Shortly after eight on Monday morning, the President of the United States, making maximal use of his “executive time,” wielded his smartphone to issue a legal threat against the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. It is worth reading the missive from @realDonaldTrump in full:
“Rep. Adam Schiff illegally made up a FAKE & terrible statement, pretended it to be mine as the most important part of my call to the Ukrainian President, and read it aloud to Congress and the American people. It bore NO relationship to what I said on the call. Arrest for Treason?”
Were the collective nerve endings of the electorate not so frayed and numbed by now, we might be even more alive to the ugliness of this message from the White House. One of the consequences of the Trump Presidency is the way that it constantly diminishes our expectations of anything other than hideous rhetoric and action. But there are those who are intensely aware of the potential consequences of such a threat. Sources close to Schiff told The New Yorker on Monday that Democrats in Congress are deeply worried about the President using Twitter to incite violence and to direct it at specific members.
The threat to Schiff via Twitter came just a few days after the President, speaking at the United States Mission to the United Nations, said that whoever provided information to the whistle-blower about his July 25th telephone call with the President of Ukraine was “close to a spy.” Trump went on to wax nostalgic about how spies were dealt with “in the old days”—with the death penalty, in other words. “As soon as I heard that, I thought, He has the soul and the mind of an authoritarian,” Nicholas Burns, a former high-ranking diplomat who has served in Republican and Democratic Administrations, told me. “What other President in American history would say that?”
The offhanded encouragement of vengeance, even violence, is hardly new or unusual for Trump. Some selections from the anthology of incitement:
“If you see somebody getting ready to throw a tomato, knock the crap out of them, would ya?” he told the crowd at a February, 2016, rally in Iowa. “I promise you, I will pay the legal fees.”
“In the good old days, they’d rip him out of that seat so fast. But, today, everybody’s politically correct,” Trump said at a rally in Oklahoma. “Our country’s going to Hell with being politically correct.”
In Wilmington, North Carolina, Trump issued a winking endorsement of violence against his opponent, Hillary Clinton, who, he said, might go so far as to appoint judges who favor gun-control laws. “If she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks,” Trump said. “Although the Second Amendment people—maybe there is, I don’t know.”
More than three years later, Trump has intensified the search into his singular obsession: Hillary Clinton’s e-mails. Details seem to emerge almost hourly about the extent of his corruption and subterfuge. On Monday, the Times reported that Trump behaved with the Australian Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, much as he had with the Ukrainian leader, pressing Morrison in a recent telephone call to assist Attorney General William Barr and the Justice Department in an attempt to undermine the findings of the Mueller report. The Washington Post then added to the miserable picture, reporting that Barr had held private meetings overseas with various foreign-intelligence officials to get them to investigate and ultimately help to discredit the findings of the C.I.A. and other U.S. intelligence agencies about Russian interference in the last Presidential election.
The onset of an impeachment inquiry in the House of Representatives—an initiative that is gathering increasing public support during an election season—is sure to elicit more, and increasingly lurid, threats of retribution from the President. As a result, anxiety throughout the federal government has deepened. “This is a time of real fear inside the State Department,” Burns, a former Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, told me. Diplomats throughout the foreign service became particularly concerned when, in May, the Administration recalled the Ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch. Widely considered a deeply knowledgeable, experienced, and nonpartisan diplomat, Yovanovitch had wound up on the wrong side of the Trump circle, including Rudolph Giuliani and Donald Trump, Jr., who referred to her on Twitter as a “joker.” According to the government account of his call with the Ukrainian President, Volodymyr Zelensky, Trump said ominously that Yovanovitch was “going to go through some things.”
Burns, who is now an informal and unpaid adviser to Joe Biden on foreign-policy issues, told me that Trump’s disregard of democratic norms has reached such a point of crisis that “the floodgates are now going to open, and people inside the White House and the federal government may now come forward to the inspector generals inside the system. This President has overturned much of what has made us great. And that, I think, is appalling to career people.”
Senator Chris Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut, told me that the Administration is propagating a long-held conspiracy theory to justify its behavior. “My understanding is that Trump, Giuliani, and others in the Administration believe that there is a deep-state conspiracy in the State Department against the President and that Masha Yovanovitch was part of this.” Her recall from Kiev, he said, “was a consequence of that conspiracy theory.”
The Deep State conspiracy theory is hardly confined to the West Wing, Murphy went on: “I hear this, too, from my Republican Senate colleagues. There is a belief that there is a group in every corner of the government that is out to get Trump. There really are morally centered people who find him deeply distasteful, and it is required of them to raise questions of corruption if they see it. The Trump Administration sees that as a conspiracy.”
Murphy is hardly revealing a deeply held Republican secret. On Fox News, Stephen Miller, Trump’s senior policy adviser, told Chris Wallace that the whistle-blower was “a deep-state operative, pure and simple.” The whistle-blower’s report, he added, was little more than a “seven-page Nancy Drew novel.”
Wallace pushed back against these talking points, calling Miller’s answers “obfuscation.” Then Wallace played a video of Joseph Maguire, the acting director of National Intelligence, testifying before the House Intelligence Committee last week that the whistle-blower and the inspector general who brought the report forward had acted “by the book and followed the law.”
Among the most pressing questions being discussed now in Washington is how long Republican members of Congress and former White House officials will continue to show fealty to Trump. “I am still stunned that Republicans are circling the wagons in the way that they are,” Murphy said. “They may just decide to ride this out. It may be that they are so entwined around the President, they are so stuck to him with Super Glue, that they can never come unbound.”
The testimony of the whistle-blower could be a dramatic chapter in this unfolding drama. But who else might come forward to testify? One person might be Yovanovitch, who has so far steered clear of speaking publicly about her dismal, and deeply unjust, fate at the hands of the Administration. Others might include Kurt Volker, who just resigned his post as special representative for Ukraine; lawyers in the White House counsel’s office; and other high-ranking officials—including former Cabinet secretaries, national-security advisers, and chiefs of staff—who may finally see no point in reserving their soured descriptions of Trump for deep-background sessions with reporters and authors. They may soon decide it is time to speak in their own names, for the sake of history, decency, and their reputations. And finally: What level of perfidy in the White House, what permutation of public opinion, will it take before Mitch McConnell decides he can no longer continue his cynical marriage to Trump?
It can be assumed that the President will go on using the weapons he learned at the feet of Roy Cohn: constant attack, ruthless threats, the shameless propagation of conspiracy theories. John Dean, whose testimony helped to tip the scales against Richard Nixon in the Watergate affair, told me that the character of Donald Trump insures that this story could get far uglier than it already is.
“Even Nixon would be offended by this effort to use foreign assistance for a very personal, political reason, which is a very corrupting undertaking,” Dean said. “I don’t think Trump has any morals or shame. He will do anything to get reëlected before. . . . It’s just the way Trump thinks. He doesn’t care. He will destroy anybody. I find him a deeply troubling character. When he first went in, I worried that his ignorance would get us in trouble. Now it’s his disposition that I find most troubling of all.”