Extraordinary new details are emerging about Trump’s anger over protests and about his use of them as a foil to stage a series of authoritarian set pieces portraying him as a “strong” leader. These details only underscore the urgency of those imperatives.
The New York Times reports that the violent crackdown on peaceful protesters outside the White House — undertaken to clear the way for Trump’s Bible photo op — came after a Monday meeting in which Trump was “agitated” over TV imagery of protests and “annoyed that anyone would think he was hiding” from them.
This rendered him “eager for action,” the Times reports, and he “wanted to send the military into American cities.” That provoked a heated argument, with some officials (Attorney General William P. Barr) arguing that this might trample on states’ rights and others (a senior Defense official) worrying about putting U.S. soldiers in a terrible position.
Amid all this, Trump eventually accepted “a more personal way of demonstrating toughness,” i.e., his walk to a church that had been previously damaged. But it turned out that the security perimeter around the White House hadn’t been expanded.
The Post reports on what happened next, per a Justice Department official:
But when Barr went to survey the scene, he was “surprised” to find the perimeter had not been extended and huddled with law enforcement officials, the Justice Department official said.“He conferred with them to check on the status and basically said: ‘This needs to be done. Get it done,’ ” the Justice Department official said.Police soon moved on the protesters.
That’s what led to the crackdown, and to Trump’s unhinged Bible moment, which came after he threatened to invoke the Insurrection Act of 1807 to unleash the military. He justified this with a claim of “domestic terror."
Meanwhile, the Daily Beast reports that the White House team was instrumental in demanding a more robust military presence in Washington, D.C. And the Associated Press reports that Trump personally ordered military aircraft to fly over Washington in a “show of force.”
It’s only about Trump
If you read through all these accounts, it’s hard to discern any sign that Trump is operating out of any meaningful conception of what’s in the national interest.
You don’t see Trump balancing his desire to be seen sending in U.S. troops against any potential downsides for the country in threatening such a militarized response (which some Defense officials do appear to feel, as noted above).
Instead, Trump is shaping his response to crises wracking the country around naked political imperatives, around his rage over looking weak. Indeed, his team tweeted out pictures of him striding to the church, as if this was a political triumph for him, even though it came after a violent crackdown on peaceful protesters.
Nor can you discern in Trump any sense of obligation to make an actual case to the country about the nature of the violence that might justify such militarized threats.
Instead, he and his senior officials simply keep asserting that the violence we’ve seen constitutes “domestic terrorism.” This is justified by offhand suggestions that “antifa” or “professional anarchists” or “militants” are behind what’s happening.
This isn’t normal
Under typical circumstances, wouldn’t Congress demand a Gang of Eight briefing about such extraordinary assertions? Wouldn’t administration officials be offering to brief Congress? Wouldn’t it be insisting that the administration explain its basis for such remarkable claims and threats?
“If we had a normal Congress, and if we’re talking about the kinds of things that legitimately trigger something like the Insurrection Act, which is hard to imagine, there would at least be secret briefings done for congressional leaders,” Norman Ornstein, the congressional scholar, told me.
Such claims, Ornstein added, might typically bring about a “secret session of the House and Senate to discuss why such an extreme act is being contemplated.”
Ornstein noted that a first step might be for House Democrats to demand hearing directly from FBI Director Christopher A. Wray. Couldn’t Democrats ask him to account for this “domestic terror” threat that Trump and other top officials keep talking about?
“If the president threatened to use the military or invoke the Insurrection Act because there is domestic terrorism, a typical Congress would immediately demand evidence and call in the appropriate officials, starting with the head of the FBI,” Ornstein told me, adding that it could also bring in Barr and others to account for the crackdown on protesters and hyper-militarized display in Washington.
We can debate whether the problem here is that the Trump administration would simply refuse to cooperate with any such demands (which it probably would) or that Democrats don’t want the fight. Either way, all this displays remarkable paralysis in the face of extraordinary levels of deception, base motives and sheer madness emanating from the White House.
“This is not a normal time,” Ornstein said.
There are some signs that Trump is backing off military threats amid indications that the latest protests have been somewhat calmer. But a renewed flare-up is always possible.
Given that these threats appear to be based on a seemingly fabricated “domestic terror” threat, and that the militarized actions appear all about sating Trump’s insane insistence on staging set pieces to look “tough,” a full accounting is urgent.