Thursday, October 06, 2022

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C. Interferences to Sound Decision Making

 

Loss of Emotional Control.

A number of accounts in the Report indicate the alarming frequency, intensity, and lack of control of the President's propensity to angry outbursts. Former White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon described the President's anger upon learning of Sessions' recusal, "as mad as I've ever seen him," and he "screamed at McGahn" (Vol. II, p. 51). In response to Comey's confidential briefing to congressional leaders on the existence of the Russia probe in March, 2017, "notes taken by Annie Donaldson, then McGahn's chief o staff, … state, 'POTUS in panic/chaos.'" Others reported that the President was "beside himself" (Vol. II, p. 54).

Following Comey's testimony in Congress on May 3, 2017, "McGahn relayed that Comey had declined to answer questions about whether the President was under investigation," in spite of the President's request to Comey to state that he was not under investigation. "The President became very upset and directed his anger at Sessions. According to notes written by Sessions' Chief of Staff Jody Hunt, the President said, ‘This is terrible Jeff. It's all because you recused. AG is supposed to be most important appointment…. I can't do anything" (Vol. II, p. 63).

After Comey's firing and Rosenstein's appointment of the Special Counsel, the President again lashed out at Sessions and demanded his resignation. Hope Hicks described the President as "extremely upset by the Special Counsel's appointment. Hicks said that she had only seen the President like that one other time, when the Access Hollywood tape came out during the campaign" (Vol. II, p. 79).

In addition to inability to control his anger in dealing with cabinet secretaries, what is striking about these incidents is the nature of the provocation—threats to self. The President was not reported as furious that a staff member or cabinet secretary had bungled an important legislative or foreign policy initiative. What triggered his ire was the threat to him and his stature, personally. This is most clearly reflected in the President's widely reported response to hearing of the appointment of the Special Counsel: "Oh my God. This is terrible. This is the end of my Presidency. I'm fucked" (Vol. II, p. 78). These statements stand out because of the degree to which they constitute a virtual admission of guilt —for if they did not support that conclusion, why would they be "terrible?" Why would he be "fucked," unless that means "found guilty?" But in addition to the fact that Mr. Trump's remarks imply his guilt (for some unnamed offense or offenses), it is worth noticing also how exclusively self-referential they are. There is no, "What are we going to do? This will undermine all our plans and policies." The singular reaction is perhaps indicative of the extent to which the President is, as with his contrary reaction to Russia's attack on the integrity and validity of our process of electing a President, preoccupied with himself to the point where he does not even consider the good of the nation Recklessness. The Report describes a number of instances in which the President acted against the advice of others, including the White House lawyer, McGahn. Following Comey's March 2017 meeting with congressional leaders at which he disclosed the existence of the Russia probe, the President twice called Comey directly, notwithstanding guidance from McGahn to avoid direct contacts with the Department of Justice.

The President initiated several efforts to have him removed or at least to limit his powers. In the first one, he raised issues about Mueller's supposed conflicts of interest. These were generally dismissed by McGahn, Bannon, and others. McGahn told the President that if he wanted to pursue these, he should do so through his personal attorney since this was not a White House matter. McGahn also pointed out a number of weaknesses in the President's arguments and that advancing them could add evidence of an attempt to obstruct the Special Counsel. In spite of this, the President's personal attorney did contact the Special Counsel's office asserting the alleged conflicts (Vol. II, p. 83).

Four days later, June 17, 2017, the President called McGahn and directed McGahn to contact Rosenstein and direct him to fire Mueller. McGahn had no intention of doing so. In a second call the same evening, the President told McGahn, "‘Call Rod, tell Rod that Mueller has conflicts and can ‘t be the Special Counsel.' McGahn recalled the President telling him ‘Mueller has to go' and ‘Call me back when you do it.' McGahn understood the President to be saying that the Special Counsel had to be removed by Rosenstein" (Vol. II, p. 86). McGahn prepared to resign including going to his office to remove his belongings. In the end, the immediate situation seemed to be resolved by McGahn continuing in his position and the President not again mentioning the direction to call Rosenstein (Vol. II, p. 83-87).

In a parallel sequence of events in June and July, 2017, the President directed Lewandowski to contact Sessions and have him make a statement that the President dictated to Lewandowski, in which Sessions would assert that the President had done nothing wrong and that the Special Counsel's authority would be limited to "investigating election meddling for future elections" (Vol. II, p. 91). Scheduling conflicts delayed Lewandowski's opportunity to meet with Sessions. A month later, the President asked Lewandowski about progress. Lewandowski asked Ric Dearborn, a senior White House official to serve as an intermediary and gave Dearborn a typed version of the statement the President had dictated for Sessions. Dearborn apparently never acted on this and the specific request dropped, but was followed by further criticisms of Sessions by the President (Vol. II, p. 93) 

Inability to Consider Consequences.

In the above two instances, the President directed actions to be taken, the dismissal of Mueller as Special Counsel and the limitation of the Special Counsel's role by an unrecused Sessions which were only avoided by the passive resistance of those he directed. The combination of reckless decisions, the consequences of which were avoided only by staff resistance, false denials, themselves an indicator of guilty intent, and threatened vengeance against those who kept the recklessness in check and told the truth about it illustrate a dangerous pattern of impulsive harm doing which, when countered, is only redirected in more threatened harm. Above all, in a post-Richard Nixon era, knowing that that former president was forced to resign primarily because his firing of law-enforcement officials who were facilitating or even just permitting the investigation into his behavior to proceed, constituted an obstruction of justice, a rational person presumably would have considered the consequences of such actions. The President himself discovered that the firing of Comey did not "take the pressure off" but only brought on a new Special Counsel with new investigations into him that did not work to his advantage.

 

 

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