August, despite its reputation, has never been a slow month for news. Wars start in August. Coups happen. Markets crash. Governments fall. Sometimes, the news is even good. Consider the developments of the past week or so. Gas prices are dropping, with the national average falling below four dollars a gallon for the first time in months. Inflation might be peaking, and unemployment remains vanishingly low. The Senate passed a sweeping bill to address climate change and health care, less than two weeks after the bill, the Biden Administration’s top priority, experienced an unlikely resurrection. President Joe Biden, finally recovered from COVID and emerging from more than two weeks in quarantine, also signed bipartisan legislation to invest tens of billions of dollars into scientific research to aid veterans suffering from exposure to burn pits, and accepted the proposed accession of Finland and Sweden to NATO. The President also announced the killing of Ayman al-Zawahiri, perhaps the world’s most wanted terrorist, after a two-decade manhunt.
Cue the hosannas. Washington loves nothing more than a winner, especially one whose previous year has been something akin to a political parade of horribles. Robert Shrum, the legendary Democratic speechwriter, proclaimed, “Biden is the most legislatively successful President since LBJ.” MSNBC posted a graphic of “Biden’s Big Wins,” a list that ran to fourteen items and included yet-to-be-consummated accomplishments such as “Senate negotiating update to the Electoral Count Act.” “There’s not much debate anymore over whether Biden has been a consequential President,” Politico’s Playbook declared. Ed Luce, in the Financial Times, hailed “the unexpected triumph of Joe Biden.” Not bad for a President with an average approval rating of forty per cent.
And yet the banner headline on the Drudge Report on Thursday was “HELL WEEK.” The accompanying picture was not of Biden but of the inescapable former President.
American politics remains trapped in the story of Trump, Trump, Trump. Biden, of course, is not irrelevant. Much of his bad polling can be attributed to the sour mood of Democrats and independents who have been cheering for him to do more. Maybe now they will rally around their leader. Maybe some of his recent accomplishments will matter when voters go to the polls in November. “Do I expect it to help?” Biden said, on Monday, when asked whether the burst of successes might help Democrats in November. “Yes, I do.”
But, with the Republican Party still in thrall to its defeated former President, the achievements of Biden, no matter how considerable, are subordinate to the country’s larger crisis: the collapse of the Republican Party into a cult of personality. This has been reinforced, to the extent it needed reinforcing, by the week’s dramatic Trump happenings, which included an unprecedented F.B.I. search of Trump’s home at Mar-a-Lago, on Monday. Agents were apparently hunting for classified, possibly nuclear-weapons-related national-security documents that the ex-President improperly kept in his possession, according to reporting by the Washington Post. Also among these was the news that Trump, called to testify in a long-running New York State civil investigation of his business, on Wednesday, invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination to avoid answering questions more than four hundred and forty times.
In any normal, functioning moment in the United States, these events would be taken as a clear and unmistakable sign of the grave legal threat to the former President from the various investigations into his conduct, which also include a separate Justice Department probe into the origins of the January 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol, the ongoing House select-committee inquiry into January 6th, and a Georgia criminal investigation into Trump’s efforts to pressure state officials there after his 2020 election loss. It’s hard to imagine any other ex-President with such legal exposure as the favored contender to lead his party back to power.
Somehow, much of the political world managed to reach the exact opposite conclusion: that the F.B.I. search was an event of such gross government overreach that Trump himself would undoubtedly benefit from it. (A typical headline of this genre, from National Review: “FBI Has Reestablished Trump as the Alpha Dog in the Republican Party.”) Trump, ever eager to paint himself as a victim, made numerous inflammatory and likely untrue claims about the search, which his supporters readily amplified; he said that his home was under “siege” and suggested that F.B.I. agents had planted evidence. Fund-raising e-mails that lamented the “NEVERENDING WITCH HUNT” and urged Republicans to “stand with President Trump” quickly followed. Few seemed to doubt that Trump would soon announce his 2024 Presidential bid, and an immediate Morning Consult/Politico poll, released on Thursday, found that Republican primary voters were, in fact, four percentage points more supportive of Trump for 2024 after the Mar-a-Lago search than they were in the month before it. Only in the upside-down world of today’s Republican politics could this be a good thing for a politician, but we are where we are.
Watching Trumpists befoul themselves in condemning the F.B.I. raid—about which they knew almost nothing at all, except that it had occurred—was truly remarkable. Especially loud in the former President’s defense were some of those whose recent actions might have led Trump to suspect their devotion to him was less than absolute. John Ratcliffe, a former Republican congressman who served as Trump’s director of National Intelligence, for example, was outed by another former Trump aide, Cassidy Hutchinson. In testimony to the House January 6th committee, Hutchinson claimed that Ratcliffe was against Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election. This week, after the Mar-a-Lago search, Ratcliffe offered an especially overheated defense of Trump, which included a bold threat to abolish the F.B.I and get rid of its leader. The former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo—who was also against Trump’s effort to overturn the election, as I reported in The New Yorker, on Monday—was supposed to testify on Tuesday to the January 6th committee, an inconvenience for a politician who has marketed himself as the ultimate Trump loyalist. So Pompeo started the day by tweeting his own florid defense of the boss. “If they will go after a former President,” he warned, “they will go after you.”
The bizarre politics of the moment were best summed up in an exchange Thursday morning on “Fox & Friends,” when the co-host Steve Doocy—an anchor so well known for his Trump cheerleading that Trump once reportedly rated him a twelve out of ten on his personal loyalty scale—seemed astonished by how far Trump’s defenders were willing to go in attacking the F.B.I. on Trump’s behalf. What about death threats to F.B.I. agents, Doocy wondered, and over-the-top comments from House Republicans talking of the need to “destroy the F.B.I.” and “defund” it? “Whatever happened to the Republican Party backing the blue?” the Fox host asked Representative Steve Scalise, the House Republican Whip.
When Scalise responded by talking about agents who had gone “rogue,” Doocy challenged him again. “Steve, who went rogue? Who went rogue? They were following a search warrant.” On Thursday, the potential consequences of this reckless rhetoric became clear, after an armed man tried to attack an F.B.I. field office in Cincinnati; the man, who had reportedly attended the January 6th riot at the Capitol, was later shot and killed by law enforcement.
By Thursday afternoon, Attorney General Merrick Garland finally felt compelled to respond to the days of attacks from Trump and his supporters, in and of itself a remarkable nod to the former President’s continued ability to disrupt the normal order of things at the Justice Department, where a policy of not publicly commenting on ongoing investigations is usually sacrosanct. Garland didn’t say much, of course, beyond blasting “unfounded attacks” on the agents who’d conducted the search and the usual reassuring words about “faithful adherence to the rule of law,” which would be applied “without fear or favor.” But he did reveal that the Justice Department has asked the federal court that approved the Mar-a-Lago search warrant to unseal both the warrant and a list of property that was taken. Trump, of course, could have saved Garland the trouble and done so himself—he’s got a copy of both of them. But now his bluff has been called.
Maybe—probably—Trump doesn’t care. He’s sought to raise millions of dollars off the frenzy. He’s forced Republican politicians to publicly abase themselves and trash the nation’s premier law-enforcement agencies in an effort to stay in his good graces. He’s distracted the media from Biden’s big run of successes. He might even be right that, as a matter of politics, the whole thing is good for him.
But what would that say about the country if it is? Count me with Sherrilyn Ifill, the former longtime head of the N.A.A.C.P. Legal Defense and Education Fund. “The implications of this unprecedented act is that the DOJ may now have determined that the former President may have committed criminal acts,” she wrote, on Twitter. The rest is speculation and—Trump’s malevolent specialty—political hot air. ♦
Trapped in Trump, Trump, Trump