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Skilled at Corruption and Crime
For too long, Donald Trump has been viewed in terms of incompetence rather than his wily skill at bending the system for his own ends. The House Select Committee aims to stop that.
Throughout the years Donald Trump occupied our White House, it was often hard to know for sure whether his behavior was sheer incompetence or willful corruption. Well into his first year in office, a series of top jobs remained vacant, all of which were involved with combatting terrorism, including directors of the Transportation Security Administration, the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. As Steve Chapman at The Chicago Tribune noted in June, 2017, “he has yet to pick anyone for nearly 80 percent of the positions that require Senate confirmation.” Surveying all the unfilled vacancies and noting the lack of urgency, Chapman deduced:
“The people who voted for Trump knew they would be getting a disrupter, a critic of business-as-usual and an enemy of political correctness. Many also realized they were electing a bully and a braggart. But they may not have known what they were getting above all else: an incompetent.”
Asking whether Trump had a “hidden logic,” Chapman quickly dismissed this, insisting: “Trump has no record of being deviously clever. He has a record of acting rashly out of ignorance, fury and hubris…he's a self-destructive oaf.”
By 2020, the theme of incompetence had not altogether lost sway, even after the coronavirus pandemic had dramatically tightened its deadly grip on Americans. “The incompetence was and remains uppermost, most lethally in the president’s surrender to the coronavirus pandemic,” wrote Fred Hiatt, the late editorial page editor at The Washington Post. “The U.S. mortality rate, while not the world’s highest, is some 84 times greater than South Korea’s.”
Hiatt did not pause to ask whether Trump’s actions—calling the virus a hoax, pushing phony treatments, rejecting mask-wearing, failing to create a proper strategy to vaccinate Americans—were not just incompetent but perhaps willful and homicidal. But the title of Hiatt’s piece illustrates the shift in thinking beyond sheer incompetence to underscore Trump’s particular skill: “Yes, Trump is incompetent. But he’s becoming alarmingly good at corrupting the government.” As Hiatt concluded several months before the 2020 election:
“Between now and January, Trump may not have time to rewrite the rules for Twitter, create his version of Russia Today or withdraw troops from every allied nation that annoys him. But he is learning what he can do. He has cowed dissenters in Congress, swept aside aides of stature or independence, purged and demoralized career officials, and installed judges who will be less inclined to stop him. If he wins a second term, do not expect his incompetence to save us.”
This question of incompetence versus methodical corruption, albeit sometimes hard to discern, has been on my mind in recent days. The House Select Committee has been building its case that Trump was not merely some irrational actor spontaneously erupting as January 6 arrived and the violence unfolded. Its members are determined to make the case that he was not somehow at the mercy of wild advisers—he knew exactly what he was doing.
As committee vice-chair Liz Cheney asserted on Tuesday during the seventh televised hearing: "President Trump is a 76-year-old man. He is not an impressionable child…Donald Trump cannot escape responsibility by being willfully blind."
Thursday’s news that texts belonging to the Secret Service from Jan. 5 and 6 were erased “as part of a device-replacement program” is the latest addition to the serious questions and terrible stench around who participated in the crimes of seditious conspiracy and obstruction of justice. But the Mother Jones release this week of a leaked audio recording of Steve Bannon—from the week before the election on October 31—also offers a jaw-dropping reason to pause.
Yes, we’d been hearing from Trump over and over before the election that if he were to lose, it would be because the election is rigged. In other words, if he wins he wins and if he loses he wins. His repetitious insistence of fraud well before the election had become business as usual.
But the arrogant, bemused Bannon’s depiction of the strategy to hold onto power—no matter what the voters think—is both precise and depraved. It also illustrates how much was calculated and acted upon, moving us far from that earlier notion of an incompetent president simply ruled by irrational anger or madness.
“What Trump’s gonna do is just declare victory. Right? He’s gonna declare victory. But that doesn’t mean he’s a winner,” a laughing Bannon tells a group of associates. “He’s just gonna say he’s a winner.”
The plan? To declare victory early, before all the votes are counted, especially before all the mail-in votes that favor the Democrats are counted, when Trump may appear to be ahead. As Bannon said, “At 10 or 11 o’clock Trump’s gonna walk in the Oval, tweet out, ‘I’m the winner. Game over. Suck on that.'”
And what did Trump do, a few hours later than that around 2 AM, despite aides who urged him not to? “This is a fraud on the American public,” said Trump, thick with pancake makeup, American flags draped behind him, as the cameras rolled. And then: “We were getting ready to win this election. Frankly, we did win this election.” His acolytes in the room applauded and cheered wildly. (Watch the video if your stomach permits.)
Of course, Bannon had more to say in those days before this plan to reject the peaceful transfer of power played out. Lest you forget what kind of man we are discussing: This is the former co-founder of the alt-right Breitbart News and a heroic figure among white supremacists. This is the self-described Leninist who declared in 2016: “Lenin wanted to destroy the state, and that’s my goal, too. I want to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment.”
And here’s what he said in that leaked audio from October 31, 2020, still drunk with delusions of greatness, about those hours after the election:
“So when you wake up Wednesday morning, it’s going to be a firestorm. You’re going to have antifa, crazy. The media, crazy. The courts are crazy. And Trump’s gonna be sitting there mocking, tweeting shit out: ‘You lose. I’m the winner. I’m the king.'”
Remember, this would be before all the votes were counted. The strategy had nothing to do with democratic process or the will of the people and everything to do with holding onto power by any means necessary. “This is a revolution,” Bannon said, adding later: “He’s not going out easy. If Biden is winning, Trump is going to do some crazy shit.”
As we know now, that “crazy shit” included inciting an insurrection in an effort to stop the certification of Joe Biden’s election as President of the United States. We also know from the Jan. 6 committee that Bannon talked to Trump twice on Jan. 5, after which Bannon said on his podcast that “all hell is going to break loose tomorrow” and it’s “all converging” on a “point of attack tomorrow.”
Forget incompetence. Forget rage and insanity as his defense. Never before in American history has the country had an occupant of the White House who was more competent at corruption and crime.
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