The problem posed by Trump is now not an aberrant past presidency — it’s the corrosive impact he could have on the nation in the future.
As Trump teases another run at the White House, his behavior and new accounts of his wild final days in office are becoming too outlandish to ignore, given that he’s already the prohibitive favorite for the Republican nomination. Before that, he’s the tip of the spear of the GOP bid to retake the House in midterm elections next year. The price for entry for any party candidate is fealty to the flagrant lie sold to millions that Trump is still the rightful President. And he’s undoubtedly the dominant force in Republican politics — even if his ever more radical conduct may make his appeal in a national election more doubtful. At least in an election that is free and fair.
The disclosures in Woodward and Costa’s “Peril” are among the most serious and alarming yet. If they are borne out, they would not just be a case of a President tearing at the structures of US democracy — as he did with the US Capitol insurrection on January 6, designed to disrupt Biden’s certification as the winner of November’s election. But they also would represent a sign that the nation’s most senior military officer believed Trump was a grave danger to the world in the fevered days when he was trying to cling to power.
And Milley was far from alone in his concerns. The-then head of the CIA, Gina Haspel, feared an out-of-control Trump was on the path to a right-wing coup or might lash out at Iran. And in another staggering move, the reporters say Milley also had back-channel contacts with his Chinese counterpart, who was alarmed that even Beijing could be in Trump’s sights.
Milley at the center of the storm
Milley hasn’t publicly commented on the bombshells. But he was at the center of a debate on Tuesday night over whether he had acted out of justified caution to curtail a President who had gone off the rails.
There were some, Florida’s Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, for example, who called for Biden to fire Milley, after claiming the general had infringed the near-sacred principle of civilian control of the military by back-channeling a possible presidential order.
But Woodward and Costa addressed Milley’s actions in the book’s prologue, according to the copy obtained by CNN. “Was he subverting the president?” they wrote. “Some might contend Milley had overstepped his authority and taken extraordinary power for himself. But his actions, he believed, were a good faith precaution to ensure there was no historic rupture in the international order, no accidental war with China or others, and no use of nuclear weapons.”
At the very least, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs is going to come under pressure to explain his side of the story to Congress.
The level of documentation in the new book, including a transcript of a call in which House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Milley agreed on the danger posed by the then-President’s “crazy” behavior, suggests there may be more to tell.
Previous reports from earlier this summer indicated Milley had informally planned for different ways to stop Trump, including cascading resignations of top national security leaders, because he was so concerned by the then-President’s behavior after November’s election — even going so far as to speak out loud over his fears that Trump would attempt a coup.
On Tuesday night, Trump lashed out at Milley, calling for action against him.
“For the record, I never even thought of attacking China—and China knows that,” Trump wrote in a statement. “The people that fabricated the story are sick and demented, and the people who print it are just as bad. In fact, I’m the only President in decades who didn’t get the US into a war.”
Why Trump cannot be ignored
The book raises multiple alarming issues.
That people behind the scenes were even more frightened than outsiders about Trump’s behavior after he incited the sacking of Capitol Hill puts the national trauma of early January in an even graver perspective.
While Trump’s rhetoric was often worse than his actions — in his warning that he could rain “fire and fury” on North Korea, for instance — there is plenty of evidence that America and the world faced extra danger with him in office. This is borne out by his two impeachments for gross abuses of power, and his apparent attempt to obstruct justice by firing then-FBI Director James Comey.
Some Trump opponents, Democrats and consumers of journalism wish the media would stop talking about him since he no longer holds power. And there is nothing Trump craves more than attention — even the glare of bad publicity. The next presidential election is three years away, and maybe the new evidence of Trump’s apparent unfitness for office will offer some steel to Republican rivals who might take him on in a presidential primary race. That seems a long shot, however, since any GOP official who has criticized Trump in recent years has found themselves ostracized from the party base.
But there can no longer be any doubt about the kind of presidency the United States would face from a vindicated and unrestrained Trump in a new four-year term. And Republicans, especially in the House, who have effectively handed over their party to his brand of authoritarian conservatism should also be held to account for the kind of figure they are enabling and trying to ride to power.
Still, it is unlikely that a new book involving Woodward will do anything to weaken the ex-President’s base of support. A CNN poll published this week found 63% of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents said they want Trump as the leader of their party. Six in 10 say supporting Trump and believing that he won in 2020 are an important part of what being a Republican means to them.
If recent history is a guide, Republicans in positions of power will shrug at the new revelations. The conservative media complex will brand them “fake news.” And the idea that a senior member of the military establishment may have tried to subvert Trump’s powers will only embolden those who believe that a “deep state” all along thwarted an innocent President.
There is a definite sense — borne out by five years of scandals, crushing of presidential norms and evidence of the political damage that an out-of-control President can do — that what doesn’t kill Trump’s political career makes it stronger.