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Fri Feb 21, 2020, 10:35 PM

The King Lear Era of Donald Trump's Presidency

On Thursday, President Donald Trump railed at the Oscars for awarding its highest honors to a foreign film. He then installed an acclaimed insult comic with no national intelligence experience as his acting director of national intelligence, because he prefers hearing from intelligence directors who tell him what he wants to believe as opposed to what is happening. He also indicated that when he threatens judges and jurors involved in federal criminal cases itís OK because he has First Amendment needs that transcend the demands of rule of law. In other words, in the span of a few days, weíve moved from unitary executive to peak Lear-wandering-on-the-heath executive. The only remaining operative question is: Who will be rewarded for loving the king as much as the king demands?

The American constitutional order is comprised of two camps in this moment: the presidentís enemies and the presidentís staffers. Having asserted this week that he is the ďchief law enforcement officer of the United States,Ē and having previously concluded that the Constitution gives him ďthe right to do whatever I want,Ē the president has carved the world into the only two categories he comprehends: his interchangeable fixers and his mortal enemies. Attorney General Bill Barr, who auditioned for his position by offering himself up specifically as a fixer, has tried as valiantly as possible to get the president to stop tweeting about ongoing criminal matters. He even said he might quit if the president didnít stop treating him like the presidentís pool boy. Needless to say, he didnít quit, and is, as a formal matter now, the presidentís pool boy.

Even when they depart, nobody ever stops being on the presidentís roster of lifelong staffers. Not Don McGahn, not John Bolton, not John Kelly, and not Hope Hicks. Some of them leave the White House and then some drift back to the White House, emptying ashtrays and hampering attempts at obstruction, but theyíre forever on staff, lashed to the president by way of elaborate (unenforceable) NDAs, or legal claims of absolute privilege, or by their own paradoxical beliefs that they are not in fact essential to the plot, but also that you should definitely preorder their book about the experience on Amazon.

Staffers are frequently upgraded when they are not appropriately servile. Jeff Sessions is not sufficiently loyal and so is replaced by a Bill Barr. Former acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire, who helped cover up the Ukraine scandal, is not sufficiently loyal and is to be replaced by an internet troll who will be a part-time ambassador to Germany. Because offering truthful information about Russian threats to the 2020 election indicates disloyalty, the only staffers who can remain on the payroll are those who remember to tell the emperor that his waistcoat is superb. This is pretty standard King George III territory, all bowing and scraping and insisting that the sovereign simply cannot be made to understand that there are rules and procedures, until the rules and procedures stop mattering at all.


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