In World War II, they called it the “Thousand Yard Stare"—the blank, unfocused gaze of soldiers who’ve become emotionally detached from the horrors around them. As of late, I’ve noticed that stare more frequently on the faces of veteran reporters in the White House press briefing room.
The constant battles with a White House that is seemingly and blissfully unaware of facts as it peddles the most arcane pablum (please, God, not one more story of a child who wants to cut the grass) mixed with little sleep, social media ramblings and a president who provokes more scandals in one news cycle than most have in a four-year term have combined to leave many reporters numb, some inchoate, a few babbling like baboons on ecstasy and the rest hunkered down, waiting for what comes next. "I just don’t want to go to this stupid briefing,” more than one reporter has muttered in the last week. “What the hell is going to happen next?”
Last week, the “What’s next?” question manifested as the Rob Porter scandal. Porter, a presidential political aide who served as White House Staff Secretary, got the sack after repeated accusations of spousal abuse prevented him from obtaining a permanent security clearance—though he was apparently being considered for a promotion before he was fired. Since the president only hires "the best people,” one of those best people, Chief of Staff John Kelly, valiantly tried to defend the stiff-necked Porter—a move that may eventually cost Kelly his job.
Though Trump currently has the “utmost confidence” in his Chief of Staff (those who’ve been around for the first year of this administration know that’s akin to a Mafia Don saying, “It’s just business”), former White House Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci tells me, “He’s gotta go. Time for him to resign.“
When I ran into The Mooch in Beverly Hills this past weekend, he was not shy about his feelings on Kelly. He also echoed the sentiments being bandied about on The Hill by members of the GOP and the Democrats, though admittedly, Scaramucci is more blunt than even the most obstreperous member of Congress. “Kelly keeps the wife-beater, but lets me go,” he opined with deadpan delivery.
True that. In this White House, being accused of salty language and being a “front stabber”—remember, The Mooch said he’s never a back stabber, only a “front stabber”—is a greater sin than being accused of smacking around your spouse.
Once again, the White House has no idea how to deal with a scandal other than making it bigger.
“I can’t believe this shit!” a White House reporter said in the bowels of the press offices on Monday about the Porter scandal. “It’s the stain that won’t wash off!” Indeed, the scandal has dominated the news cycle for nearly a week. That’s not only because the White House can’t seem to tell the same story twice, nor because the FBI director disputes what the White House has said, nor because the White House is once again mired in a scandal debasing women. It is because, once again, the White House has no idea how to deal with a scandal other than making it bigger. As John Roberts of Fox News told his audience from the press room on Monday, “The question becomes ‘What did the White House know and when did they know it?’, much like Nixon.”
The Porter scandal should be enough on its own to make even the most stalwart presidential supporter question the actions and legitimacy of an administration that cannot get its facts straight about the things over which it has control. Twice this week I asked Sarah Huckabee Sanders whe we would see the president in the briefing room. On Tuesday, I asked if he was scared of facing us.
As much as it appeals to me on a visceral level seeing the president in his own briefing room facing questions about Porter, it was another story that had me reeling and eager to question President Donald Trump myself.
In a meeting with state and local officials Monday, the president began talking about the nation’s nuclear arsenal and his desire to modernize and expand it. “We’re going to be so far ahead of everybody else in nuclear like you’ve never seen before,” he said. Our enemies are building more and newer weapons, he asserted, and we don’t have much choice. We’re going to be in a new arms race. Trump wants to stop, and would “in two minutes,” but also, “we won’t lead the way” in nuclear disarmament. “We’ll go along with them…We’re going to be far, far in excess of anybody else.”
On the face of it, the idea sounds quite honestly insane. Carl Sagan infamously said of a nuclear arms race that it is “like two sworn enemies standing waist deep in gasoline, one with three matches, the other with five.” President Trump, it would appear, wants to buy a whole new box of them.
Of course, Trump also said, “Hopefully we’ll never have to use it.” But that statement only indicates there is a chance we may. Our president doesn’t seem to understand that these weapons should never be used. They can poison the earth, create nuclear winter and destroy humanity as we know it. Of more alarming concern is the president’s statement that the United States will not “lead the way” in nuclear disarmament.
We have always led the way. We’ve always stood for peace. But now our government is treating humanity like Rob Porter (allegedly) treated his wife. Since it’s occurring on the same watch as the Porter scandal, it leaves you wondering.
The unreported scandal brewing below the surface is just how abusive the Trump administration may be toward humanity.
On Tuesday afternoon, as I walked on the North Lawn toward the White House press room, I overheard a staffer talking to a member of the press. I could only hear a bit of the conversation, but I distinctly remember the staffer saying, “I can’t do anything about it, even if I agree with you.”
I had no idea what it was about, but the comment is a guiding principle in Trump’s White House. I’ve heard Republicans—a lot of them—tell me off-camera and off-the-record they disagree with Trump and are ashamed of him. This week’s events sit heavy on their consciences. Yet they sit and do nothing—unless they are on-camera or on-the-record, in which they’ll actively offer their support.
Thus far, Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney has been the only member of the administration to officially respond to my concerns about our nuclear arsenal. On Monday in a budget briefing, he said the federal government is proposing nearly $50 billion dollars to upgrade and enhance our nuclear arsenal. “I think the president has been very clear that he expects to have the very best weapons available,” he told me when I asked why we’re committing to building weapons we should never use. “We have them because other folks have them.”
When I asked why we aren’t leading the way in disarmament when we have the ability to effectively extinguish life on this planet many times over, he merely said, “Okay. I’m not going to take any questions because, honestly, I’m just whipped.” Yes, on that he spoke the truth. The president has him whipped.
The scandals of this week are some of the most terrifying we’ve seen yet from the Trump administration. On the one hand, it appears abusing women isn’t a very big concern for Trump, Kelly or anybody else in this administration. That scandal has dominated the news for a week. But the unreported scandal brewing below the surface is just how abusive the Trump administration may be toward humanity.
Building more weapons we can never use and hinting that we might have to use them demonstrates a callously shallow and inhuman approach toward life on earth. It is probably the most horrific development in a knuckle-dragging administration, and that’s an insult to knuckle-draggers.
After the Mulvaney briefing, I walked back into the bowels of the press room. As I turned the corner, I saw one of those stalwart reporters who had succumbed to the insanity. I saw The Thousand Yard Stare, and his was the worst I’ve seen: slack jaw, dark, empty eyes and deep circles around them to boot. “Poor bastard,” I said to myself. Then I realized I was washing my hands in the bathroom, and staring into a mirror.