

For the past several decades, presidential candidates exposed their lives to a careful public vetting process, either by consent or under irresistible pressure from the press and political rivals. They released years of tax returns (typically a decade worth); they produced photographs and old essays; they offered explanations and apologies for past violations of the law; they sat for interviews and answered investigative questions probing their biography; and their doctors opened up about their health. To be sure, they obscured some things, but all past presidential candidates allowed the press and the public to work with primary source material—to page through the tax returns, to scour the dissertation, to see the arrest report, to hear from the old business partner or fellow soldier, to know the candidate’s LDL cholesterol number. If they won as candidates, past presidents-elect verifiably put their private affairs aside. Their pre-presidential careers were different from Trump’s, and private business was usually not situated at the core of their identities. Still, these men voluntarily handed off their stock portfolios and family businesses to blind trusts. The trustees would sell those assets and reinvest the proceeds without saying how, so that there could be no question of the president taking his own commercial interests into account while in office. Famously, they made Jimmy Carter sell his family peanut business.

With Trump, the vetting process experienced a historic collapse. Then, he entered office without putting in place any meaningful assurance that he would behave ethically. He refused in essentially all cases to put forward primary source material about himself. Except for a few pages that have leaked, Trump’s tax returns remain a profound secret, forever hidden behind the thin pretext of an unending audit. The state of his finances and the extent of his business affairs are largely undocumented. Instead of a medical report, he offered an absurdly implausible note from a clownish physician. Instead of a blind trust, he set up a revocable one, with his adult sons in charge and answerable to him. Days before the election, to cover up an extramarital affair with a porn star, his fixer, Michael Cohen, crafted a nondisclosure agreement which read in part, “substantial effort and expense have been dedicated to limit the efforts of the press, other media, and the public to learn of personal and business affairs of [Trump].”

Amazingly, Trump has also manifestly used public resources for his personal gain. He visits the facilities of his business frequently and uses both his time and government resources to directly provide revenue to as well as promote that business—which he still effectively owns.

If Trump were an experienced hand in government, an independent thinker, a reliable empiricist, a cautious judge, a public-spirited man whose sense of duty could be spotted from a mile away, or simply a decent fellow whose life was an open book, then our present circumstances would not seems so absurdly dangerous. Sadly, he is none of those things. We can therefore not place nearly as much trust in his judgment.

Nearly three years ago, The Onion got to the root of the problem. The American people are not simply an audience for President Trump to entertain or disgust. Our lives, our freedom, our interests and our good name are at stake in what he chooses to do. Before proposing again that Trump to take a flyer off a cliff, please remember that we’re all passengers in the vehicle. We ought to avoid tempting his worst instincts for our own safety’s sake.

@nycsouthpaw is a lawyer and a writer in New York City.

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