During Donald Trump’s first three months in the White House, America found ways to compartmentalize the convulsions of Washington. The stock market hit record highs. The unemployment rate approached historic lows. The baseball season opened, even as Trump, wary of protesters, declined to throw out a first pitch.
Then, in the third week of May, the crisis consuming Trump’s Presidency exceeded the capacity for containment. On Monday, the Washington Post revealed that Trump had shared highly classified material with the Russian foreign minister and the Russian Ambassador. Aides disputed the story until the next morning, when Trump undermined them, writing, on Twitter, that he had the “absolute right” to give “facts pertaining to terrorism and airline flight safety” to the Russian government. His response revealed a tenuous grasp of his situation. The critics weren’t disputing his rights; they were decrying his judgment. The editorial board of the Wall Street Journal, the house organ of mainstream conservatives, questioned the Administration’s viability: “Presidencies can withstand only so much turbulence before they come apart.”
On Tuesday, Trump confronted a larger problem: the reports of a memo by the former F.B.I. director James Comey alleging that the President had urged him to stop investigating Michael Flynn, the Trump loyalist who was forced out as national-security adviser after lying about his contacts with the Russian Ambassador. “I hope you can let this go,” Trump reportedly told Comey, an action that many legal scholars described as a potential obstruction of justice. On Wednesday, as the Dow sank nearly four hundred points, the Justice Department named Robert Mueller as special counsel to oversee the rapidly expanding Russia investigation and its offshoots.
For the first two years of Trump’s political career, no scandal could stall his rise. Comey’s revelation marked the threshold of a new era, thrusting Trump and the country into the full machinery of Presidential reckoning, an American ordeal not experienced since the Clinton-era Washington wars of two decades ago. Trump is no longer facing just a frenzy over policy or decency or style. This is a legal threat that will not go away until it is resolved, and the chain of events to come will shape the fate of Trump’s aides and defenders, as well as of the President himself.
Every Presidential scandal generates a dramatis personae—heroes, scapegoats, opportunists, and bitter-enders whose roles are unknowable at the outset. Some emerge reluctantly. In a congressional hearing on July 16, 1973, Alexander Butterfield, a little-known deputy assistant to President Richard Nixon, revealed the existence of secret Oval Office tapes. Congress subpoenaed the tapes, which confirmed the Watergate coverup, and Nixon became the first American President to resign. Butterfield never intended to bring down his President, but the legal process left him no choice. “I got caught up in a wave,” he said, decades later, to Bob Woodward, who told Butterfield’s story in “The Last of the President’s Men.” He added, “I don’t think anyone who worked for him likes to say that—or even think that—Richard Nixon was guilty. But I think we have to face the facts.”
The day after Robert Mueller’s appointment, Rick Wilson, a longtime Republican consultant and a Trump critic, urged the President’s aides to quit. “G.O.P. friends, I’m here to help you,” he wrote, in the Washington Post. “You don’t want to break from the pack too soon, but there’s greater risk in waiting too long,” when history will judge you “like a Baath Party generalissimo.” Some members of the Administration have a great deal to lose. Lieutenant General H. R. McMaster, the national-security adviser, was among those sent out on Monday to deny that Trump had shared secrets with Russia. John Weaver, a Republican strategist, tweeted, “General McMaster spent decades defending this nation, earning his integrity and honor. Trump squandered it in less than twelve hours.”
There is a long tradition of staffers leaving a troubled White House and then helping the public make sense of the dysfunction. A notable recent example is Scott McClellan, George W. Bush’s press secretary, who quit in 2006, after five years in the White House, and published a memoir titled “What Happened,” which offered a blunt portrait of Bush as “authentic” but “terribly off course.” Last week, speaking about Trump staff members who may be weighing their options, McClellan said, “It’s kind of a question of appreciating your own conscience and doing what you believe is right.”
Meanwhile, the F.B.I. and at least one congressional committee have started issuing subpoenas, and, before long, Trump’s lieutenants and associates will have to decide which information to volunteer. In some cases, Trump is making their decisions easier, by humiliating them. “In terms of achievement, I think I’d give myself an A,” the President said on Fox News. He was less generous to his communications staff, giving them a “C or a C-plus.” Trump’s press secretary, Sean Spicer, has borne the brunt of that criticism. Last Thursday, White House reporters noted that Spicer was stepping back from his role in the daily briefing.
The next day, Trump embarked on his first foreign trip—a nine-day visit to Saudi Arabia, Israel, the Vatican, Belgium, and Italy. Many Presidents in crisis savor the chance to escape to distant capitals and stately photo-ops, but Trump hates sleeping away from home, and he knows little about the complex issues and figures he will encounter. More to the point, less than an hour after Air Force One left for Riyadh, Washington was absorbing the latest astonishment: the Times had reported that Trump, in the meeting with Russian officials, called Comey “crazy, a real nut job,” adding that firing him had relieved a “great pressure.” The Washington Post added its own revelation: the F.B.I. is investigating a current senior White House official—“someone close to the President”—as a “significant person of interest” in the Russia case.
With each headline, Trump’s aides are acquiring a strange new power over him, because they will decide when to protect him and when to protect themselves. Washington specializes in theatrical demonstrations of fealty to the boss, but the real objects of dedication are country and self. If Donald Trump has one fundamental commitment, it is to his own preservation, a celebration of personal well-being that he has elevated to a world view—the very world view that made men and women want to work for him in the first place. There is little reason for them to adopt a more selfless creed now. ♦