Any presidency has its defining moment sooner or later. Lyndon B. Johnson had the Gulf of Tonkin, which gave us escalation in Vietnam and the credibility gap. Plus-size White House spokesmodel Donald J. Trump now has the Gulf of Tonka, which produced a gazillion Internet memes. Americans may not know much about art, but we know a perfect metaphor when we see one.
Yes, he really did climb into the cab of a shiny big rig on the White House lawn on Thursday, clench those paltry fists of his, make some enthusiastically constipated Trucky McTrumpfaces, blast the truck’s horn and pretend to wave adios before roaring away, even though a) he wasn’t actually driving it and b) it wasn’t going anywhere. (Incidentally, we can’t be totally sure Trump even knows how to drive; the only vehicle he’s ever had to operate is a golf cart.) This wasn’t what you’d call great optics, considering that his and the GOP’s signature health-care “reform” bill—the first big legislative test of his presidency—was committing what looked a lot like physician-assisted suicide at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue at the same moment.
On top of that, the physician in question was apparently Dr. Seuss. Trump’s Tuesday appearance on Capitol Hill to rally the troops for passage had solidified Republican opposition instead, and so much for Mr. The Art of The Deal. Amended so many times in such a hurry to appease contradictory priorities that nobody really knew what was in it anymore, the American Health Care Act has emerged as such a stinker that its final fate almost doesn’t matter; the GOP would be stuck with a Seussian debacle either way. And the brawl to get some version of it passed come hell or high water hasn’t even been Trump’s biggest headache this week. As chaotic as his still embryonic administration is, it does have one malignant constant: Russiagate.
Whenever Trump and his surrogates try to minimize what they can’t outright suppress, it escalates instead.
On Monday, FBI director James Comey confirmed to the House Intelligence Committee that the possible collusion of the Trump campaign with Russia’s bid to swing the 2016 election in Trump’s favor is indeed being investigated. That wasn’t exactly news—but the announcement that the FBI’s probe has been underway since last July sort of was. (Stung that Comey had kept mum about this while going public before Election Day with a tendentious non-bombshell about Hillary’s fabled emails, Democrats not unreasonably cried foul.) As if they hadn’t been discredited enough already, Comey also decisively shot down Trump’s batshit claims on Twitter that Barack Obama authorized a wiretap on Trump Tower. “I have no information that supports those tweets,” he said.
Then things started getting truly bonkers. On Wednesday, without consulting either committee members or his own staff beforehand, Intelligence Committee chairman Devin Nunes called a press conference to claim that communications from unspecified Team Trump members—and conceivably, Trump himself—had turned up in intelligence reports of surveillance of foreign nationals, which didn’t seem like the smartest way of backing up POTUS’s story. (That sort of monitoring hardly validates Trump’s original, Obama-smearing charges, but it does remind people that contacts with foreign nationals are the festering issue here.) Then Nunes betook himself to the White House to brief Trump about his discovery, which didn’t seem like the smartest way of demonstrating his impartiality.
Among other no-nos, Nunes’s attempt at damage control involved divulging classified information, something he isn’t supposed to do. However, Rep. Adam Schiff, his Democratic counterpart on the Intelligence Committee, committed pretty much the same potentially illegal peccadillo when he told NBC’s Chuck Todd that “I can’t go into the particulars, but there is more than circumstantial evidence now” of the Trump campaign’s collusion with Russia. How very tantalizing. CNN has reported that the FBI does indeed have such evidence, but other news organizations are hanging back—presumably, for the obvious reason that it’s a sensationalist claim unless and until someone can tell us what those particulars are.
Yet the pattern so far in this whole story has been that whenever Trump and his surrogates try to minimize what they can’t outright suppress, it escalates instead. Historian Douglas Brinkley, who is nobody’s idea of a wild-eyed conspiracy theorist, said the previously unsayable this week: “There’s a smell of treason in the air.” Former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort, whose lucrative pro-Putin endeavors in the Oughties have turned out to be more extensive than originally thought, has now volunteered to testify in front of the House Intelligence Committee, and nobody has a clue as to what he’ll divulge (or not). Meanwhile, the Nunes-Schiff kerfuffle prompted John McCain to declare that “no longer does Congress have the credibility to handle this alone,” a fairly damning thing for a senior Senate Republican to say when his own party is in charge of both houses.
Just about all that’s missing is the revelation of what we at Playboy suspect has been Putin’s true goal all along: he wants Alaska back. The U.S. did only pay Russia a lousy $7 million for it back in 1867, and the Kremlin’s boss isn’t a man who likes to feel suckered. But even if it turns out that’s not his agenda, Trump might be well advised to keep his Tonka truck on the White House grounds and permanently gassed up. You know, until he finishes those emergency driving lessons and can haul ass all the way to Anchorage and points beyond on short notice.