Nancy Gibbs, a former managing editor of Time, is the director of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.
With each passing day, President Trump flaunts his great and unmatched wisdom and so invites us to play armchair, arm’s-length therapists. So let me float an untested theory about what is unfolding before our eyes. And then let’s test it.
What if the president wants out? There’s much about the job he never liked, which is one reason he spends so much time watching TV rather than actually doing it. Under normal circumstances, it involves any number of things he once avoided; shaking hands with germy people, being talked at by experts who know more than he, sitting still for extended periods, being criticized no matter what he does, empathizing — all important parts of the job. He has gone to considerable lengths to reshape the role, fired the experts, cleared his schedule, kept up his golf game … but still. The campaigning was fun, but the best evidence of how little he likes presiding is how seldom he’s actually done it.
I got a glimpse of this before he even reported for duty. It was a few weeks after the 2016 election, and I interviewed him in his Trump Tower aerie. He was jovial, gracious, answered all the questions, was reveling in his impending power. As we were finishing, I asked if I could come back later and see him in the White House, to see how it was going. “Yes, of course,” he said. But then he paused and asked, “But … what if I don’t like it? What if I don’t want to do it anymore?” Sometimes half-joking questions are the most serious.
He has claimed so often to love being president that it’s easy to think he protests too much. And he’d hardly be the first to be restless: Harry S. Truman called the White House the “great white jail.” Bill Clinton dubbed it “the crown jewel of the federal penal system.” Most presidents endure the serial stresses of hard decisions, the weight of making life-and-death choices, all the teetering values and visions that leadership entails. They live with the fallout, find solace where they can, including in commiseration with their predecessors.
Trump escapes the frustration of failing to accomplish his agenda by not having ever had one, beyond his continued exaltation. He could count this moment as a high point: record-low unemployment, still soaring stock markets, judicial transformation. It’s easy to imagine it’s all downhill — and fast — from here. His confidence in his supreme wisdom leads him to make even reckless decisions, such as his abandonment of America’s trust with its Kurdish partners, with no evidence of regret or remorse other than disliking the criticism for doing it. But ever since the Ukraine scandal erupted, his rage-tweeting and Wagnerian self-pity suggest that the incoming fire for his misconduct, occasionally even from his defenders and enablers, has made these days even less fun than usual.
All of which raises the question: the release of the Ukraine information, the double-dare-you defiance of congressional oversight, the sellout in Syria, even the rising profanity of his Twitter stream each seem expertly suited to inflaming one constituency or another, and not just the people who have loathed him from Day One. The polls are moving for a reason: Republicans and independents, even those serving in Congress, may not agree where the line is, but they know there’s one somewhere, and it does not involve a shooting on Fifth Avenue.
Consciously or not, might he conclude that impeachment and removal is his least bad option for escaping the “great white jail”? Resigning is out; that’s for quitters. Defeat in 2020 is worse; losing is for losers. But being impeached and removed from office is the one outcome that preserves at least some ability to denounce the deep state and the quislings in the Senate who stabbed him in the back, maintain his bond with his tribe, depart the capital and launch a media business to compete with the ever more flaccid Fox News. (This all presumes that President Pence pardons him, for which there’s some precedent.) Impeachment lets him go down fighting, and he will call it rigged and unfair and illegitimate and a coup, all of which would be harder if the verdict was rendered next November by millions of voters.
So what would count as a sign of his escape velocity? Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump decamping for Manhattan. Trump issuing an executive order renaming Reagan National Airport after himself. He fires Elaine Chao and starts campaigning against Mitch McConnell in Kentucky. He kicks a puppy on the South Lawn, in front of the cameras.
When you think about it, with a choice of bad options, impeachment doesn’t look so bad, and gets you home to your gilded tower sooner. Assuming, that is, that you don’t think you can just burn the Constitution to the ground and be the last one standing.