You may know this famous old political joke, but please indulge my current fantasy.
Call it the tale of three envelopes. The outgoing president of the United States tells the new president, “I’ve left three envelopes at the Oval Office in the top drawer of your desk, the very last thing I did before ending my presidency. When you have your first big crisis, open Envelope #1. When you have your second crisis, open Envelope #2. And when you have your third, open Envelope #3.”
The first crisis hits and the new president—let’s call him Trump—opens Envelope #1. It reads, “Blame the media.” He does exactly that and sails through.
Second crisis and President Trump opens Envelope #2. “Blame Congress,” it says. Once again, he follows instructions and once again, gets away with it.
Third crisis and Trump runs to the Oval, tears open the final envelope and reads:
“Prepare three envelopes.”
I know, I know, magical thinking on my part. It presumes a couple of things: 1) that Trump might ever listen to what anyone else tells him and 2) that he reads.
(To that first point, Josh Dawsey at The Washington Post writes, “Aides sometimes plot to have guests make points on Fox that they have been unable to get the president to agree to in person. ‘He will listen more when it is on TV,’ a senior administration official said.” Good grief.)
Further, as we’ve already seen in the past 500+ days, when it comes to a steady drumbeat of malevolence, no crisis seems to slow Donald Trump and his craziness down. If anything, it just spurs him on.
Whenever news comes that the Mueller investigation is making headway and getting close to revealing the truth about Trump and shady dealings, he ramps up his attacks on the special counsel, the Department of Justice, the FBI and CIA. When the press once again performs exemplary investigative work that keeps connecting the dots, he schemes to wreck the business of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, who also is owner of The Washington Post.
Trump screams fake news and his base believes him. And it’s that same base to which he turns again and again, wagging the dog as he tries to shirk responsibility for and divert attention from every foolish misstep by screaming bloody murder, hurling xenophobic insults and tweeting in a rage about the Mexican border and his mythical wall.
Whoever came up with that old saying, “If you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit,” saw Donald Trump coming from a country mile.
Believe it or not, all of this could get even nuttier in the near future, especially if a report from Mueller shows up containing an arsenal of smoking guns, but for now, Trump continues along his reckless course fueled by greed, fear and self-indulgence. At the same time, he has surrounded himself with an administration similarly maladroit and sticky-fingered yet dedicated with grim success to the proposition that the rules and regulations keeping us healthy, solvent and safe must be destroyed.
So in place of three envelopes, let me share with you three lists that are useful as guides to just how much of a mess we’re in. In case your thoughtful ire needs further roiling, these will serve as a reminder that, in the words of the late George Carlin, “Behind every silver lining, there’s a dark cloud.”
First, the new book from Amy Siskind appropriately titled The List, spun off from her website The Weekly List. It’s an exhaustive compendium of Year One of the Trump White House’s misdeeds and mayhem as it slouches toward totalitarianism. The website reminds us, “Experts in authoritarianism advise to keep a list of things subtly changing around you, so you’ll remember.” And so the book is an almanac of reprehension rendered in minute detail.
Open to any page at random—let’s say p. 164, Week 31, June 2017: “Trump changed the expiration date of the Muslim ban in an effort to prevent the Supreme Court from declaring it moot.” It’s also the week when, “in a bizarre display in front of cameras Trump’s cabinet members took turns praising him.” Rep. Mike Quigley of Illinois introduced the COVFEFE Act “to require the preservation of Trump’s tweets.” Bloomberg News reported that the Russian hack of our electoral system was worse than previously reported. And, “A survey of CEOs, business executives, government officials, and academics at the Yale CEO summit found that 50 percent gave Trump an F and 21 a D for his first 130 days in office.”
In the book’s foreword, journalist Sarah Kendzior writes, “Reading The List may horrify you, but it also should reassure you. No, you were not imagining things—that really did happen, he really did say that, and the only reason this particular atrocity is no longer discussed is because it was dwarfed by something even more outrageous.”
Second, I give you The Washington Post Fact Checker and its already venerable list of Trump’s false and misleading claims. As of March 1, it already was up to 2,436, and there’s another five weeks’ worth yet to be noted and contradicted. According to the Post, variations on just one of them—“We’re having a stock market like just about they’ve never had before. Ever before . . . We’ve picked up $8 trillion in value during the course of 12 months.”—have been repeated 97 times.
Here’s one from February 26: “We’ve created nearly 3 million jobs since the election, a number that nobody would have thought possible.” The Post rebuts, “Trump is counting jobs from Election Day, even though he did not take office until almost three months later. At the time, about 2 million jobs had been created during his presidency, which [is] a slower pace than any year since 2010. So it’s pretty ridiculous to claim nobody would have thought this possible.”
And so on. By the way, a good companion to the Post database, the olive to the dirty martini, is the list of People Places and Things Trump Has Insulted on Twitter at The New York Times. (In the interest of fairness, they now also feature a list of people, places and things Trump has found worthy of praise.)
Finally, just this week, New York magazine published “501 Days in Swampland,” an invaluable list compiled by Joy Crane and Nick Tabor. As the Trump chronicler David Cay Johnston notes in the introduction, it is a compilation “of official corruption, from small-time graft and brazen influence peddling to full-blown raids on the federal Treasury. Given how little Trump has disclosed about his finances, this timeline of self-dealing is undoubtedly only a fraction of the corruption that will eventually come to light. But as even this initial glimpse makes clear, Trump isn’t draining the swamp—he’s monetizing it.”
This is an accounting of President Trump, his family and cronies’ greatest hits. Some of my favorites: the State Department briefly running a promotion for Mar-a-Lago on its official website, Trump reportedly using an official phone call with Argentina’s president to push for a Trump Tower in Buenos Aires, rolling back a rule limiting water pollution by golf courses (he owns a dozen), the Voice of America plugging Ivanka Trump’s book, Women Who Work and Trump crowing to his wealthy buddies after passage of the tax bill, “You all just got a lot richer.”
Many items on the list will be familiar; in the aggregate they are a sock to the jaw, a sobering reflection of how far we’ve sunk. Yet as Sarah Kendzior notes, while such lists “may jar your memory in unpleasant ways,” they may also bring forth “a push to right administrative wrongs.”
So don’t normalize Trump and his gang, don’t let the sheer number of indecencies, the enormity of the grift and graft, wear you down. “More than at any time in history, the president of the United States is actively using the power and prestige of his office to line his own pockets,” David Cay Johnston writes, and yes, the White House has morphed into Camp Swampy. But it doesn’t have to be. Time to put a stopper in the one-way cash flow and have Donald Trump start preparing those three envelopes.
Michael Winship is the Emmy Award-winning senior writer of Moyers & Company and BillMoyers.com, a past senior writing fellow at the policy and advocacy group Demos and former president of the Writers Guild of America East. Follow him on Twitter: @MichaelWinship.