On page 136 of my hardback copy of Philip Rucker and Carol Leonnig’s A Very Stable Genius, President Donald Trump is in the “tank room” at the Pentagon, ostensibly being filled in on the current state of American foreign policy and the position of our troops around the world. As they tried to give a rationale for the place in which we found ourselves in 2017, Trump interrupts:
“I wouldn’t go to war with you people,” Trump told the assembled brass…You’re a bunch of dopes and babies.” He goes on to, among other things, take them to task for not getting paid what amounts to “protection money” for our bases and actions overseas.
As Rucker and Leonnig describe it, “so many in that room had gone to war and risked their lives for their country, and now they were being dressed down by a president who had not. They felt sick to their stomachs.” Someone in the room described Vice President Pence as “a wax museum guy.”
If I was to be shocked by any revelation in this book, this was the one. Although very well researched and written, nothing much in it tells me more about Donald Trump and his unfitness for office that I didn’t already know or suspect. This pair of Washington Post reporters cover the Flynn disaster, the Muslim ban, James Comey, Jeff Sessions, the Mueller appointment, and the Trump Jr. meeting with the Russians in Trump Tower. And that’s all before the tank room fiasco. The rest of the book fleshes out the many fiascos that followed and concludes with the impeachable phone call to the new Ukrainian president.
The tank room episode stands out because it is one of the few times that Trump can be seen and heard facing those he is dismissing as “dopes and babies.” He was known for dressing down his staff in front of one another. Perhaps he regarded these decorated generals as his staff? "His generals"? Did he really think they considered him their superior in any other way than by law or custom? One defining measure of the man is his cowardice. Even his declarations of “You’re fired,” on The Apprentice were only part of the script. When in office, he routinely sent others to do his dirty work. This time he felt free to do it himself. This was the moment when, as the meeting broke up, Tillerson was famously heard to call him a "moron." And now we know the rest of the story.
There is a certain demographic, some of them acquaintances of mine, whose only participation in politics has been to march against whatever we are marching against this time, and their view of politics and politicians has been shaped largely by bumper stickers and protest rallies. They view both as inherently corrupt. They even, god help them, think that this is how it always has been, how it is, and how it always will be, almost to the extent of thinking that this is how it should be.
I suspect that Donald Trump has always thought the same. He really and truly does not understand why, when once elected, he has had so much trouble having his way. He cannot fathom that even people in power must follow the law. He can’t close the border, Jeff Sessions cannot unrecuse himself, and apparently he can’t tell the Ukrainian president that he needed him to “do us a favor though.” The only answer that he can come up with is that there must be a cabal of people, a Deep State, actively working against him. Nothing else makes sense.
This is the man that A Very Stable Genius chronicles. A man who can be heard, hunched over the Resolute desk in the Oval Office, muttering
“I just want to do it. I’m the President. Can’t I do it?”