It is highly unlikely President Trump knows or cares anything about poetry, but just in case he does, he should know that T.S. Eliot was wrong. When it comes to U.S. presidents, April is not the cruelest month. It’s August. The month’s a killer.
It was Aug. 9, 1974, that Richard Nixon, surrounded by a fed-up Congress and an unsympathetic judiciary, surrendered and came out of the White House with his hands up. He then stepped into a waiting helicopter and flew off to temporary exile in California and permanent disgrace in history. His sins were many, but his mistake was confusing the presidency with a monarchy. It cost him his head.
Nixon did not live long enough to see the same forces gang up on President Bill Clinton. This, too, happened in August. It was Aug. 3, 1998, when what Trump would later call “the deep state” demanded Clinton’s blood. The then-commander in chief was told by a Navy physician to roll up his sleeve and make a tight fist while a vial of blood was taken from him. In a flash, it was out the door and whisked to a laboratory where, to the juvenile glee of Clinton’s enemies, it matched the DNA extracted from the infamous stain on Monica Lewinsky’s dress.
Trump might well ponder what happened to Clinton that day. It was a signal lesson about the limits of the American presidency. Later that month, on the 20th, Clinton ordered missile strikes on purported al-Qaeda facilities in Afghanistan and Sudan. With the scratch of a pen, he commanded the killing of enemies thousands of miles away. It was the sort of military strike that’s emblematic of American power and is always at a president’s fingertips. He lacked the power, however, to keep the doctor at bay.
Trump has taken easily to the monarchical side of the presidency. He favors high kitsch, having grown up in Queens, where the apartment houses of first- and second-generation Americans were pedigreed with names like “Gardens” or “Villa” or “Courts,” sometimes with a vestigial “e” added, as in “Towne.” He himself has adopted a Louis XIV affect. People who have seen his New York digs come away gagging on his conspicuous presumption.
In Trump’s case, the decor suits the man. He rules — or he attempts to — in utter disregard of precedent, history or good taste. He is now engaged in a monarchical attempt to punish former — and some current — members of the intelligence community for differing with him. He cannot understand that their loyalty is to truth and not to him. The poor man is addled.
Trump conducted his life by nondisclosure agreements. Lawyers such as Michael Cohen, and, before him, Roy Cohn, cleaned up after him. But while NDAs might silence former lovers and wives, nothing binds former federal employees except the rules applying to classified information. Former CIA director John Brennan, for instance, did not work for Trump or even for President Barack Obama. He worked for the American people. We paid his salary. To my mind, he’s still earning every penny.
An inexorable decline is underway. Trump is learning about — and railing against — the limitations of his power. (He even had to cancel his proposed military parade.) But he cannot control himself. His demeaning tweets, his rampant lying, his compulsive attacks on the news media and his breathtakingly bratty behavior might thrill his base, but the rest of Washington is growing sick of him. Republicans will use him to stock the courts with conservatives, repeal regulation and finally get back at Franklin D. Roosevelt, but as soon as Trump is shown to be politically weakened, they will throw him under the bus.
Once while visiting a military base, President Lyndon B. Johnson started to walk to the wrong helicopter. A soldier intervened, saying, “That’s your helicopter over there, sir.” Johnson replied, “Son, they are all my helicopters.” It was a pithy example both of presidential power and hubris. In the end, however, Johnson was forced to announce he would not run for reelection. It turned out that none of the helicopters were his.
Trump will soon learn the same lesson. It is not his government, it is ours. It is not his White House, it is ours. The deep state is very deep indeed. It booted Nixon from the White House and compelled Clinton to roll up his sleeve. To Trump, it looks like a monster rising from the swamp. To me, it looks like a shivering soldier at Valley Forge.
Read more from Richard Cohen’s archive.